In recent years, queer spaces have been shutting with alarming regularity. In the UK, “rent increases and development” have been blamed; writer Eleanor Margolis described it in the New Statesman as a “nasty side-effect of London's sanitisation”.
“Queer spaces” is also, frequently, just another way of saying “nightlife”; bars, clubs or parties that revolve almost exclusively around alcohol or drugs. Many of us have nowhere to go to learn about our history, understand our struggles or celebrate our victories – and, if we did, most of us would have no idea where to even start. The dilemma is even worse for queer and lesbian women – nightlife and political histories of the scene both seem to be dominated by white gay men.
Enter Instagram, where a group of curators and artists are building a community where queer and lesbian women can learn about their history. Like Tumblr before it, which acted as a place for queer women to both connect and learn, Instagram has emerged as a key space for visibility, education and community.
“Sites like Instagram are critical for increasing the visibility of lesbians,” the curator of @godimsuchadyke told me (she wishes to remain anonymous). “Using just a phone, we’re able to bypass the media channels that have historically ignored us.”
“Instagram provides a space for us to imagine ourselves in diverse and powerful ways, and is a means of elevating and sharing those experiences with a larger community. This engagement in turn shapes our representation in the media, and the visual culture at large.”
“It’s an invaluable digital space for archiving, remembering and disseminating our history.”
She points to one of the most popular lesbian history accounts on Instagram as one of her inspirations – Herstory. Herstory – which has gained over 100,000 followers since Rakowski’s first post in 2014 – is just one of a growing number of accounts specifically designed to share images memorialising the radical history of queer women.
“I started my account because I felt that a place that was exclusive to lesbian content was lacking,” Herstory curator Kelly Rakowski tells me. “Coming out late (only a few years ago), I decided to school myself on lesbian history/queer history, which lead me again to online archives and digital libraries, which were the roots of inspiration for Herstory.”
“Through my research I found inspirational photos and images that I wanted to just share with friends to start with. It grew from there.”
Visibility is important – but queer women aren’t always getting it. Molly Schiot runs The Unsung Heroines, an account celebrating women in sports.
“I never had gay role models when I was growing up, and thought I was going to die a sad person,” she said. “I stayed in the closet for far too long”. Even explicitly LGBT histories often exclude gay women: in fact, Schiot explains, her Unsung Heroines account originated from such exclusion, a “reaction to being told ‘no’”.
“I’d been pitching stories about women to a sports network in order for me to direct an episode. Each and every story was fascinating but I was told the same excuse over and over as to why it was not a good fit,” she says. “Meanwhile, men’s stories were being greenlit left and right.”
“I ended up taking those ‘failed pitches’ and put them up on Instagram as a giant fuck you to the network, and to give these women a platform.”
“Our history has always been there, it's just not being told. So this has been a good way to create visibility.”
“A lot of histories have been written by white gay men, many of the LGBT archives and collections have been started or maintained by white gay men, hence the focus is on white gay men.”
“But there’s definitely a lot of work done by queer women, books written, photos taken, archives collected. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn NY is a utopia of lesbian herstory and culture.”
Recognising and understanding this history is vital for queer women, Rakowski argues – particularly in politically turbulent times, and particularly so younger generations can “learn LGBT history...and [about] the fight that’s been going on since the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, for equality”. This can be celebratory, too, Rakowski says: “it’s hopeful to see how far we’ve come!”.
Just as queer women so desperately need to be included in wider LGBT histories, it’s also important to these curators that they represent a diverse range of women – including trans women, non-western women and women of colour.
“It’s really important to me that Herstory is inclusive to all women,” Rakowski says. “And that we celebrate the brilliant work of black and brown lesbian and queer artists and activists – which is endless. I’d really like to include more lesbian content from non-western or South American countries, so if anyone has any leads then please get in touch!”.
@godimsuchadyke also points to traditional LGBT histories focus on cisgender women and gender binaries that “are not, and have historically probably never been, a true reflection of the diversity of our community and certainly not the diversity of queer women’s experiences”.
Social media – particularly places like Instagram, which is often snootily lambasted for its shallowness and tendency to encourage narcissism – may not be the place we thought we’d be celebrating our radical history.
But the kind of visibility such platforms afford has turned out to be crucial in our understanding of our lives, experiences and histories. In Schiot’s words: “If we don’t share these stories we lose our history. Plain and simple.”
6 more accounts to follow:
A spin-off from the main Herstory account, @herstorypersonals was inspired by personal ads from the '80s and '90s lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs and is written by followers of Herstory “looking for love or lust”. According to Rakowski, a couple even met and got married through the account; calls for submissions are once a month, so get following if you’re looking for babes.