Gay Is Good: LGBT History on Instagram
BY: MICHAEL JOERRES | FEATURED + LEAD PHOTO BY: MATT BERNSTEIN
Do you remember learning about the LGBT community in your grade school classes? We don’t. The marginalized community’s history has been long overlooked, but @lgbt_history wants to change that. The Instagram account’s founders, Leighton Brown and Matthew Riemer, are two D.C.-based lawyers who are proving that social media can be a powerful tool for spreading knowledge and positivity. On the occasion of Pride LA, we reached out to the curators to hear about the importance of taking pride in history.
What are your backgrounds? How did the account come to be?
Our story, at least until we started @lgbt_history, was like that of many privileged gay men born too late to see the heyday of the early gay liberation movement and late enough to avoid the peak years of the AIDS epidemic. We’re both liberal, well-educated, relatively well-adjusted attorneys in D.C. We met at a gay lawyers’ event in 2014 and we got engaged last June.
For a variety of reasons, both of us came out relatively “late” (acknowledging that the “right” time to come out is whenever people are safe and comfortable). Perhaps more than anything, what kept us both closeted was that we struggled to see our place in the queer community; we didn’t know where we, as individuals, fit in. In late 2014, we started to explore gay history by way of a “hobby” (read: obsession) that Matthew picked up while working on the 2008 Obama campaign: button collecting. We amassed a collection of buttons—and then correspondence, flyers, and photographs—from key moments in queer history. While the ephemera—homophilia, technically—was, at first, window dressing, it gave us a very basic understanding of modern American gay history; enough of an understanding that we were aware of and decided to attend the unveiling of Frank Kameny’s headstone at Congressional Cemetery in November 2015.
As we now know, Kameny is one of the most important figures in queer history (and, by extension, in general history); he was the moral and logical compass for the queer liberation movement for half a century. We knew very little about Kameny when we went to the unveiling and we were just inundated by a history—our history—that we wanted to know. So, after that, we dove in: Matthew focused on the textual research and Leighton amassed a collection of imagery spanning decades of queer history.
As his collection grew, Leighton put the images on our Apple TV as a screensaver. We would sit for hours and look at these pictures of our people, our events, our family. And, as we learned about the history itself, our perception of the community shifted: every queer person in every picture from every parade, protest, photobooth, house party, disco, picnic, AIDS ward, stage, beach, bar, alley, and everywhere else has a story and that story matters. @lgbt_history came about because of that screen saver; we wanted other people to see these pictures and to know the stories.
Tell me a bit about what you set out to do with the account and what your hopes for it are.
We didn’t have a real plan when started @lgbt_history; neither of us, in fact, had much in the way of a social media presence (Matthew doesn’t have Facebook, Leighton only got an Instagram account so he could look at @lgbt_history). But we knew that the images we were collecting and the history behind them made us feel more complete, more connected, more queer; we were confident that, if other people saw what we saw, they’d feel the same as us.
At first, we just put up some of our favorite pictures without much information: names and dates mainly. A few days after starting the account, though, it was Martin Luther King Day and we did a post on Bayard Rustin, King’s close advisor and confidant whose monumental role in history largely has been minimized because he was gay—that post got a reaction. A few days later, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we did a post on queer victims of the Third Reich and linked that to modern use of the pink triangle; again, we saw people react. So, from there, we started to connect the history to the here-and-now and that eventually got us to the “This Day In History” format that frames the account.
We want to show people what Joan Nestle said in 1987, that we, the queer community, “are not accidental, that our culture has grown and changed with the currents of time. That we have the story of a people to tell.” We want to make sure that people understand that they are not alone in the grand scheme of space and time. There is a place for everyone in the queer community; there is no correct way to be queer and that what we need more of is whatever you have to give.
Our community has only progressed because of those who have refused to assimilate, those who have refused to back down, those who understand that the rights of gays mean nothing without the rights of lesbians, and the rights of gays and lesbians mean nothing without the rights of bisexuals, and none of it means anything without the rights of our siblings in the trans and gender nonconforming communities.
And we hope people take away from the account the importance of queer elders. If you think our posts from the 60s, 70s, or 80s are neat, don’t be an ageist asshole to the older person in the gayborhood; better yet, donate your time or money to SAGE or some other organization that deals with the unique issues facing our elders. If you’re talking to a queer person over the age of fifty, you’re talking to a survivor and a hero and you’re lucky; you’d be wise to ask some questions, shut up, and listen. We almost guarantee that you’ll end up crying.
What is your process for sourcing and curating the images that you select?
It depends. We have a collection of about 75,000 images and counting that Leighton—who is the keeper of the archives and the one who makes sure that what goes up on the account is high-enough quality (i.e., we don’t put up pixelated crap)—has organized meticulously. Matthew does the curating from a copy of Leighton’s master files. For the “This Day In History” posts, it’s relatively self-explanatory: we find pictures of the person, event, organization, or place being discussed. Because of the size of our collection, the organization of it, and our familiarity with the images, we’re also able to react in real-time to current events with history imagery. There is, for example, an amazing picture of an ACT UP protester carrying a coffin emblazoned with the words “WE HATE THE FUCKING PRESIDENT” that has come in handy recently. And then we have Christmas pictures, Easter pictures, Passover, Mother’s Day, Veteran’s Day, the list goes on. Pride season is particularly big. And then it’s often just a matter of however we’re feeling at a given moment.
In terms of sourcing, this is one of the places where our lawyer tendencies kick in. We try very hard to provide citations and dates on all pictures. If we don’t have those in the caption, you can be confident that hours of intense research yielded nothing. We care particularly about crediting photographers, many of whom were queer themselves; we hate when people repost our content without crediting photographers.
What is one moment in particular that sticks out to you as important in LGBT history that people may not be familiar with?
This is counter-intuitive, but the answer is Stonewall. While people are familiar with it, virtually no one knows anything about it. There is so much legend, lore, and crap that surrounds the story of Stonewall, it’s really frustrating. Everyone should read David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.
Which LGBT individuals would you invite to a dream dinner party?
It would be a large affair. Marsha P. Johnson, Frank Kameny, Oscar Wilde, Audre Lorde, Josephine Baker, Vito Russo, Bob Rafsky, Larry Kramer, Barbara Gittings & Kay Tobin, Jeanne Cordova, Ivy Bottini, Brenda Howard…and about 1,000 others.
What, in your opinion is the most pressing issue facing the LGBT community?
We’re going to have to disagree with the premise of the question; or, at least, evade the premise of the question. On a day-to-day level, there is no one who is in any position to say what “the most pressing issue” facing the queer community is, and it’s when people appoint themselves as spokespersons that shit goes wrong.
Transwomen, particularly transwomen of color, are murdered at alarming rates in the U.S.; these are members of our family that are being killed. That’s a pressing issue. The New York Times just did an incredible piece on why the population of Black American gay and bisexual men have a higher H.I.V. rate than any country in the world. That’s a pressing issue. The percentage of homeless youth that identify as queer is staggering. That’s a pressing issue. The Trump administration. That’s a pressing issue. The state-by-state assault on the trans community. That’s a pressing issue. Chechnya. That’s a pressing issue. Defunding Planned Parenthood and the potential rollback of the ACA and the way those policies would impact the queer community. Pressing issues. We got pressing issues everywhere (and these are just some of them).
So, with that said, the biggest abstract problem is the same as it’s always been: apathy and assimilation. If you are among the lucky and you get to be safe and comfortable, you need to be unapologetically queer. The myopic, heteronormative #LoveIsLove bullshit is a problem and it’s holding us back. Making your Facebook profile pic rainbow for June, without more, doesn’t help end employment discrimination or lower teen suicide rates; we have to be angry, we have to show up. And not just for gay rights, but for lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, gender nonconforming people, Black Lives Matter, refugees, and any other underrepresented or oppressed population. None of us is free until all of us are free. Stonewall means fight back.
What are your plans for Pride this year?
Protest by day, party by night.
Follow @lgbt_history on Instagram and check out some snaps of protests past below.