how instagram can be a weapon against the erasure of lesbian culture

Kelly Rakowski of @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y has joined countless others in using the democracy of the web to not only make sure their voices are heard, but assure others’ aren’t forgotten.

by Wendy Syfret
07 June 2016, 2:45am

Photo by John Storey, 1971.

When Kelly Rakowski started her Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y in 2014, the New York based photo editor and textile designer didn't expect it to be more than a way to share interesting lesbian content with her friends. But barely two years and almost 43k followers later, it has emerged as an unexpected and beloved archive of queer history.

She was motivated to create a space specifically dedicated to the preservation of lesbian culture after observing a lack of lesbian representation online. Realising there was a gap in her own knowledge, Kelly told i-D: "I wanted to learn more and I've had many friends along the way point me to books, film, people who I should know and feature on Herstory."

New York City Pride Parade, 1985. Photo by Ferninando Scianna.

While documenting her self-education in such a public visual diary, Kelly was surprised by how difficult it was to find images of lesbians or queer women compared to gay men. She explains that this realisation "inspired me further to comb through and share images of determined lesbian culture. It's about keeping it alive, making it visible."

Sourcing content from various archives, as well as from followers, friends and pop culture unfolding around her, the feed is consciously "intellectual-lite." While her focus crosses books, films, writers, musicians, athletes, actors and activists she muses that "under the umbrella of Lesbian Culture a lot can happen." She's as interested in images of 1970s pride protests as screen shots of the L WORD and portraits of Jodie Foster in the 80s. Her goal is to keep the content not only accessible, but also balanced. Not all parts of a lesbian heritage are about struggle or oppression, and she's quick to recognise the role popular and celebrity culture play in the lesbian experience.

A mother taking part in a1989 San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover.

After years of doing this, she's drawn to images that tell more personal stories. When asked by i-D if she has a favourite post she hesitates before describing a recent clip of a young couple lying in Central Park. "One of the girls is wearing a tank top with DO IT! printed across it, and in the background you can hear a speaker exclaiming, 'The hard stories are endless. Right to be a lesbian, but a lesbian doesn't have right to be a mother…' There is just so much going on in that one post."

Beyond Instagram, across the internet individuals are creating ways to use the democracy of the web to not only make sure their voices are heard, but assure others' aren't forgotten. On Facebook the Ubuntu Biography Project host a collections of tributes to LGBTQ men and women of African descent, while A Queer History of Fashion examines the role clothes have played in the progression of queer rights. Tumblr also has The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and TransHistorical, both are committed to telling the stories of under-sung activists and icons.

NYC Gay Pride Parade chill zone, 2001 Photo by Ferdinando Scianna.

Building on the popularity of the project and the impressive audience it has amassed, Kelly has now teamed up with her friend Ainara Tiefenthaeler to launch a Herstory newsletter. It will allow the pair to move beyond the restrictions of a single image and caption and continue to explore forgotten moments in personal histories. Content will include republished essays from the 80s as well as interviews and features on women they look up to. 


International Women's Year Conference, Houston, 1977. Photographer unknown.

Illustration from 1979 documentary 'WITCHES, FAGGOTS, DYKES AND POOFTERS'.

A button 1989 marking the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Illustration by Alison Bechdel, manufactured by Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. From the collection of Dorothy Marder.

NYC March Against Media Arrogance (MAMA) participant, 1975. Photo by Betty Lane.

Page excerpt from 'Refractory Girl', a women's studies journal based in Australia. "The Lesbian Issue", Summer 1974.

NYC Pride March, 1994. Photographer unknown.

Still from 'Gay March NYC, July 1971'. Film by Phyllis Birkby via the Womens History Archives at Smith College.


Text Wendy Syfret
Images via @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y

queer culture
lesbian culture
kelly rakowski
lesbian history