I was scrolling through Instagram one night a couple of years ago when I stopped on an image that seemed out of place in my feed: a black-and-white photo of my primary health care practitioner with her pants down. She was lying on an examination table, legs spread, about to insert a speculum into her own vagina while another woman held up a hand mirror for her to see what was up down there.
I don’t follow my physician’s assistant on Instagram. This was a photo from @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, an Instagram account that posts images of lesbians and related queer cultural artifacts from earlier decades. Apparently, in the ’70s and ’80s, the silver-haired dyke who takes my blood pressure and swabs my cervix every couple of years ran a lesbian health night at the D.C. clinic where she still works. In the photo I saw, taken by the famous lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren, she was showing women how to conduct basic health exams on their own bodies as an empowering alternative, or supplement, to the male-dominated medical spaces of the era.
Ever since I saw this picture, when I’ve gone in for a checkup, I’ve felt a bit like I was walking on hallowed ground—like my annual physical was a tether that connected me to 40 years of lesbian history in the city I call home. It’s a testament to the scarcity of accessible queer historical materials that a single snapshot on a photo-sharing app could give me the warm fuzzies about a Pap smear.
In recent years, several Instagram accounts have emerged to fill the knowledge gap left by mainstream historians who didn’t see queer life as worthy of preservation, gays who couldn’t chronicle the full truths of their lives, and the shortage of long-standing institutions to sustain our cultural memories. Two of the most popular accounts on the growing roster, @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y and @lgbt_history, owe the availability of the photos they post to existing archives of LGBTQ photos, publications, and ephemera. (The Lesbian Herstory Archives, in Brooklyn, was the foremost inspiration and source behind the unaffiliated @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y account, and @lgbt_history draws its material from dozens of libraries and special collections.) But their repackaging of queer history places it in a new context, allowing archival material to do a new kind of work—making history pressing and personal—in 2019.
Run by D.C. gay couple Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, @lgbt_history functions as a gentle correcting or fleshing-out of the historical record of LGBTQ activism. After an edifying visit to the grave of gay rights trailblazer Frank Kameny in 2015, the men, both lawyers, say they felt “overwhelmed by how much we didn’t know, isolated by our ignorance, and furious at the forces that had kept our history from us.” They spent a few months gathering images and doing research, then started the Instagram account to share their findings. Their target audience may be gays who underestimate the militance and radical politics of the activists who gave them the rights they enjoy today, or those whose knowledge of gay history is limited to the white gay men who got the most mainstream press attention in their time. Riemer and Brown want to take their followers on the same intellectual journey they traveled, in hopes of radicalizing a new generation of queers who grew up clapping for banks and weapons manufacturers in their local Pride parades.
Some @lgbt_history posts recount notable acts of queer resistance, including a 1982 protest against police raids of a Times Square gay bar and a 1992 confrontation between an AIDS activist and then–presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Other posts are portraits of late pioneers in LGBTQ history—performer Josephine Baker, trans man and Union soldier Albert Cashier, voguing ambassador Willi Ninja—with captions that make for miniature biographies. Riemer and Brown’s dense, conscientiously constructed new coffee table book, We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation, takes a similarly omnivorous approach to LGBTQ history, with special attention paid to the internecine clashes that often get flattened in historical accounts of social movements, like the 20-foot papier-mâché penis that alienated lesbians and angered respectability-aligned gays at L.A. Pride celebrations in 1971. In that tradition, Riemer and Brown don’t shy away from confrontation, even though their brand usually takes an approachable, welcoming tone. They often pop up in @lgbt_history comment threads or in the account’s Instagram stories to weigh in on contemporary debates within queer communities. It’s a reminder to followers that few of the issues our forebears fought about have been settled. The work goes on.
@h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, too, was founded in part to fill a gap in public memory. Creator Kelly Rakowski has told a story of taking a research trip to the archives of New York City’s LGBTQ Center and finding just one box of materials labeled “women.” “All the other archives were mostly gay men, with some lesbians sprinkled in,” she told Marie Claire. Rakowski’s account isn’t intended to be a reeducational tool à la @lgbt_history, though. Its highly curated take on dyke history, rife with old-school paparazzi shots of celesbians and thirst-trap screenshots from queer films, functions more as a means of asserting and defining a female-driven cultural narrative that’s been by turns drowned out by gay male culture and appropriated by straight culture. Too often, cultural products labeled with the umbrella term “gay” default to the male perspective, while those embraced by lesbians have been diluted by trend-chasing straight women or marred by the straight male gaze. Scrolling through photos of 1990s Dyke Marches, 1980s lesbian erotica magazines, and 1970s lesbian sports teams on the @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y page, however, an appealing world unto itself emerges.
@h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y’s capacity for affiliation-building—helping queer women find themselves in a diverse but distinct cultural history—is particularly valuable in 2019, when it’s hard to even find the words with which to describe, and thus build solidarity among, the convergence of cisgender lesbians, trans people of all genders, bi women, queers, and nonbinary people that populates queer women–centered spaces today. Rakowski has been loud and deliberate about @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y’s trans inclusivity, proving by example that queers don’t have to throw lesbian history out with the trans-exclusionary bathwater.
She’s also responded to her followers’ evident hunger for avenues of dyke affinity with two ventures that take @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y offline and into the real world. One is her @_personals_ account, a clearinghouse for sexy user-submitted personal ads inspired by those in lesbian publications of yore. The other is a line of merchandise sold through the queer-owned retailer Otherwild. Almost all the garments are emblazoned with text designs taken from old photos posted on the @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y account: The warped “Gay Power” text that graced a San Francisco queer’s balloon in 1970 now appears on a denim baseball cap; k.d. lang’s 1990s “HOMO” patch is now a pin. The collaboration’s most famous product is a shirt that says “The Future Is Female,” inspired by a 1975 photo of a woman wearing such a T-shirt, posted by Rakowski in 2014.
There are actually several ’70s-era photos of lesbians wearing “The Future Is Female” shirts, because the slogan adorned merch sold by the first women’s bookstore in New York City, Labyris Books. Otherwild’s reprinting sold like crazy. After model Cara Delevingne got one of the shirts from her then-girlfriend, Annie Clark, she ripped off the slogan and started selling her own version of the shirt. (“I did not steal anything, [Otherwild] did not create the slogan,” Delevingne said in her own defense.) All of a sudden, it seemed like everyone, including Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter, was plastering the phrase on retail goods and deploying it as a crowd-pleasing add-on in public addresses.
This revivification of a lesbian separatist bookstore’s slogan to sell products and political candidates provides an apt allegory for broader shifts in queer and feminist discourse over the past 40 years. Feminism used to mean an intrinsically confrontational dismantling of power structures. Now, it just as often means shallow self-empowerment, profit-generating merchandise, and soothing promises that feminists aren’t asking for all that much.
Liza Cowan, the lesbian who took the 1975 photo that prompted the reprise of “The Future Is Female” attire, told Vice that, today, “it is difficult for many younger women to imagine the power, the excitement and the urgent need for women to come together to change the world.” The meaning of the slogan, she said, is “if not lost, then certainly understood differently than it was in the ’70s.” Many retailers now sell shirts that say things like “the future is transgender,” “the future is fluid,” and “the future is non-binary”—clear responses to, though not necessarily contradictions of, the original phrase. Otherwild’s e-commerce page for the shirt assures consumers that “Otherwild believes in an inclusive, expanded and fluid notion of gender expression, identities and feminisms,” because “inflexible and compulsory sexual and gender binaries are used to oppress and deny people their humanity and agency.”
The light dissonance that rings out when a piece of lesbian history is transported into the present isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a call to better understand the current threats to queer liberation with the added context of our history. Now that I follow @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y and @lgbt_history, my already super-gay Instagram feed is full of modern-day queers mingling with our LGBTQ forebears. Every day, there are unexpected juxtapositions that imbue both sets of images with new meaning. For me, it’s a welcome reminder that queer history is all around me—cruising in the parks, marching against the cops, giving me a Pap smear—and far from over.
That’s why, while the photos of gay rights demonstrators in these two Instagram accounts and We Are Everywhere offer poignant windows into our not-so-distant past, I get much more emotional traction out of a different set of images: the everyday snapshot. I thrill to photos of queer people hanging out with their peers in low-stakes environments like bars, living rooms, and front stoops, glowing with the effortless intimacy that’s only possible between trusted lovers and friends. In one 1971 photo in We Are Everywhere, several barefoot gay men (members of the D.C. chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, according to the caption) sit draped across one another, clothed in the bold patterns and textiles of the moment, staring down the camera with arresting sensuality. Another, from the 1950s, shows two clean-cut men in ties embracing against a brick wall in what you might call a prom pose, their smiles relaxed and warm. My all-time favorite post from @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y depicts five topless lesbians cracking up in what looks like a 1980s mailroom. In a mock attempt at collective modesty, they’re covering one another’s nipples with their hands.
None of the people in these photos are identified; they probably aren’t heroes of the movement, and it doesn’t much matter if their names or histories ever surface. Their images survive as evidence of gay culture and kinship that spans generations. In their anonymity, they urge queers of today to look into the past and see themselves, to be emboldened by the strength and self-knowledge that compelled people in every era to seek community, comfort, and love. For a number of reasons, old photos of visibly queer people are extraordinarily hard to come by. We can read what information exists about queer and trans people in earlier years, but most of what got written down was about famous rabble-rousers, performers, and political demonstrations. Seeing queer lives in unremarkable action—as people, not just protesters; as subjects of their own histories, not just victims of policies and policing—invests them with recognizable texture and truth.
As I leafed through We Are Everywhere with a friend on a recent evening, she paused over one such image, a 1953 photo of three women cuddled up against one another at a bar in San Francisco. One, in a sports coat, smirks for the camera. The other two grin at someone farther down the bar, just out of the frame. “Oh, wow, that girl looks like my great-aunt,” my friend said, pointing to the one in the jacket. I asked if it actually was her great-aunt, expecting her to laugh and dismiss the suggestion. She just shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
By taking archival material out of libraries and placing it in today’s most accessible venue of content consumption—our social media feeds—these Instagram accounts are coloring in our mutual understanding of queer history. If we let them, they can also open up new questions about our own pasts. Most of us probably have long-deceased queer relatives we never knew about: people whose loves were clandestine or circumscribed, or who were never recorded in the family story as gay, or who never had the space to feel out the unfettered shapes of their own desires. One of the great privileges of queer identity is the ability to choose our own ancestors; images of LGBTQ history invite us to imagine the possibility of our ancestors claiming us. Once you internalize the idea that queer history can live anywhere, it’s hard not to see it everywhere.