Downtime

Instafam

I spend hours trying to figure out whether random people on social media are gay.

An animated GIF of a phone with an Instagram page on it surrounded by swirling emojis.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Karina Carvalho/Unsplash.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Guessing whether someone is “family,” a lovely bit of queer lingo from the days when speaking in code (“is she … family?”) was a necessity, is one of the finest joys of being queer. This is how I’ve recently found myself, in moments of profound procrastination, two years deep in a stranger’s Instagram page piling up a mental heap of context clues. It may sound obsessive, pathological, or borderline harass-y, but my favorite way to burn 20 spare minutes or so is to bounce from Instagram grid to Instagram grid, speculating about the variety and degree of people’s homosexuality.

It never starts out that way, I swear! I don’t settle into an armchair with a magnifying glass, some string, and a bulletin board, ready to investigate. Usually, I’m idly scrolling through my feed, past all the photos posted by friends and family members (whose sexualities I’ve already personally confirmed) when I come across a cute picture of someone I don’t know. Or, I’ll see a photo of someone elsewhere on the internet, or read their name in an article and think they sound cool, and I’ll look them up on Insta. Totally innocent! Then, half an hour later, I’ve gone ahead and cataloged their preferred fashions (pocket squares and bold lips!), the hairstyles represented in their friend group (asymmetrical AF!), and the nature of their relationship with that one genderqueer person who keeps showing up on their grid (DECIDEDLY ROMANTIC), and determined that they are almost certainly a big ol’ queer. A win for the team!

I’d say this form of rabbit hole–ing derives half its momentum from general curiosity. I like looking at new people, admiring their respective styles, and imagining all the other lives puttering along parallel or transverse to mine. The other half of my motivation comes from a yearning to celebrate the full magnitude of queer presence in the world. I get a tiny twinge of joy when I identify a new-to-me gay person, whether on Instagram or IRL, where I’m constantly trying to give the dyke nod to older lesbian couples in art galleries and highway rest areas. I imagine it’s similar to the feeling a sportsy person gets when she sees someone wearing her favorite team’s logo, or when a fascist bro spots a Fred Perry polo in the wild. Everyone likes to see that their people, whomever those people may be, are everywhere.

My beloved pseudo-hobby would have been close to impossible when Instagram first launched, before the company added a tagging functionality in 2013. Username tags help me identify the one woman in pants at a straight friend’s wedding and—if, goddess willing, her account is public—see what exactly is going on there. Has she posted a screenshot from The Watermelon Woman or anything starring KStew? Does she take a pic every time she sees a sign at a fast-casual restaurant that says “unlimited toppings”? What proportion of her wardrobe is constructed from flannel, leather, and/or mesh? Wingtips, winged eyeliner, or nah? I steady my hand as if my very dignity depended on it, as if I’m holding a pair of metal tweezers dangerously close to the border of the Adam’s apple in a high-stakes game of Operation, lest I slip and give the target of my probe reason to find our one mutual friend and ask, “Why did this ‘Cauterucci’ character like my sports bra bathroom selfie from 2014?”

Queer networks, the likes of which I’m charting when I click from a friend’s Instagram post to an unknown’s, can be unbelievably small and tangled, which makes them fun to map. For example: My partner and I both have exes on the West Coast; years ago, long before we met, those two exes dated each other. None of the four of us grew up together, went to the same universities, or know one another through the rest. We only met through a shared interest—namely, “the gay.” I challenge you to think of one straight couple that has a similar overlap in their history. You won’t! Queer worlds are still fairly circumscribed by race, class, and educational attainment, but less so than straight worlds, as far as I can tell, because we are much fewer in number. In most places, being gay is reason enough to move two people one giant step further along the continuum from strangers to friends.

The infinite intersections of queer communities are part of what makes my Instagram investi-gay-tions a total delight. The few celebrities you’ll find in my Instagram feed are a seemingly haphazard sampling of my favorite B- and C-list queers: Samira Wiley, Alan Cumming, JD Samson, Beth Ditto, Megan Rapinoe. I haven’t explicitly traced my connections to all of them, but I’m confident that the queer world is small enough that I’m only a couple of degrees separated from each. There’s a certain comfort in closing the circle, in seeing a queer-looking actress play a bit part in a theater production, finding her on Instagram, and seeing that we have a mutual gay friend. And when I meet a new gay person IRL, I like to check Facebook to figure out which friends we already share in common. I’m constantly amazed anew by the richness of queer kinship wherever we exist.

I can’t say my rabbit hole is completely divorced from desire. If I’m being honest, the subjects of my enquiries probably skew hotter, according to my tastes, than average. And part of the appeal is simple, practical fact-finding. (Where are queer people going to the beach this season? How are we doing chokers? What sorts of stick-and-pokes are we sticking-and-poking ourselves with? Who should cut my hair when I’m in Philly? What’s the name of that band with the dirtbag dyke behind the Moog? DM me with the goods!) But at the heart of my pastime is an impulse toward intimacy. To better root myself in this vast, sometimes isolating world, I reach through the internet—very carefully, so as not to double-tap—and feel for the branches of my family tree.

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