Welcome to Beyond the Grid, a VICE UK column about Instagram.
In the early 2000s, schools across Britain were spending weeks studying the Beatles. I assume many still do (you can find Key Stage 1 and 2 packs dedicated to the band online). In my 2002 history class, we'd put together homemade Beatles-themed booklets, with cut-outs of John, Paul, Ringo and George on the inner sleeve and facts about them inside in bubble writing. The booklets were fun, but I was never that bothered about the Beatles. The whole of Abbey Road elicits zero emotional response from my body. What would have been cool, I think, is if we’d learned more about the Stonewall Riots or the UK's Gay Liberation Front, which I knew nothing about back then.
There are lots of things I wish I’d learned about at school relating to LGBTQ history. I didn’t know who Marsha P. Johnson was until my early twenties, and I had to discover renowned photographer and activist Joan E Biren on my own. Friends introduced me to the film Paris is Burning. I only vaguely knew the names of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, rather than their actual work. My knowledge of LGBTQ history was gleaned later, from finding and reading books, watching films and hanging around with people who could tell me things. Instagram wasn't a thing until I was older, but if it had been, maybe I’d have learned even more.
Today, Instagram is awash with historical imagery, resources and references relating to LGBTQ art, culture and activism – filling the gaps that school still doesn't, even in 2019 (aside from maybe one month a year). Accounts like @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, @workingclasshistory, @transmascstudies, @museumoftransology, @camp.books, @designdykes among many others are taking the worlds that queer people have woven for themselves, and piling them into an accessible arena. A lot of the people behind these accounts just do it for fun. It's sick seeing the style and strength of decades of LGBTQ folk in one place. But it also means that this stuff is reaching younger users; people on Instagram who might not have ever heard about Stormé DeLarverie, or seen what lesbian marches looked like in 1979 Washington.
When New York-based photo editor Kelly Rakowski came out, sometime around 2014, she felt as if she had some catching up to do. Like me, she’d learned nothing about LGBTQ history – not at school, and not at college either. “I was consuming a lot of lesbian culture, catching up on what I’d missed and teaching myself about the history of lesbians, mostly through images,” she tells me over the phone. “I did a lot of research online through digital archives and universities or whatever. I started gathering these images, but I wanted to put them out into the world... Blogs were over by then, so instead I put them on Instagram.”
She's now been running the account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y for five years, and it currently has around 163,000 followers. The bio describes it as "DYKE IMAGERY”, but that simplifies what it offers. The grid is a mixture of modern and historical figures, artists and activists, snapshots from other eras alongside decades-old books and cult lesbian film stills. While Rakowski doesn't take any of it “too seriously”, she says that the fact it's also "slightly educational” is a bonus. “Early on, I was getting messages from high school kids figuring things out, saying: 'this account is helping me, I’m learning so much, it’s making me more comfortable with myself,' which is really cool. Or some people didn’t feel like they could come out yet, but they felt a connection to the account because at least they could be a part of something and learn something.”
Elsewhere, @designdykes has been running since last summer. It’s creators – Ashley and Elizabeth, an architect couple based in New York – watched a series of Queer Eye, and found themselves musing over what it would be like to have a similar show with “a truly inclusive queer ensemble”, AKA one with lesbian, bisexual, trans and gender non-conforming makeover experts too. “We realised that the reality of a show like Dyke Queer Eye would never come to fruition because lesbians are ubiquitously typecast and portrayed in ways that don’t exude creative excellence,” they tell me in a joint email. “There is a preconception that lesbians lack creativity. We are stereotyped as ‘handy’ or ‘independent’; we aren’t frequently described as ‘fabulous’ or ‘stylish’ or ‘inspired’.”
The account is still in its infancy, but it's intended to destroy the notion that only white, cis, able-bodied gay men are the bastions of queer creativity. Instead, @designdykes features the work of historical and contemporary lesbian, bisexual, non-binary, trans and gender non-conforming makers, including sculpture, architecture, interior design and painting. According to Ashley and Elizabeth, “about half of our followers are between 25 and 34 years old and over a quarter of our followers are under 25.” In other words, this content is largely absorbed and appreciated by young people. “We set out to create an archive and a community,” they add. “A resource of information – historical and contemporary, well-known and traditionally overlooked.”
Despite the clear visual element of Instagram, these accounts aren't solely confined to art and pop culture. Artist and bookmaker Izzy Kroese wasn't available to speak to us for this piece, but the account she runs, @transmascstudies, is definitely worth checking out. During an era when trans history is only just reaching the public domain (when I was at school, the word "transgender" wasn't even used), the account is showing that trans people have always, always existed, stretching as far back as the Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt, who identified as “her majesty, the king”. This account in particular focuses on trans masculine people, whose experiences are often routinely dismissed, affirming their visibility and telling their stories throughout history.
Young people will always find information about the things that interest them, whether it's presented on a plate or hidden inside a maze. I'm deep into my twenties now, and have consumed more queer books, films and pop culture over the years than I have eaten slices of toast. But it took me a long time to get here, and absorbing that rich well of endless knowledge shouldn't be so difficult.
Schools might have a long way to go before they cover queer history adequately (the government still only just decided that LGBTQ sex education ought be brought into the equation). But it's worth celebrating that it's becoming easier for young people to consume queer culture, and learn about the stories that came before them. Schools are no longer the gatekeepers. Yeah, kids might spend a lot of time there, but they probably spend just as much time on Instagram. And on the grid, at least, LGBTQ education is flowering.
Images for collage used: Don Armador and Harvey Milk via; Couple making out top left via; Couple making out bottom left via; Joan Jett via; Alice Austen via; Claude Cahun via; Ellen Degeneres via; London Pride '85 via.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.