|image source: Marketing Land|
Inspired by the article I posted several weeks back, The Insta Hunks, I thought I would explore the intersectional issues of instagram and the queer subculture. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons are often noted in the literature for their early adoption of digital medias, ranging from online dating to mobile dating or hookup apps on their phones.
Instagram, which launched in 2010 has grown significantly over the last few years. This mobile photo-sharing and networking app allows for users to share images or videos--either privately or publicly. It was bought by Facebook for $1billion in 2012. Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 500 million monthly users.
Who's Out There?: Gay Beards
A simple google search of "instagram and gay" first brought up a list of several frequently sought hashtags (#thenexttopgay, #gaymen, #thegaybeards) as well as varied articles and brief pieces on instagram and gay users.
|Source: +The Gay Beards|
their instagram I found there have been a large variety of often entertaining beard decor pics by these two friends (over 400 posts) and they are being followed by over 260,000. It appears the same two men are heavy influencers for the emergence of both the flower beard and glitter beard trends on instagram -- which were then replicated by a variety of other men. Given the nature of social media, it is challenging to fully gauge the initiators of such trends--but one can certainly gauge the influencers. The trend became so popular that Brian and Johnathan @thegaybeards created a youtube video on "How to Glitter Beard" -- it has now been viewed over 550,000 times. In addition to their instgramming, they are creating approximately weekly youtube videos and active in a variety of social media platforms.
|image source: Marcos Chamizo/BuzzFeed|
While much of what is out there about instagram and gay culture appears to focus particularly upon aesthetics (such as "The 9 Hottest Accounts on Instgram" and InstaHunks). While research certainly has spoken to the body-centric nature of gay culture over the last decades, with particular emphases upon being slender, fit, and muscular, these norms are perpetuated across multiple forms of media. It used to be that gay men were primarily being influenced by television and magazines, but now social media is infiltrating the psyche of these users.
As written about by Alfredo Murillo (2016) in I'm Gay and Instagram is Ruining My Life, it is not just about comparing one's body to that of models anymore, but you can now compare it to other seemingly "average" gay men -- or in Murillo's case, his own neighbor! Now, through instragram, is exposed to the beautiful bodies that may typically be hidden in clothing in our daily lives and led to compare ourselves with those who appear to have jobs and lives like our own--and question whether we measure up. One can now see the activity efforts of one's peers, their muscle-clad bodies, and such -- but we can might also forget the amount of time some may put into the filters and tweaking of those images before they are posted. All the same, body shame and guilt can undoubtedly emerge...while still relishing in the voyeuristic joys of seeing others.
Instagram and the Gay Family
Out Magazine, in addition to the aforementioned piece on Instahunks also has published pieces such as 26 Adorable Gay InstaCouples (2015)--while primarily focused on gay men's couples, was also inclusive of some images of those with children. Cain's (2015) earlier mentioned piece also spoke to the imagery of gay couples, gay weddings, and made reference to emerging imagery of gay families.
Instagram accounts among users in the lgbt community can help peers and the general public have a visceral connection to the lives of gay and lesbian families (for example, @2mums_2dads which celebrates the diversity of lgbt parenting families or the more broad #gayfamilies). What one sees may expand their view of the "normal family" -- however, I suspect the majority of followers of these types of instagrams are themselves LGBT and are seeing these images as affirming to their personal identities, aspirations, or community diversity. Certainly, some heterosexuals are also following, but I am led to ponder how this engagement may then intersect with being seen as cultural sensitive, politically correct, or even slacktivism.
Instagram: Looking at the Literature
Having explored a bit of the popular culture and internet published materials on instagram and lgbt communities, I thought I would delve into the academic literature a bit. However, using Ebscohost revealed a dearth of work in this particular population/community. Simply searching "instagram" elicited a result of over 25,000 pieces---across a myriad of relevant topics, with over 600 references being explicitly linked to peer-reviewed materials. However, a search of "instagram + gay" brought up only seven references (across all types of sources), which were to news pieces on celebrity coming out, Fantasia Barrino's (American Idol) commentary on gay marriage in 2013, and pieces about the football player William Gay. Searching "instagram + lgbt" was even less fruitful. The only related search that produced any useful connection was "instagram + queer" which led me to the book, Communities and Technology: Enhancements in HIV-prevention research and practice among adolescents and young adults, by Sheana Bull, Tarik Walker, and Deb Levin (2014). While undoubtedly social media, including instagram, is offering a venue to both educate and provide social support for HIV prevention in this community, I find it concerning that this appears to be one of the few academic pieces that is examining gay/lgbt communities and instagram in any manner. I'm confident it is a useful piece--but when this is seemingly the only piece, it may serve to reinforce cultural stereotypes of HIV and LGBT communities to the average American.
It is clear that instagram is a growing area of academic inquiry -- across topics of user rates, different consumer bases, as a marketing tool, as an activism forum, etc -- but this is not translating into an exploration of an lgbt consumer base, despite seemingly high rates of participation and use of this social media tool.
What Does it All Mean?
Digging into this topic has left me both impressed by the degree instragram has entered the popular culture dialogue in connection to the lgbt community as well as disappointed. There are LGBT persons who are using instagram to create fun dialogues and visibility, those who are using it to market themselves and making a living, those using it to perpetuate ideals of beauty and those who are challenging them, and those who are looking to demonstrate the diversity that is embodied within the queer community. It is a broad, accessible, social networking resource for people to connect with others over vast distances or within their same neighborhood. It is disappointing that more social research has yet to investigate lgbt communities and the constructions of these images and how they intersect with followers/subscribers and likes -- but this also leaves a rich field for investigation.