This Pride Month, Rosalind Jana writes a love letter to the Instagram accounts that helped her come out to friends and family – and also find a sense of belonging in a unique online community.
The first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone. It’s a bad habit that I’m trying to kick – that insistent need to scroll through several feeds in quick succession, accumulating notifications and hungrily absorbing an ever-updating sprawl of opinions, links, and images.
But sometimes there’s an unexpected pleasure to be found in what’s thrown up as I stumble out of bed. This morning it was a photo from Instagram account @lgbt_history. The photo was taken in the 50s, and has an unknown location. It features two smartly dressed men, their arms flung around each other and their heads bowed close.
It is a truly beautiful image, capturing an easy intimacy from a time when such intimacies were not easily expressed in public.
This is just one of the many LGBTQ+ themed Instagram accounts I follow. Some of them are contemporary, but largely it’s a patchwork history of archive imagery, unearthed stories, verbatim quotes, museum collections, and fascinating accounts of distant lives lived in distant places. Some, like @queer_modernisms, focus on specific time periods, via sumptuous photos and paintings.
Others, such as @thehistoricalhomo, @thechristopherstreetreader, @dragkinghistory, @onearchives and @butchcamp, feature visuals both familiar and forgotten, aiming to collate a rich alternative history of queer people, communities and aesthetics. Ones that we were certainly never taught about in school.
Some of these accounts are new to me, and several were actually found in the process of writing this article. Plenty have been part of that daily phone-checking routine for a while. But there are a few I’m especially fond of, grateful for what they offered at a very particular point in my life when I hugely appreciated their presence on my timeline.
As is the case for many of us, my coming out happened in stages. It was a stretch of time unspooling between that initial thought, uttered first to myself and then to others that “I might like girls”, through to actually, actively (at first nervously) dating women, through to easily, proudly knowing that I was a lesbian.
Life both present and future was immeasurably richer for being able to say this with confidence. It was a difficult process at times, accompanied by tears and uncertainty and all the usual messy figuring out.
But it was also wildly exhilarating. Something else, too. Comfortable. I had a sense of coming home to myself. Or, more accurately, a feeling best described as being like opening the door to a room in a childhood house that you’ve never noticed before, this surprising discovery making total sense of the rest of the space and making me want to weep with the sheer relief of revelation.
Along the way I was helped out not just by the people around me, but the history behind me. In a quest for clarity and example, my bookshelves piled up with biographies and novels devoted to all manner of queer lives. I hungered for maps, illustrations, and tangible heritage.
My Instagram feed grew progressively gayer too, a few tentative follows of some of the most popular LGBTQ+ history accounts paving the way towards every single one I could find devoted to lesbian outfit choices. I stumbled across @queerbible, where writers lovingly profiled notable queer figures that had been meaningful to them, and @lesbianherstoryarchives, documenting the ephemera and imagery of a long, varied, politically active history.
Each account offered something slightly different – recognition, inspiration, carefully dredged research, reminders of privilege, education that was at turns sobering and joyous – but all were united not just in their commitment to revisiting the past, but reinvigorating it through centering queer people in narratives and eras that tried to erase them.
Now I gain such great pleasure from following all of these accounts. They send me off down rabbit holes of reading, find me making endless screenshots on my phone, and always spur me on to keep learning.
It’s wonderful witnessing the way this wave of short-form archiving continues to grow, too. From official institutions to individual hobbyists, on Instagram there’s a space – and a niche – for everyone. Specific histories reach new eyes, offering an expansive sense of heritage. Stories in danger of disappearing find new existence. Areas of academic research become beautiful posts located at the click of a button. Individuals who changed laws, catalysed transformative movements, and made sacrifices to secure rights we now take for granted are commemorated.
The injustice, prejudice and profound loss faced by different quarters of the queer community are preserved, reminding us of everything we have left to fight for.
Although it’s tempting to see the main benefits of these accounts being reaped by the young – and they are certainly a welcome corrective to still limited curriculums – really, the consequences are more reaching. Cumulatively these accounts form an accessible, meaningful route for everyone from the curious to the deeply invested: offering signposts and reassurance, entertainment and illumination, a plurality of voices and a refusal of the status quo, mementoes of our past and unsettling parallels with our present.
They demonstrate what a long way we’ve come, but also, importantly, they remind us both individually and collectively that the work is far from over. Together, they add to a history that still desperately needs to be told, and to be heard.
Seven more Instagram accounts to follow
The Leslie-Lohmann Museum of Art
The Leslie-Lohmann Museum of Art in New York is a space devoted to LGBTQ+ art, scholarship, and conversation. This account brings its work to an even wider audience.
Dedicated to “lesboerotic visuals from the interwar period,” this account is a satisfying mix of moody portraits, Tamara de Lempicka paintings, and deliciously witty commentary.
The Digital Transgender Archive
The Digital Transgender Archive account is a brilliant offshoot of an online hub collating trans-related materials, each image coming with a link to the website for further research.
The AIDS memorial
A deeply moving commemorative space, this account is a beautiful and devastating mosaic of personal memories of those who lost their lives to AIDS.
Trans Masc Studies
With a focus on masculine-leaning gender variance, this account is a treasure trove of great photos, archival research, and sartorial inspiration.
Making Gay History
This account is rich in snippets of oral history, taken from extensive audio archives of the voices of LGBTQ+ activists and history-makers.
This feature was originally published in February 2020