Who Else Is Going To Publish a History of Lesbian Cheerleaders?

Earlier this year, I published a massive piece of cultural criticism all about the Queerleader. This project features a timeline of every significant moment from film and television featuring a lesbian or bisexual cheerleader I could find as well as extensive commentary on why I think people love this particular archetype. I researched the history of cheerleading itself, touched on the prominence of queer stories set in homosocial settings, sifted through a lot of porn in search results for “lesbian cheerleader”, watched some truly bonkers 1970s sexploitation films, and read old articles and books about the stereotypes people associate with cheerleaders. The work took about three months to produce.

But this wasn’t always the plan.

When I initially pitched this piece, we were gearing up for the fundraising drive last fall, in 2022. Carmen, Heather, Riese, and I were trying to come up with clicky, traffic-friendly pieces to run during that fundraiser, since historically our traffic can take a hit during fundraising periods. Nico predicted it would take around four weeks for us to meet our goal, possibly longer, based on past data. We wanted to have some quick hit pieces to run during those weeks, so I threw out this idea: The Hottest Queer Cheerleader Moments From Film and Television. This was then refined to a “History of the Queerleader post that’s a detailed timeline of gay cheerleading moments in film and TV.” But even with that more specific framing, I was under the impression this would be a low lift, high traffic project. I was going for “clicky” not “complex.”

Then, instead of taking weeks to meet our fundraising goal, it took five days.

I backburnered “History of the Queerleader” because its original purpose became less urgent. I was still wrapping up the Horror Is So Gay series and gearing up for another time-consuming editorial project — the Holigays — on top of my other usual responsibilities. While editor jobs at Autostraddle are rare compared to others in the industry in the sense that we still get to write ourselves a lot (and in fact are required to do so), the writing projects I do tend to be shorter pieces. It’s hard to make time for something more sprawling or multifaceted, especially a project that requires not only research but also watching a lot of media. I had to do a lot of weekend and evening work, for example, to collaborate with Drew on Autostraddle’s 25 Scariest Queer Horror Movie Moments. But it was work I wanted to do, work I felt passionate about.

Go to the extended fundraiser!

And that’s exactly what the Queerleader project had turned into, too: a passion project. When I slowed down my work on it instead of focusing on pumping out something quick for clicks, I discovered so many new layers to the story I was trying to excavate. I got my hands on academic papers, books, and lesser-known movies. I went back to episodes of television from my youth. I put together thoughts on my own personal relationship with cheerleaders and on-screen depictions of them. The project grew and grew because it had the time and space to do so, which would not have been possible without the outpour of reader support during the fall 2022 fundraiser. Instead of having to scramble for content to keep the calendar afloat during the fundraiser, we were scrambling to keep up with the overwhelming enthusiasm from our readers that led to a speedy whirlwind of a fundraiser, and let me tell ya, the latter is a much better “problem” to have.

But there’s another side to this. What if the fundraiser had taken longer and I’d started working more quickly on the Queerleader post but then realized it was indeed too big of a project to crank out fast? I know exactly what would have happened: I would have gone to my fellow editors and said: “Look, I actually think I need more time to make this the best it can be. Can I wait to work on it in early 2023 and come up with a different, actually low lift project to replace it with this week?”

They all would have said yes. They would have said yes because they trust me to know the scope of a project. They would have said yes because ultimately our primary goal here at Autostraddle is not producing “clicky” content — even though we do have to do so in order to survive — but work that is meaningful to and informative for our communities.

We are here to produce the best of the best queer pop culture criticism, important archival work, and deep-dives on niche topics that matter to our readers.

Will you help?

When I shifted the scope and depth of the Queerleaders project, I secretly worried no one would read it. It’s nearly 6,000 words long. Or I worried people would click and then wander away after the lengthy intro. I was very wrong! My first tweet about the piece blew up, and the comments started flooding in, people engaging in a way that immediately signaled they had read the whole thing, and closely. Some people even helpfully submitted additions that I went back and included. To date, it has 74 comments, and the only other work I put out last year that regularly broke 50 comments were my Yellowjackets recaps.

It’s not lost on me that the majority of those 74 comments on the Queerleader piece came from A+ members. Every day, our members go beyond just their continued financial support for the site. The Yellowjackets recaps are also hugely popular with members. I know that sometimes part of this job means having to think about numbers-based things like traffic and that can sometimes get in the way of creativity and passion, but this project is such a perfect example that these don’t always need to be mutually exclusive categories. My passion here overlapped with passion from our readers and members, and it resulted in a piece I was proud of and that also performed well even by our simplest metrics.

And that’s not to say that pieces that don’t do as well traffic-wise perform that way due to a lack of passion. Quite often, the pieces I’m proudest to write or edit don’t do big numbers, maybe get a handful of comments and that’s it. But what I’m saying is that here at Autostraddle, we don’t stick to one definition of success. Other outlets will occasionally take chances on “weird” content but then also treat that kind of content like there’s a quota on it. There’s constantly room for weird, out-there, imaginative, niche content at Autostraddle, and sometimes we might know a piece isn’t going to do huge numbers but we also prioritize it because we know we’re the only place that will publish something like it. When you give us money, you’re helping to ensure that your gay dollars go to our gay passion projects, whether they’re big numbers pieces or not. You’re making it so that some of our big ideas have space to grow into something even bigger. You’re making it so that we don’t have to obsess over what our traffic means for advertising revenue as much. You’re ensuring that we can do more work exactly like the Queerleaders piece, and believe me, I want to! I want to do a version of this piece for queer witches, vampires, and more. At a small, indie operation like Autostraddle, I can say that the more funds we raise, the less we have to remain hyper-vigilant about our own survival, the more we can concentrate on the core of our work, the sooner I can get these projects out into the world, the more I can do the kind of erotic-academic work I love to do but that takes time, research, and creativity.

We hit our goal, but the fundraiser is extending because we’re still on thin ice, because the future is still uncertain, and because very gay dollar you donate will help us be less afraid as we continue into the rest of the year and face whatever we gotta face. But, I think we can do this, whatever this year asks of us, we can meet head on as a team. Won’t you be our Queerleaders by rallying behind us with support? And have you SEEN the But I’m A Queerleader sticker that’s part of this year’s fundraiser perks?!

We’re fundraising until March 29th to help keep Autostraddle here, queer, all year. If you can, will you give or join A+? A+ members can join me for a Yellowjackets season two premiere watch-a-long on Friday, where we can be the queerleaders for our fav team of cannibal soccer girlies. Join me?

Go to the fundraiser!

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 817 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Long live the queerleader!! (and the passion projects that make the long, brutal, hours of this job worth it. And the community support that allows all of those things to be true.) — Thank you Kayla for always keeping Autostraddle weird and smart and playful and sexy and all the best things.

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