Lately I’ve been joking that I am everyone’s lesbian aunt (or grandfather, depending on whether or not I am offering encouragement or once again scolding half of our team for not having flashlights in their apartments!). And so I thought, what if I just embraced that vibe and put it to work. The first result was me asking our writers and editors if they would like for me to write a dating profile for each of them.
Who wouldn’t want their 42-year-old lesbian aunt who’s been in a monogamous relationship with her wife for ten years and never even used a dating app to be their wingman? Well, and here are the results for everyone who said they’d love this gift from their lesbian aunt. (They haven’t read them yet.)
Hi, it’s me, Valerie Anne! I’m a little bit shy until you get to know me, but once we connect and I trust you a bit, I will open right up and we can talk about anything and everything until the very wee hours of the morning (because also I do not sleep). I love to talk about what I love, but I also love to talk about what you love (I am a deeply invested listener), and I especially love to talk about things we both love. For example: Queer TV and movies and books, D&D, murder (how to avoid it, how to get away with it, our favorite ones, fictional ones, serial ones, etc.), video games, powerful women, and sometimes I can be convinced to get into women’s sports. I’m legendarily kind but also don’t cross me (and especially don’t cross my friends). I’m very good at basically everything I’ve ever tried to do, even though I won’t admit it. I do not accept compliments unless you sneak up on me and pounce on me with them, which is nearly impossible due to my constant vigilance re: getting murdered. Even though I am extremely allergic to cats and dogs, I adore them and am happy to love them from a distance. I am a brilliant writer who makes people laugh and cry and most of all feel connected to me and to each other. I have big beautiful eyes that make you want to never lie to me and always keep me from harm, and a dormant goth streak that comes out at the most delightful times. You can call me Punky, but don’t call me Val. Soft hands, warm heart, can’t lose.
I should warn you: If you want to ever forget me, you should stop reading this right now. Once you know me, I will stay inside your heart and mind forever, so tread carefully forward, tender hearts. “Charismatic” is probably the best word to describe me, because it encompasses so many avenues of allure, magnetism, witchery, attraction, enchantment. Luckily, I use my powers for good. And I mean really good. Sometimes people who are so well loved sit back and delight in it, all for themselves. Not me. Every bit of influence I have, I harness it to gather and gift goodness to others. I will catch you doing the things it will thrill you to be called out on, those secret jokes you’re mumbling under your breath and the way you dance alone in your kitchen. Every thread of generosity that is shared with me, I weave together into a blanket for us to share. I can’t tune out the needs of other people, and even if I could, I wouldn’t. I make every silly thing more fun, every serious thing more impactful, every sad thing more bearable. There’s this thing I do where I see something beautiful, or something that could be beautiful, and I name it. If you ever look at the photos I take, you’ll be overwhelmed at the generosity of my gaze. My writing is generous, my conversations are generous, my relationships are generous. Grace personified. These aren’t the only reasons you’ll never forget me, but the rest are for you to discover, like a treasure promised and tucked away.
I am not unaware that I have this face — the kind that, 200 years ago, would have made men go to war. But of course men are always looking for a reason to go to war, and the other side of this face coin is that in the right light, at the right time of day or night, with just enough of insecurity’s goading, I’m not burning Troy, but being burned. Lucky for me, I don’t turn my face toward many men — but I know how easy it is for anyone, even women, to project their desires onto my face with such ferocity they convince themselves their will is my own. It’s not. It never is. Yes, yes, my voice sounds like a song, but that doesn’t make me sweet. And I move like a dancer, but that doesn’t make me consumable. I am knowable, though. Deeply knowable. But you have to trust that I know me first, and I have to trust that you trust that. And then, well, have you ever felt the first snap of cold in east Tennessee? Or eaten a bowl of buttermilk and cornbread at your grandma’s kitchen table with the windows thrown open in the springtime afternoon? Have you ever scooched down under a homemade quilt, tucked in by a fire, with a book you probably weren’t supposed to be reading? Jasmine and magnolia, that pause between the chirp of a choir of crickets, comfort and anticipation. I can become that tender, that familiar. (Not sweet!) If you’re afraid to watch someone be moved by a song or a photo or a memory, I’m not the girl for you. If you’re scared to watch someone be scared, I’m not the girl for you either. I’m not good at pretending because I don’t want to be. All the harshness of the world is real to me. And the gentleness is too. And you could be, you know? You could be.
So many oft quoted poets talk about poetry as some kind of magical lifting of a veil to a secret, hidden world. It’s funny because that world has never been concealed to me. Maybe it’s because so much of life, so much of the narrative about life, so much secular and sacred religion, takes place at the poles of the extreme. Maybe people are shocked to discover there’s something in between. But I’ve always lived in the space between power and delicacy, between bliss and despair, between abundance and want. I love to share this space with people who exist here too, who can see the wholeness of it and of me. The reward, of course, is in the space itself, but also: that ciphered smile I give you in a crowded room because no one else has been there. The laugh that’s only for us. A story I’ve never told anyone else before. A story I’ll tell about you. I am not a broad spectrum fawner, but what I love, I love. That’s how it is with my writing too. It is benevolent and it is vulnerable and anyone can find a point of connection, but there’s something in the margin, in the precise slots between the em dash — if you’re really looking, if you really want to see.
I would like it if you could know me apart from — this, well, I’ll be blunt: This queer media empire I birthed like a brain baby through sheer force of will and nurtured for a decade with… everything I own and am and ever hoped to be. I want you to know it because I want it to have helped you because that’s the whole point. And I want you to know it because it’s a vital part of knowing me. But I’m trying to learn who I am outside of it, which is terrifying, and I guess I wish you could know that me too, the me who was never RIESE BERNARD to you. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I would like to simply know myself and be known. Like really known. The motivations behind my words and actions, my feelings for you and everything else without the interference of all the gunk the makes our brains cesspools of uncertainty, just for once to have the blue flame of my yearning wholly understood.
See, because I have this gift of knowing what you’re not saying. Of knowing what everyone’s not saying. Every year, 300 queer people fill out these questionaires about what kind of cabin they want to be in at the queer camp I founded, and every year they say, “What kind of brilliant algorithm matched us all up?” The truth is that my brain is the algorithm! I spend days and days starting at those questionnaires, figuring out all the things people are saying and all the things they aren’t! I wonder what it’d be like if someone did that for the questionnaire I’m perpetually filling out in my own mind about who I am. I don’t need an opus, just a small compliment maybe about the way I make breakfast. To know you’re looking for ways to see what’s right and good and adorable about me. I will always play along with your bits, your songs, your morning stand-up routines. I’ll find a way to enjoy what you enjoy. I’ll diffuse the toughest situations with a perfectly placed joke and you’ll be so angry at me for making you laugh right then but really glad too. A lot of people care what I think, and I’ll care what you think, and I’ll really hear it, and I’ll try to understand it, even if I don’t agree with it. I have never been bored and you will never be bored with me because until I know everything, I am not going to try to stop knowing everything. That means bookstores, museums, lectures, reading, the kind of endless learning adventures we’d have if we were in a PBS cartoon.
Anyway, right now the best way I can describe myself is: what if that Indigo Girls song “Ghost” was an essay written by Joan Didion, performed on TikTok as a reimagined Glee mash-up?
I tell stories and I critique stories, as my job but also every second of every day of my life, just because of who I am. I think that scares people because “critic” is right there in the job description, and the heady feeling of knowing someone will probably write about you can be quickly replaced with the abject terror of knowing someone will write about you. But as intrinsic to me as being a storyteller is being a person who finds all the good and all the joy there is to find in a thing: a movie, a TV series, a book, a person. There’s bliss in well-told love story. And there’s bliss in a story that gives you permission to be deeply sad, too. I’m not in the habit of quoting men, but when I say “I contain multitudes” I also mean to invoke Walt Whitman’s (gayness and) ethos of hugging the dark and the light and finding nuance in that embrace. He only stopped listing things he loved because he died! Otherwise he’d still be going!
The nuance is important because while my brain is always weaving a tale, my mind and my spirit are also fully present with you, finding things to delight in and wonder about and hear and discuss. I’m going to encourage you to take the next step, and the next one, as you pursue your dreams, because of course I will help you suss out your dreams! I’m going to introduce you to so much new art, and seek to know and love your favorites too! And oh the ways you’ll want to feel exasperated at me for suggesting, once again, a Linklater film — but you won’t stay that way because it means endless hours side-by-side together. I’m learning what I want, and learning to say what I want, and for practice I’ll say I want someone who cherishes my empathy, who sees and knows what a gift it is. And one warning: My love for Ryan Murphy’s work is both inexplicable and resolute. Multitudes, like I said.
I know it’s confusing that I have this very sweet face and am as excitable as a puppy but also yell a lot about how love is a lie. But that’s only because I don’t actually believe that love is a lie. There’s plenty of evidence to back up the fact that I am just a smooshy-hearted love-lover, including basically everything I have written, and the fact that I can recite every single Calzona scene from memory because I have watched them all twenty million times. The real lie is that I am not a sports gay, a thing I say for unknown reasons, and then immediately reveal as a falsehood by reciting ’80s Pistons stats from memory and taking time off to watch the United States Women’s National soccer team. What can I say? I love to be a fan of things. I also love: baking, the Baby-Sitter’s Club, my family and my friends (who are my family), sneaker culture, thoughtful gifts, fancy skincare products, SNL, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seeing people I love get excited, spotting queers in crowds, and bulletproof Black superheroes. I love fun and I also believe rules help control the fun! I love to tell you what you’re doing right, and it’s nice for me to hear that back too, because it’s not always easy for me to see in myself what I see in the people I love.
You know in movies when everything goes slow-motion and an expensive crystal vase falls toward the floor, or a POV bullet soars through the air targeting an innocent bystander, and at the last second, some hero reaches out and cushions the vase before it lands or deflects the bullet with golden bracelets? That’s my spiritual gift, but with, like, the needs and emotions and desires of human beings. I anticipate them, I see the fullness of them, and if I want to, I cup them in my hands and tend to them with such precise affection they never crash or burn. Which, I have to tell you, is exhausting; as is the pantomime of apathy I have to take part in lest everyone see my super power (or worse: lest anyone praise me for it!). I’m a no on: small talk, bullshit, mean-spirited conversation, men looking at me, cheap whisky, loudness for loudness sake, being too afraid to look at the hard stuff, under-told stories, under-salted pizza, and unearned familiarity. I’m a yes on: candles, secrets, a perfectly-timed hug, good cheese, great wine, conversations that start with the realest thing, weighted blankets, piercing lyrics, being looked at by the people who really see me, the feeling of a hymn without the religion. I’m not afraid of the Swords; maybe that’s the most important thing you should know about me. I am so good at laughing, and I am so good at love, but I won’t hide from the truth, and I’m not afraid of the Swords.
The hardest part about love is finding someone who is capable, willing, genuinely wants to make you happy and celebrate everything that makes you happy and who will also sit beside you on your darkest nights without trying to change you or your circumstances. I’m that person to the people (and cats and dogs) I love (and I love all cats and dogs). Your impulse upon meeting me, or watching me perform, or catching my eye from across a crowded room where I’m hiding in the corner will, of course, be to compare me to your favorite fictional goths and Scorpios — and, look, you’re not wrong about Marceline the Vampire Queen — but what you’re missing when you do that is I don’t need five seasons of character growth to have my hard shell cracked to expose my gooey caramel center. I’m telling you right now: I have a gooey caramel center. You just gotta earn it.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about whether or not love is a lie, because one of my 50 jobs is being a professional writer about lesbian pop culture, and no one’s coming out of that unscathed. But the truth is I believe in love because of me. Because I love with such loyalty, such fierceness, in such strong and warm and specific ways, and I can’t turn it off no matter how hard I try. And not just people and pets I know. I am compelled to help hurting people in ways I’m not even sure I fully understand. I work hard, I don’t sleep, and nothing delights me quite like making people laugh. I own a lot of black clothes and black eyeliner and black boots, but I have also been known to wear a very cute bear costume on occasion. Sometimes when I’m playing my bass on stage I wear a cape. I’ve heard it drives the queers wild, but I wouldn’t know, ’cause I get lost in the music I’m creating.
It seems like there are a lot of people in the world who are happy to know just a few things, or think about things in one way — and, well, I am absolutely not one of those people. If you tell me something, I am going to pull on that thread until it leads me to another thread, and those threads lead me to a tangled-mangled ball of threads that I’m going to unravel, one-by-one, and then once I’ve done all that, I’ll have an opinion to share with you. My opinions are firm, but not unchangeable, especially when someone I know or love disagrees with me — or, you know, tells me to keep watching Legend of Korra even though it is quite yet living up to my expectations. I love to break down complicated things and help other people understand them, I love to learn how things intersect and work together and inform each other, I love to do it with politics and I love to do it with TV. My warm spirit will warm you straight through on your coldest day, but I’m also not opposed to sitting in the coldness with you and reckoning with the stark reality of it together. And then later we can warm up under a blanket in front of an animated show or two.
I am a teacher by nature, an educator, a writer, a communicator — but one of my greatest skills is listening and learning and really hearing other people. It is likely, actually, that I will listen to you in a way you’ve never been listened to before. With my whole face, and my wide-open eyes, and my crinkling smile, nodding and sighing and laughing at just the right time. And outrage on your behalf too, even though one of my other greatest skills is seeing all the sides of every argument. I am confident in what I know, in what I can do (kind of anything? writing, drawing, painting, skateboarding, hiking, gardening, surviving a zombie apocalypse), and I like to be taught stuff too. And you should know that my knowing isn’t ever presented as arrogance, but with kindness and humor and the hope that we can connect over what we’re teaching each other. I’m also not afraid to say what I don’t know, which is especially endearing. One of the best things about me is that I can make whatever I’m doing fun, from the sitting still things to the mountain climbing things. And we will never be without a playlist for our adventures. I am one of three people on earth who can write brilliantly about music without being tedious and insufferable. See? Anything fun!
You’ll probably never meet anyone as good at loving people as I am at loving people, and I’m not saying that to brag, because it costs a lot to love this much, and I choose to do it anyway because it’s what I was put on this earth to do. Being near me is like being near that kind of comfort and joy that cozy winter advertisements are trying to sell you, and yes it’s twinkles and laughter and food and family, only it’s not seasonal, and it’s not imaginary. I’ve bowed down under the fullness of the grief of loving, so that my love can be real. Now. That also means that your enemies are going to be my enemies and your joys and sorrows are going to be my joys and sorrows, but babe, it also means I’m going to have to tell you the truth even if you don’t want to hear it because love is the hard conversations too. I like pink things and femme things and if you think that’s code for anything less than dynamic potential and strength, let’s not waste our time. I love to host, and I also love the alone time wind down luxurious bubble bath after hosting. I love a party, and I love the reassuring silence of my own thoughts. I love attention, and I love to give attention. And I love especially when all of that happens in the shadow of the mountains. The firm, ever-changing, reassuring eternal there-ness of the mountains. I mean that literally. And I guess metaphorically too.
Here’s what I like to do: Take a thing you think you know — a thing I always thought I knew too — and put it in a rock tumbler with a cacophony of new colors and gobs of ideas and plug it in and let it go to town. And then I like to pull out the new thing I made, and hold it up to the light, and examine it from all angles, and see the old thing in a whole new way. Like religion, and gender, and storytelling, and fashion, and oh, everything. What’s the point of being called an Oak of Righteousness if you can’t stand in the wind of a hurricane and get your hair messed up? This isn’t to say I don’t feel discomfort (mine and yours) at dissonance; because, actually, I feel everything. It’s to say I welcome the dissonance, and I will hold your hand through it so your brain and heart don’t get stale. I am not scared to laugh with my whole belly and I am not scared to cry with my full chest and I not afraid to call out injustice with my full throat. Or, I don’t know, maybe sometimes I do get scared, but I don’t let that stop me. You know that Willy Wonka song “Pure Imagination”? That’s what it’s like to know me. Living inside the cacophony is the only way to be free.
If you shot an arrow right between “being real with you” and “being kind to you,” you’d hit me square in the face — so please don’t do that, and just take my word for it; I ride my bike everywhere and it’d be kind of hard to do cycle around town with an arrow sticking out of my head. Oh, I use humor to defuse tense situations, I should probably go ahead and mention that. I’m good at laughing, and at making other people laugh, but I’m not just willy-nilly clowning around. There’s an art to humor and there’s an art to being the kind of person who has the power to wield humor. See, that’s the thing about me: I’m not just content to know that a thing is — I want to know why and how and if it’s conditional and who it impacts (and the why and how of that too). I’m one of those people who can really do specifics, but who also believes every part of everything informs every part of everything else, and I do not take that responsibility lightly. I have so much to give, but I only want to give as much as you want or need. You need your freedom and I need mine too. But I’d love to know you, and I think you’d love to know me, and if that goes okay, maybe we could know us, which would be an entirely different thing than you or me. Also, I’m not scared of scary women, and my Netflix history will back me up on that. I’m very good at communicating, which makes everything a lot less terrifying.
You should know that I know what I want. But you should also know that while I can’t apologize for my competence and ambition, there are also a zillion things I don’t know, which means there could be half a zillion things I don’t even know I want yet, and isn’t it fun to explore the world with someone who makes your heart zing? Speaking of exploration and ambition, I absolutely intend to own a home library like that one in Beauty and the Beast with the rolling ladder at some point in my life. Knowing me is the feeling of leaning closer during a conversation even though you can hear perfectly well what I’m saying, like a smile you feel was sent out into the universe specifically for you, like when you’re trying to choose between two deserts and you finally pick one and — yes! — that is exactly what you wanted. (Although binaries generally annoy the heck out of me.) I can juggle a million projects, but my attention is precise, and my affection is whole. My dog looks like a teddy bear, my selfie game is unparalleled, and a good date would be discussing our plans to destroy capitalism at an oyster bar.
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