The other night, a stranger with an ambiguous-looking avatar and a private account DMed me on Instagram to tell me he was gay. He them asked how I reconcile my homosexuality with being Muslim (he'd likely just seen a video about my relationship with my Muslim father.)
It was late and I was sick; I didn’t want to respond. But I make a point to when the message is about coming out, which I’ve written about often, and I wanted to tell him that despite having a Muslim father, I've never identified as Muslim. We went back and forth briefly until I politely declined coffee, and suggested that finding someone in his life to talk to would be more fulfilling than a stranger on the Internet. I wished him luck and signed off, “Congrats, being gay is great.”
I have conversations like that on Twitter or Instagram almost weekly, but I have just a couple thousand followers on each. Meaning the inbox of a successful Instagay—the burgeoning cult of beautiful gay men on Instagram, with follower counts that reach into five or six digits—must be inundated. For someone without anyone to talk about their sexuality with in person, this highly visible corner of the online gay community would make for an obvious first outlet.
Chances are, if you’re a gay man, you either follow or have encountered an Instagay online. They’re “different than your average hot selfie-taking guy or women on Instagram,” as New York Magazine once put it. “These men are more relentless and artful [...] their images as well-selected, aspirational, and powerfully seductive as an underwear or fragrance ad campaign.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Instagay phenomenon is often criticized for being vapid and misrepresenting modern gay life. It seems like many Instagays know each other, and so their world is unique. Through travelogues, lavish grooming routines, and daily appearances at Barry’s Bootcamp, one imagines endless disposable income (seemingly without real work to produce it).
Despite some ridicule, there’s no shortage of Instagays who have crossed the elusive 500,000 follower mark, from writer/director Max Emerson to Justin and Nick, a gay couple based in Pittsburgh. Ask a gay man to close his eyes and picture one, and he might see Charles-Laurent Marchand, a 26-year-old former runway model studying to be a pastry chef. Followers travel the world alongside him, often in first class; in one story, he stripped down to Versace briefs in a lie-flat bet. He broke 400,000 followers last October.
And not unlike his peers, brands familiar to any Instagay follower are peppered throughout Charles’ feed, from Daniel Wellington watches to the dating app Chappy. Many, unsurprisingly, are sponsored by protein powders or teeth whiteners. A recent Ad Week piece noted Instagram influencers with 100,000 followers can earn nearly $800 per post—ample incentive to keep those underwear pics coming.
Over the past few years, these men have captured a not-insignificant slice of the popular queer imagination. And while gay culture has always slavishly worshipped unrealistic ideas of beauty, from physique model magazines and the cult of Tom of Finland, Instagay culture may take this worship to a new level.
After all, Instagays are algorithmically-calibrated thirst traps, a new kind of gay social media star whose fame is predicated on a heady combination of sculpted abs and the lavish trappings of “influencer” culture. What if these are our new gay icons? And what happens when young queer people look to these “social media influencers” as role models and idols, people whose lives are their proof that it gets (much, much) better? It’s not unfair to question whether the superficiality of Instagay culture is the best influence for a new, social media-weaned gay generation. After all, how many of them are reaching out to Instagays for help through dark times, as they do to me? And how many of them have nowhere else to turn?
I sought to ask the Instagays directly. And if you’re looking for Instagays, there’s one surefire way to find them: On New York-based artist John MacConnell’s page, where he’s sketched hundreds of men, most of whom are Instagays, in their underwear or less.
After DMing John, 33, to talk about his experience, he invited me over to his Nolita apartment. By the time I climbed six flights to reach him, I had sweat through my white dress shirt, and no filter could glamorize me—I was the opposite of an Instagay. Nonetheless, he sketched me while I interviewed him, flicking on a spotlight and directing me towards a stool.
“It’s so hot,” I said as I fanned myself with my notebook.
“You could take some clothes off,” he smirked as he threw his sketchbook open.
I fixated on how I sat while John drew me, and I asked if his other subjects did, too. He quickly painted a picture of his most-followed models as illusionists. “They know their angles, they know exactly how to twist at the waist,” he said. Yet their conversations often betrayed insecurities lurking beneath. “The people who work out the hardest often are because they’re self-conscious,” he said. “And I don’t get the best drawing from the people with the best bodies, either.”
Still, it’s hard to find someone with a bad body on his feed. I ask if he thinks his work contributes to body dysmorphia in the gay community. His answer almost sounds media trained. “I’m drawing what I want to draw and people are choosing whether they want to consume it. I can’t speak to how they experience my work,” he replied. “People are selective about what they see.” He’s not defensive, but I realize I’ve put him in an unfair position. He’s an artist, this is his art, and the role—if any—that Instagays play in body dysmorphia within our community is almost impossible to parse.
He’s more comfortable talking about the good he’s seen from Instagram. He told me it’s elevated his profile as an artist, that he’s used it to sell countless works of art, make friends and raise thousands for charity.
After our interview, he shows me his sketch. I don’t think it looks much like me, no better, no worse—more angular, maybe. I wonder if I was too distracting with my questions or if John’s ballpoint pen often acts as a chisel.
The next night, I met Logan Fletcher, 26, for drinks in Hell’s Kitchen. He’s a frequent subject of John’s sketches. With 30,000 followers, he’s still building his base. His sponsored posts are infrequent and most often for The Underwear Expert, an “underwear of the month” club. “I just get free underwear,” he told me.
He looks like a Disney prince, blonde and tall; he brings up the fact that he’s 6’2” several times throughout our conversation, even when it’s irrelevant. And his personality matches his looks: he’s charming and refreshingly authentic, and over the course of a couple hours, he talks about everything from his ex to his obsession with drag queens.
He’s transparent enough to show me his DMs. They’re mostly compliments, and they’re pretty benign, though he does get messages from guys struggling to come out. And he responds.
He talks about his upbringing, and I’m surprised to learn he spent high school in gay conversion therapy, twice a week for three years. “I’ve been that kid in Middle America who had no one to talk to,” he said. “When I came out, my family took my phone and computer away so I couldn’t connect with other gay people. I’ve been that kid who feels like there’s nowhere to go, who looked to self-harm as a solution. I would hate for someone to feel like no one cared.” And he’s smart about how he replies. “I’m always very clear that I’m not a professional, and I might not have solid advice. I try to send them to other resources or organizations where I can.”
As we keep talking, I push back a little—his Instagram doesn’t talk much about where he’s from or reveal how layered he is. “You post with your shirt off more than on,” I told him.
“That’s accurate,” he said.
I ask if he feels a responsibility to speak out, to use his platform to share meaningful stories. As we talk it out, I wonder if I’m taking it all too seriously—I scroll through his feed while he talks, through dozens of photos of him playing with dogs and posing in the mirror. Maybe his feed—and maybe the Instagays—are more harmless than people might think. Logan re-grounds the conversation. “I just post what I wanna post. Hopefully it helps someone out because I keep it positive,” he said. “Even if it’s me dressing up as a dog because I’m fucking stupid and silly, then cool—hopefully it helps someone out.”
He talks briefly about Instagays who are speaking out and cites examples of posts where they tell their coming out stories or support an initiative like GLAAD’s Spirit Day; he qualifies that the speaking out is something, even if it’s only “twenty percent of the time.” Then he nicely articulates what I already know. “To expect anyone to be on a mission [to do good] all of the time isn’t realistic.”
The next week I connected over the phone with Joshua Cummings, 26, a fitness model and aspiring actor and writer. As a person of color, I was curious to see how his experience with Instagram differed from John’s or Logan’s. I also wanted to know whether he approaches Instagram differently given his career (modeling and acting) is most directly impacted by it; John works as an art director and Logan works in sales.
Our early conversation was more aligned with my expectations of an Instagay—he possessed a confidence that bordered on arrogance, and threw around words like “my brand” and “my art” when referring to his feed and his body. His Instagram posts are primarily gym shots, and his stories comprise of workouts, facials, haircuts, and other pampering treatments.
But as we talked, he revealed a vulnerability rooted in his upbringing not dissimilar to Logan’s, one that’s also wholly absent from his feed.
Joshua grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. He was one of eight children, and said his family was “very much into the church.” He came out when he was fourteen; at the time, he was dating a guy six years his senior. His family didn’t take that, or his coming out, well, and he moved out when he was fifteen to live with the older man.
He came to New York alone when he was eighteen, and spent his first week there sleeping in Penn Station. Suddenly, his arrogance comes across as defiance, a relentless ambition to prove himself. “I told my mom I wanted to be a model when I was 15. She told me there was never gonna be someone like me on a magazine,” he said. “I sent her four magazines featuring me this year.”
Despite their complicated coming out stories, Joshua and Logan’s Instagram experiences differ in many key ways—namely, their DMs. While the compliments and flirtations in Logan’s inbox only occasionally go too far, the majority Joshua’s DMs are explicit. “I’m objectified a lot,” he told me. “Many people, especially white gay men, treat me like an escort. They flat out offer me money, they ask to see my dick.”
Still, despite what may be constituted as harassment, he said that, largely thanks to Instagram, “I’ve come to understand who I am, what I want, and what I can do.”
When he poses for photographers, he tells me he aims to look “strong and sexual.” And he seeks out photographers who don’t typically shoot black men. “My Instagram is a showcase of what African-American men can do,” he said—not a showcase of how he’s struggled. “I don’t want total strangers to know all of that. I tell my story and my life through the photographs I’m in; that gives hints of what I’ve been through.”
Watch therapist Zach Rawlings discuss body image issues in the gay community:
A couple of weeks after interviewing Logan, he referenced our conversation and posted with a lengthy caption about his coming out, conversion therapy and all. I’m struck that the deeply personal post, with 1,400 likes, isn’t more popular—a gym selfie on Logan’s feed can easy hit over double that number. But I’m not surprised, given the quick scroll nature of Instagram consumption in general.
If anything, Instagays are as flawed and complicated as the rest of us. But their feeds are filtered to make them appear simpler than they are, and if follows and likes are indication, that’s how we prefer it.
As I wrote this piece, friends asked if it would be an exposé. Ask a gay man with less than 1,000 followers about the Instagays, and you’ll get a slew of opinions. Shirtless pictures signal vapidity, they’ll say. Too many sponsored posts are greedy or inauthentic. (And it is astounding how creatively an Instagay can draw a connection to a brand.) Posts about mindfulness or inspirational advice that aren’t done right can come across as, well, foolish.
It’s a vicious cycle: The more followers a guy gets for his sexy pics, the easier to becomes to monetize their feed and expand their "brand," and the more valid their clout and influence becomes. But that elevated profile only exposes them to more criticism. The validation begets vilification; like a Shakespearean drama, we build them up only to tear them down.
All the criticism reminds me of something both John and Logan said during our conversations—John when I asked about how contrived some of his posts were, and Logan when I prodded him on the logic behind those sexy dog costume shots. “It’s just Instagram,” they told me.
Well, it is. And it isn’t.