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In November 2012, the Britain’s Got Talent overnight sensation Susan Boyle released her fourth studio album, Standing Ovation: The Greatest Songs from the Stage. Back then, at the start of a decade when online culture as we know it now was still in its infancy, social media was anyone’s game. Sure, Twitter had been around for six years, and Instagram was in its terrible twos, but the world of social media hadn’t yet found its masters: those who created the rubric of the online world we know today. Now, at the start of a new decade, there are fully fledged meme-ographers, accounts dedicated to viral videos, and people whose full-time job is to literally influence. But in the early 2010s, so much of the culture of the internet was created by sheer mistake; we were all working out, on the hoof, what was permissible, what was funny, what wasn’t.
Boyle’s album was set for release on November 13, and so in the weeks leading up to it, her marketing team—via the handle @SusanBoyleHQ—took to Twitter to advertise a Q&A with the never-been-kissed artist herself, noting a hashtag via which fans could get in touch and ASA (Ask Sue Anything). Fans of the singer were told to unite under #susanalbumparty. Read that again: #susanalbumparty. Of course the internet went into meltdown. The press were all over it, and droves of gay men rallied around the hashtag to show sheer appreciation for an artist who was never meant for them. Everyone wanted to go to Su’s Anal Bum Party.
The party never did happen, but in that hashtag a whole new party was birthed: Gay Twitter (the unofficial pet name for gays on Twitter). Unwittingly, #susanalbumparty gave an entire online culture its goalposts—a place to gather where people across the globe could have their arguably stupid humor validated, celebrated, and honored with the same importance as a politician’s tweeting.
You know the culture well, even if you don’t think you do: the Cock Destroyers; that girl who says “It’s LA”; Gemma Collins saying mem-ays instead of memes; Nadine Coyle’s accent; “Not even to dinner with the Kushners?”; Joanne the Scammer; Kylie Jenner’s banger “hhh-rise-n-shayyine”; anything the Real Housewives said; “It’s a Fritz Bernaise.” And already in 2020 we have that woman on Celebrity Mastermind calling Greta Thunberg “Sharon,” which has become an instant gay classic, canonized into Gay Twitter’s viral hall of fame.
But in order to understand Gay Twitter, we must first establish what it actually is. If Susan Sontag were still writing today she would have certainly penned an essay on this incredibly specific sensibility—“Tweets on Camp,” perhaps. Gay Twitter is about a certain way of looking at the world: It’s about the stupid, the dumb. It’s about taking life’s failures and making them something completely iconic, with love. Like when Diane Abbott, a British politician, was caught drinking a canned mojito on the London Overground and was lampooned in the press, and Gay Twitter master Louis Staples did what we do best and created a thread of Diane Abbott dressed in the same color combinations as tinned cocktails. Of course it went viral.
Gay Twitter takes the smallest moments in normative culture and appropriates them into something world defining, something for us, a kind of Polari—the secret gay language used by homosexuals to communicate pre-1967 while our identities were still illegal—with which we all communicate. And much like Polari, the value of Gay Twitter is that it’s hidden in plain sight: Inasmuch as something I might show my mom may not translate, it inevitably will become our most quoted phrase; phrases that we inscribe so deep into our vernacular that we become a walking one-liner jukebox playing Gay Twitter’s biggest hits.
Nobody knows this better than Jack Remmington, the former X Factor star and Gay Twitter aficionado. Remmington is a master at finding the funny in the normative. Last year he went viral after sharing a video of a couple on Facebook wishing their friend Miranda “Happy birthday… from the Shard… in London…” If you know it, you’re hearing it in your head right now.
It started because Jack and his friend had seen the video on Facebook and began quoting it everywhere they went, so he put an explainer online. It swiftly gained Gay Twitter traction. What makes this story more camp is that it eventually got back to Sam, who made the video, and Miranda, whom the video was about. “Sam is the first to admit that initially she didn’t understand it,” Remmington explained to VICE, “but obviously with contact from me and a quick understanding about what Gay Twitter ‘is’... how it was about appreciation and not ridicule, she accepted it and ran with the whole thing more than I could ever have imagined. I certainly didn’t think we’d all have daily contact and that I’d be going over to theirs for dinner in the new year!” Remmington is often met by people walking up to him saying “Happy birthday, Miranda.” There’s even charity merch. “We LOVE gay icons, or rather making gay icons out of those who perhaps the ‘normal world’ would deem as anything but.”
And Remmington is right, it’s about making icons out of the unexpected—about taking what anyone else might see as a totally normal, perhaps even dull, occurrence and giving it proper icon status by imbuing it with more power than was initially intended. It’s about posting a video to Facebook, pissed, wishing your friend in New York happy birthday from the Shard in a semi-scripted way. It’s about finding the humor in everyday life: a car swerving off a road becomes gays going to get iced coffee.
Obviously, Gay Twitter is a catchall term for more than just gays on Twitter: It reflects LGBTQIA+ culture. And there are cultures within the culture that delve into specifics even more, like Lesbian Twitter, Trans Twitter, and even regional Gay Twitter, which refers to geographically specific gay phenomena like Corrie stars (a nickname for the actors in the British soap opera Coronation Street), Canal Street in Manchester, or what it was like to be gay in Ohio. These are places people gather to voice something incredibly small, incredibly specific, often completely dumb, but a place where the tiny little things that you feel and that are so important to you and your identity are actually recognized by a whole group of people, too.
“Lesbian meme accounts obsess over straight women like Cate Blanchett,” Hatty Carman, a queer musician, told VICE, “not in spite of the fact she’s straight, but because of it. Fancying and being rejected by straight women is so core to the lesbian experience that it makes sense to elevate Blanchett to godlike status as a comment on our relationship with the straight world, and having this collective subtext and humor gives us a code and a community.”
Because we are constantly looking for a culture as queers—especially when mainstream culture either won’t let us in, will represent us poorly when it does, or will steal the things we’ve come to treasure as our own. Just pick up a Diet Coke can and you might see Gay Twitter sayings pasted all over it. So we resist, and we make new culture, always. And what better place to do so than on the unregulated internet.
From tweets to TV shows, there are whole teams dedicated to creating content that finds its life force within the gay online community. Take the twin brothers Timothy and Matthew Chesney and their longtime pal Stuart Edwards. They’re the people behind the 2019 viral sensation Charity Shop Sue. Sue is the passive-aggressive manager of a charity shop in Bulwell, England, and her character has become one of the most quoted women on Gay Twitter. “Sue is camp, cutting, and ultimately complex,” her creators told VICE. “With this type of character, we are able to explore themes that have been cornerstones of ‘gay humor.’ I think we’ve all known someone like Sue, whether it’s a Bolshie auntie, a mouthy friend, or a manager from hell. It’s always exciting to see how the fans will respond to certain scenes, though you can never really fully predict what will stick and become a catchphrase. Sometimes Selina [Mosinski, the actor who plays Sue] can give a look to the camera and it can shoot right down the lens and become iconic without her saying a word. The fact that fans can interact with her online creates a unique relationship where she’s able to show much-needed support to the community in these ominous times.”
And these are ominous times both online and off—something Remmington, Carman, and the makers of Charity Shop Sue all agree on. There’s shadow banning of queer and POC bodies on Instagram, a rise in TERFism, and even within Gay Twitter there’s virtual blackface and unchecked racism. But at its purest, Gay Twitter is a place where our humor can thrive away from the claws of TV executives and soft-drink marketing strategists. It’s a place where people with a politicized identity can go en masse to both switch off and feel celebrated. It’s stupid, it’s camp, it’s funny, it’s a fuck-you to those who think queer people on the internet—the Alphabet Mafia (a personal fave)—take everything too seriously. And, most importantly, it’s ours.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.