Matt Bernstein on Queer Politics and Beauty

Matt Bernstein is the 21-year-old makeup artist and queer activist you need to know.

IMAGES Courtesy of Matt Bernstein

What inspired you to create and post makeup looks with political messages?

I started playing around with makeup towards the end of high school and — even though it was pretty rough around the edges at first — I fell in love with the medium. At the time, I was practising photography pretty seriously, I wanted to go into that profession. My work was focused around portraiture and political issues of identity, specifically queer issues. As my makeup got more polished, I started craving a way to incorporate it into the work I was already doing. Instagram became a place for me to express myself through increasingly charged makeup looks, and people started to take note, so I just kept going.

How effective is Instagram as a platform for LGBTQ+ activism?

There are definitely positive and negative aspects. The ability to reach so many people instantaneously is exciting, and I love how many opportunities there are to build community on the app. I know lots of people who follow me have found each other during my live streams and created group chats so that they can have LGBTQ+ support circles that aren’t there in real life. The thing that worries me most about politics on social media, in general, is that people tend to form ideological echo chambers by only following people who agree with their views. I do it too! It’s hard not to. I think conversing with people who don’t agree with you on everything is often the best way to learn and grow — but that’s not the culture on social media. There’s too much attacking, too much cancelling, not enough questioning. 

What is one myth about makeup you’d like to debunk?

“Makeup exists for women to heighten their sexual appeal to men.”

How can we foster a sense of community while in isolation?

I can’t pretend I’m the authority on this, in any way, because I’m really struggling with it myself. I moved out of my apartment almost three months ago to stay with my family outside of New York City, where the numbers are particularly devastating. Stay in touch with your friends, even if they’re just Internet friends. Stay active in your group chats. Find ways to honour pride season from your bedroom — throw a mini FaceTime pride parade with your friends. I don’t even know. But remember that this is not forever.

I think conversing with people who don’t agree with you on everything is often the best way to learn and grow — but that’s not the culture on social media.

Matt Bernstein

What does the word queer mean to you?

To me, “queer” is an umbrella term for anyone who is a sexual or gender minority. It’s a term of pride and inclusivity and freedom. There’s still a lot of disagreement on the word — even within the community — and I can understand why. It was used as a pretty violent slur against us for many, many years. But I also know many people who use the word “queer” as their primary identity label rather than other terms under the LGBTQ+ acronym because they find it more liberating and less limiting. I think it’s important to respect that and understand why.

If there is one thing you could say to oppressors of queer people, what would you say?

To quote Harvey Milk, “It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom.”

Who inspires you?

I’m always inspired by the generation of artists and activists who came before me. I don’t think we pay enough homage to the progressives of our parents’ generation for making the work we do today possible. Gloria Steinem, Peter Staley, Sylvia Rivera, David Wojnarowicz, Shirley Chisholm — to name a few. Google them. Also, in terms of artistry — my friends make fun of me for this but I actually spend a ton of time on Pinterest. There are so many crazy beautiful collections of weird makeup and queer art on there. You just have to dig a little. 

Do you feel it is crucial as visible queer people to set boundaries so you don’t give too much of yourself?

I think everyone has to write their own script when it comes to this. I’m particularly open about my life because I still don’t think there’s enough genuine visibility in media for what it means to live as an openly queer person. Often times, media representation of queer people is glossed over and sugar-coated — why?  Like, I think Love, Simon was important for visibility, but movies like that are also made to be digestible for mainstream audiences. So many aspects of growing up queer are still completely in the shadows. I mean, I learned about gay sex from a handful of WordPress blogs. I want to know how long it will be until that information is taught in health classes, and why that can’t be now. Until then, I’ll keep doing my thing on social media and hope I reach as many people as possible. 

Are you optimistic about the future for queer people?

Yes — to the dismay of some, our community will only continue to grow. That said, I think we really need to vote Trump out of the White House in 2020.

Follow Matt Bernstein’s work on Instagram

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