Lesbian history has undergone a kind of erasure. The stigmatization of homosexuality over the years forced lesbians into the closet, and with them went their stories. This means that a whole lot of people, lesbian or otherwise, don't know much about the relatively few lesbian films, books, and TV shows out there, and more specifically, about the women who were behind them.
In 2016, a lot more lesbians are 'out and proud,' but that doesn't mean they're any more visible than Ellen DeGeneres' fashion sense. Society has a habit of ignoring queer women—something the cult Instagram account Herstory aims to correct.
Run by off-duty photo editor Kelly Rakowski, the account posts iconic lesbian archive photographs almost daily, reviving a black and white picture of a cute lesbian couple at a gay rights parade, and placing it alongside a butch press shot of K-Stew.
In order to find out more about why seeking out lesbian history is so important, we quizzed Kelly about her visual geekdom, as well as where she finds some of the hilarious images she posts on Herstory.
VICE: So tell us, how did you start Herstory?
Kelly Rakowski: Herstory began without too much thought. I was surfing the internet, happened upon a digital photo archive called the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and was completely inspired by the photographs in their collection. I really wanted to share the images with my friends, so that day I started an Instagram account to post them.
I was already following an account called Butch History, which focuses on women athletes and is written and researched by Molly Schiot (now renamed @theunsungheroines), and I just really liked how defined it was. I also thought Instagram was the best network for potentially the most eyes to see historic lesbian images. And the lovely thing about it is that you can post all day, every day… I'll usually do a bout of research and then post during down times, like at lunch, or standing on the subway platform, or waiting for a friend to show up a bar…
What do you do in your day-to-day job? You research images, right?
Yeah, I'm a photo editor at a design and architecture magazine, and also a textile designer. Both require enormous amounts of image research, which is my overarching passion. I think photography archives are extremely important to the world; they document life and work and progress.
How do you choose what you post? What's the criteria?
The number one thing for me is that the image looks good and is striking. I definitely aim to post a strict regimen of lesbians; that's to say, not pictures of sweet Victorian girls holding hands. I really like images with messages, from T-shirt slogans to protest signs. It's important for me to have a variety of very political images through to images of celebrity culture, too. Social media shouldn't be too academic, so I like to keep it fun and spicy. My favorite posts right now are ON OUR BACKS personals, written in the late 80s and early 90s, which are lesbians looking for love but mostly sex. The personal ads are so hilarious and filthy—you really get a vision of who is writing the ad and what they're looking for. I also really liked the 'Do you have a steady boyfriend?' Jodie Foster interview clip post we put up. It just says so much about the patriarchal world we live in, where everyone is assumed to be straight. Even if you were straight, why an interviewer would ask this? I love Jodie Foster's expression, the blank stare.
How has the response been? Do people get it?
Response has been overwhelmingly positive. Strikingly. I think people like to see images of themselves and their culture. Plus it's super fun to see old pics. It's informative… It's important to know your history and where you are from, the struggles that lesbians and gays have had in the past. It's really a tribute to our lesbian elders. I think there's so much to learn from the people that led the way in queer rights.
What have you learned for yourself since you started the account?
Well I'm not a women's studies or gender studies archivist or professor person and there were gaps in my own knowledge about lesbian culture. I wanted to learn more and since I started this I've had so many friends point me to books, films, and people I should know about and feature on Herstory. I became obsessed with reading, watching, and looking for lesbian images. Or just reading about lesbian culture. And I also learned how difficult it is to find images of lesbians or queer women and how many more images there are of gay men. Which really inspires me to comb through and share images of determined lesbian culture, in order to keep it alive by making it visible.
Talking of keeping it alive… Who is your number one lesbian icon that we should know about?
Audre Lorde! I encourage everyone to read Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It's so personal, but also really gives you a herstoric view into a very specific time in New York and what it was life was like as a black lesbian in the 1950s to early 60s. There are just so many details that make the book rich; the talk about clothing, food, jobs, education, bars, books, apartments, and neighborhoods… the different groups of lesbians—black and white, uptown, downtown. It's just the best, I wish it were a movie.