As feminist meme culture becomes mainstream, queer women are carving out unique and essential online spaces that honor the diversity and specificity of their experiences. In a post-Tumblr era, queer women’s content is finding a new home on Instagram with memes picking up where the blogging platform left off and moving queer culture forward with its own visual language.
During its peak, Tumblr served as a locus for many young queer people searching for community; an essential point on the journey to learning who they are. "I got a Tumblr when I was 17 or 18," queer meme creator @xenaworrierprincess tells Broadly. "It was like a floodgate of queer cultural literacy. Tumblr exposed me to Slut Walk, bell hooks , John Waters—all this entry-level gay stuff. It made coming out less scary."
@xenaworrierprincess, who goes by Maddy offline, nostalgically refers to the time between 2008 to 2012 as the height of "lesbian blogosphere," the Tumblr heydey when "everyone was calling themselves ‘tender’ and listening to Tune-Yards, [getting] triangle stick-n-pokes, Manic Panic hair, galaxy pizza cats." Having a Tumblr account was an integral part of being queer, Maddy recalls, and the site helped her forge real-life friendships. "I think most queer millennials have a similar relationship Tumblr. Some of my oldest queer friends are people I met on Tumblr. Even today, we’ll get together and just be like, ‘remember how real Tumblr was? Wasn’t that wild?’"
Like many blogging platforms before it, though, Tumblr eventually grew overpopulated yet overly insular. Its visitors, in many ways, outgrew the site. One of the owners of Instagram meme account @garbagecanaesthetic tells Broadly, "Expecting LGBT people not only to defend our existence to bigots and homophobes but also to go home and spend time focused on community infighting is draining and sometimes more than a person already experiencing marginalization can deal with."
According to @garbagecanaesthetic, the infighting of "discourse- heavy queer spaces" like Tumblr became exhausting—so they moved to Instagram. "A community that speaks specifically to the things that you want and need at a particular time cannot be found perfectly unless you create it yourself, so that's what we did with our account."
The rise of earlier niche Instagram accounts making memes about issues like mental illness and intersectional feminism made space for queer content creators, who felt their ideas might find a home on Instagram with a common visual language or reference point. "I was fascinated by the rise of depression-related humor—a type of joking around that didn’t romanticize mental illness, but rather drew people together and said ‘look, you’re not the only one’ in this amusing but cathartic way," meme account administrator @lamotrigine.queen tells Broadly. "That’s not too separate from how I see the queer element of my posts, really."
Historically, visual identifiers occupy a significant role in communities of queer women. Femme-identifying women, for example, may practice queer flagging, using an item of clothing or other subtle signifier as a symbol for queer identity, recognizable only to those in the know.
For many queer women, creating memes can be a mechanism to increase online visibility and a means to combat—or find relief from—offline erasure. As lesbian bars become relics of a past generation, dating apps continue to disappoint, and online hubs like AfterEllen.com get shut down, many queer women feel as if they’re being slowly and subtly edged out of popular media consumption and cultural conversations.
As @garbagecanaesthetic tells Broadly, "There seems to be a strong community drive towards more inclusion which is nice, but it also means that sometimes issues that affect gay women specifically get pushed by the wayside… As queer women, we weren't historically given those spaces, it's incredibly important to make sure those are sustained." Memes can also be a way to comment on and speak out against misrepresentations and harmful ideas about queer women in media. "I can describe experiences that are mundane and unglamorous-—unlike The L Word or Blue Is the Warmest Color where every lesbian is hegemonically attractive, abusive towards her partners, and scissoring on an expensive bed in every other scene," Maddy explains.
She tells Broadly that because communities of queer women tend to be "objectively very insular," the visual language of memes and social media platforms like Instagram lend themselves to online queer community. "Everyone loves a joke that makes them feel like an insider, or part of a community," Maddy says.
This specificity, @lamotrigine.queen tells Broadly, creates a niche humor of inside jokes that can feel incredibly affirming—and they’re accessible to anyone with a smartphone. "Laughing at a lived experience can be incredibly cathartic when you’ve long felt that you were alone, and memes provide an instant moment of recognition. For anyone who is marginalized, memes have the potential to be really joyous and pure. There's no material barrier to creating and posting a meme."
Though in-jokes and shared humor play a significant part of what makes these queer memes resonate, they’re also able to shed light on—and destigmatize—some of the darker, more serious issues queer women face both online and IRL. So much of the mainstream narrative of "coming out" centers on the sentiment that "it gets better" for queer people after coming out. In many ways, it’s true that things get better, but the experience is also infinitely more complicated in ways that aren’t discussed in inspirational YouTube celebrity videos.
Accounts like @local_._honey create memes about experiences with femme erasure, living with mental illness, or being a sex worker, while @blackgirlmemer, makes heart-wrenchingly personal posts touching on issues of abusive relationships, classism, and colorism. Making queer memes can be cathartic for those who create it, and for those without much connection to queer culture, memes are a deeply relatable and easily accessible kind of content that can be affirming and even life-changing.
"I want to celebrate lesbian identity as a very specific and beautiful way of moving through the world," Maddy tells Broadly. "At the end of the day, I'm just making memes about my own life."