I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as a safe space. As sweet as it sounds, guaranteeing “safety” for anyone—let alone queer people—seems like a leap. Though we cannot create such a utopia, at the very least we can try—and we’ve been trying online for more than 20 years. Cut to the 1980s and the invention of the internet, fast-forward to the online forums of the late ’90s and early 2000s: Tumblr pages becoming sanctuaries, blogspots becoming full-blown anonymous advice columns, even AOL group chats where your internet ex first asked you “A/S/L?” These days, the road most traveled leads to Instagram meme accounts, one of the most contemporary forms of visibility, expression, and sanctuary. More than 1 billion people use Instagram each month, and more than 70 percent of those users are under the age of 35.
Though Instagram doesn’t publicly release reports about how people under the age of 18 use the platform, a May 2018 study from the Pew Research Center estimates that 52 percent of teens are on it. Instagram’s usually overcurated influencer culture is now being met with meme accounts that cater less to our vacation photos and more to our insecurities, sexual fantasies, and sometimes even our nihilism. There are even entire sites like KnowYourMeme.com dedicated to helping internet users or out-of-touch adults stay abreast of which memes are still popular and which memes have been tossed aside. Memes entered the mainstream cultural conversation roughly around 2011, according to Google Trends, and they still follow a basic format: Content, such as photos, videos, or GIFs, is combined with text that adds typically humorous context. Memes have turned people into both celebrities and victims of online bullying.
They’ve grown so popular that Instagram is now hiring a “strategic partnerships manager” to focus on meme accounts and “digital publishers,” like @TheShadeRoom and @CommentsbyCelebs. Most importantly, memes are powerful because almost anything can be turned into one, including Chris Evans having acrylic nails Photoshopped onto his hands, pretty much anything Rihanna does, or a still from one of the Real Housewives franchises. Memes are rife with irony and self-deprecation, making them a favorite among LGBTQ Instagram users who want to both discuss heavy topics and laugh at them. These queer accounts are not distinguished so much by their visual content (though there may be a few more photos of Kristen Stewart and Cate Blanchett at Cannes) but rather by captions that are tightly tailored to the queer experience.
It’s not becoming any easier to be publicly queer as the United States continues to grapple with near-constant violence against Brown trans bodies in particular (for example, Muhlaysia Booker, Brooklyn Lindsey, and Paris Cameron are three of at least 12 trans women murdered this year). Even celebrities continue to receive backlash when they come out (notably, in 2019 Lil Nas X received a lot of hate for coming out as gay). Thankfully, the internet has provided LGBTQ people with a space where they can be authentic and seek out community simply by following a hashtag or a new account. Some of the most popular queer meme accounts were created for that exact purpose: to build a virtual community that offers the validation, reassurance, and encouragement that members of the LGBTQ community may not have offline. Some of these accounts are run by one person while others are run by a group of people.
“I started [my meme] page as I was coming out to myself and working to understand my sexuality,” says Abby, who runs the Instagram page @gaybydaze. “Tapping into what I think of as ‘lesbian Instagram’ helped me so much.” Queer meme accounts also discuss difficult issues specific to their communities that are often hard to express out loud or in other venues. In this way, these accounts are culture forwarders or culture shapers. For instance, Abby’s Instagram bio reads, “come for the laughs, stay to validate my identity.” “I have a lot of straight friends in real life, and sometimes it feels as though they don’t understand how I approach lesbian relationships on a fundamental level because it is historically different,” says the brain behind @thelesbianvirgo (who asked to be kept anonymous). “I’m out to every single person in my life (at work, school, home); however, this platform has given me a multitude of queer connections that I don’t feel I have in my small city.”
This sentiment is backed by almost every account admin I spoke with. “[My Instagram account is] a type of space that I do not have in real life,” Anja, who runs @dykesgusting2.0, tells Bitch. “I don’t have any friends that identify as lesbians, so they don’t relate to some of my experiences.” “I love seeing how many experiences I’ve had that other people can relate to,” says Cheyenne, who runs @hotmessbian and has amassed more than 65,000 highly engaged followers in less than a year. “It’s important to recognize that we’re never as alone as we feel even if our experiences seem too specific and weird to be commonplace.” Cheyenne has also used her platform to repost, and therefore elevate, content from other young queers like @gaybydaze and @thelesbianvirgo. In this way, the community builds upon itself. Reposting plays a significant role in an original poster’s (OP) ability to grow their account, so it’s good practice for meme creators to build relationships with other accounts.
Memes can offer familiarity, freedom, and levity in a world that, more often than not, flattens and invalidates queer experience.
This support comes through one of two methods: screenshotting and posting a meme created by someone else on your Instagram grid or sharing the meme on your Instagram Story. (Memes are often watermarked, so even if the person who shares the post doesn’t tag the OP, it’s easy for users to find and follow them.) Nearly all of the creators I spoke with told me that they organically grew their followings through reposting, using hashtags, having a regular posting schedule, and following similar accounts. @gay_dumpster has more than 100,000 followers, thanks in part to being reposted by @best_of_grindr, an account with more than 1.7 million followers.
“I only had around 50 followers for a couple of months, and then @best_of_grindr reposted [me] and I had about 2,000 followers in a couple of hours,” the person behind @gay_dumpster says. Wendy of @gay_girl_inc has been reposted by actor Ruby Rose twice, while Jaraah of @gaysreact has been reposted by Kacey Musgraves and Andy Cohen, which has helped their memes reach a larger audience. While memes can’t turn queer adolescence into a utopia, they can serve as cultural and educational tools that validate queer teens and connect them to other queer teens. Memes can offer familiarity, freedom, and levity in a world that, more often than not, flattens and invalidates queer experience. Though the reign of Instagram’s queer-meme accounts will likely fizzle out in the same way that LiveJournal and Tumblr did, their current role cannot be understated, as accounts such as these provide examples of what a queer utopia could, and maybe one day can, look and feel like.