The first thing one observers is the nails: they’re long — like, well over an inch — square-shaped with a thermal-camera inspired design. I’m not the only one that notices. The barista, too, offers her co-sign. He smiles and thanks her, shyly, before we mosey to a corner seat at Joe Coffee in Union Square (both of us disheartened at what’s become of the former Coffee Shop). We spend about half of our hour+ talking about his early life, but there’s a sense of ennui throughout the conversation. His eyes meander. He’s somewhat vague. Where are you from? “New Jersey suburb,” he states simply. I do manage some contextual clues that inform the young man before me, like how growing up, he and his parents would sing "Chanukah, oh Chanukah" every night of the eight-day Festival of Lights and do a little three-person horah around the house. But little else seems of interest to him.
When I finally shift gears to his work, Matt Bernstein brims with excitement. Alas! “This is the conversation I’m most interested in having,” he tells me, signaling that the story isn’t how he got here, but what he’s doing now that he’s arrived.
I’ve always been struck by Bernstein’s proclivity toward contextualization. For instance, hours after Dan Levy hit the Met Gala red carpet earlier this year in custom Loewe (to a mixed response from “critics” online), Bernstein connected his audience to the reference that many may not have seen or known: artist and prominent AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz and his piece, "F*ck You F*ggot F*cker.” He even included a visual of the work to further connect the dots. How does he know so much — and at such a young age, no less? Meticulous research and an unappeasable appetite for knowledge, particularly queer history, a history not often taught in schools.
With an online presence that is bubbly, ebullient and often ubiquitous (if he’s not popping up on the feed, someone you know is likely reposting him), one might expect Bernstein to be an extrovert. “Despite the social media thing, I value alone time more than anything,” he says. We talk at length about the profile as an art form and his reticence to allow another’s perspective on him to be carved in stone. It’s a legitimate fear that I’m surprised more don’t have in giving themselves over to another to opine on who they are or what they do. Bernstein’s instincts, which belie his youth (he’s 21), have helped him grow and nurture a social following of more than 875k loyalists.
The self-described “queer jew fairy in stiletto nails” is careful not to describe himself as an activist, but understands his role in instigating social change. Bernstein describes his current approach to his social media as his latest era. Two years ago, which he accurately describes as two decades in the world of social media, he was in a different headspace and thus the content was as well. “I feel like I used to function more as a facilitator of gay meme culture than anything else — which is fine, I have no regrets about any of the older content. But I feel like what I'm putting out now is much more in my own voice.”
As such, when we conclude our initial interview, I scroll to the bottom of his feed to get a sense of the eras that led up to now.
I start, as I often do, by scrolling to the bottom of the feed.
June 16, 2012: First post. The ocean. 1896 likes. The next four years were spent photographing life through the prism of his eyes in an aesthetic best described as Instagram-y: light-drenched, polished, carefully crafted and filtered
March 22, 2016: Forearm outstretched on a sun-soaked bed, baby’s breath in the hand, and a tattoo with the Lorraine Schneider quote, “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” inscribed in black ink. 12,213 likes.
January 21, 2017: A sign held up at the Women’s March that reads: “REAL MEN ARE FEMINISTS.” 22,788 likes.
June 8, 2019: What became Bernstein’s calling card, high-gloss selfies with rainbow makeup and a message painted on the face, the clavicle, the hip bone, etc. This one: “‘STRAIGHT PRIDE’ IS HOMOPHOBIA WITH A VERY THIN VEIL.” And then a series of slides with real stories about the risk queer people face in openly celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride. 48,183 likes. (Variations on the theme followed: “Feminism without queer women is not feminish.” “Gay blood is blood.” “You don’t need to be out to be valid.”)
May 6, 2020: “Bisexuality isn’t 50% gay or 50% straight. It’s 100% bisexual.” The post featured his now-signature slides, this time with more specificity around the visual branding, answering questions like, “What does it mean to bisexual?” while myth-busting common misconceptions like bisexuality being a fetish. 208,102 likes.
August 26, 2021: “The ‘L’ in LGBTQ comes first for a reason,” reads a banner atop an image of Bernstein, sans his signature face beat, wearing a crop top featuring the colors of the lesbian flag, his leg kicking up to the sky. 570,538 likes.
He’s taken on topics like HIV, gay adoption, the openly gay heroes of 9/11 and more, cultivating a community keen to share his easily digestible and platform savvy knowledge. “People have asked what happened to the make-up posts and the honest answer is that the way I want to communicate my ideas has changed," he says. "The content I've made over the better part of 2021 is more aesthetically straightforward, which allows me more time and energy to really focus on my ideas and the points I'm trying to make with each post, which, ultimately, is what I care about most.” He’s even fused this work into a new merch line with 20% of proceeds being donated to Texas Abortion Funds.
Those ideas do not come without trolling. Bernstein’s unabashed flamboyance partnered with the size of his reach make him an easy target for antisemites, homophobes, transphobes and more. On that, Bernstein is key to discuss the dogpiling that can happen online within the queer community, especially with the seemingly never-ending barrage of new “main characters on Twitter” where valid criticism can rapidly spiral into death threats. “Not everything I’ve published on the internet is perfect," he says. "I would argue none of it is. And I have accepted criticism many times, and will always be happy to do so because I think it’s how we learn. But I don’t invite criticism in the form of people telling me I should choke and die.”
"As someone who also consulted LGBTQ internet creators when I was in the closet, I understand the unique position I'm in to be a source of comfort and hope for people."
Why does he feel there is so much infighting within the queer community? “I think when it comes to marginalized groups online and specifically LGBTQ+ communities online, there’s so much pain that we all carry with us from our childhoods into adulthood," Bernstein says. "And while the internet has been an incredible tool in connecting us — and I wouldn’t have come out as early as I did without the internet, and I think a lot of other people feel that way too — we’ve also carried that pain into the spaces of social media. And one of the many ways that manifests is the way a lot of people will lash out at each other, specifically people who aren’t their enemies in the grand scheme. I have done this. You have done this. I think for me it’s coming to terms with the fact that the things that people say about me or about my work are very detached from reality and is more a reflection of that individual.” In other words, it’s not that he ignores it, it’s that he is able to distill the valid from the veiled.
The impact of this work, which leans into the social platform’s aesthetic-mindedness while also, in turn, subverting it, cannot be overstated, particularly for his younger-skewing demy of savvy followers. For some it can be information; for others it’s inspiration. “I was taking a walk last month, and this young person stopped me on the street and told me they had just come out to their mom as nonbinary, and how I had helped them reach that point," he says. "It made me all gushy. I don't like to take credit for any of that stuff, but as someone who also consulted LGBTQ internet creators when I was in the closet, I understand the unique position I'm in to be a source of comfort and hope for people. I don't take that lightly.”
Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Photos courtesy of Matt Bernstein