If you can immediately identify what milk alternatives, eyebrow slits, astrological charts, cottagecore aesthetics, Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” cuffed pants, and girl in red have in common, you’ve probably landed on the gay side of TikTok — or, maybe, the gay side of Instagram’s “Explore” page. In any case, you’re in on the joke.
From newsgroups and chat rooms to LiveJournal and Tumblr, queer culture and humor has flourished online since the conception of the internet. But over the past several years, queer memes have morphed into their own world, community, and language full of hyper-specific references, trends, and tropes. “The specifics are what make them really good,” Kate “Hina” Sabatine, a 24-year-old artist, TikToker, and content creator from Los Angeles, CA, tells Refinery29 over the phone.
Sabatine shared their first video in March 2020, and today, they have over 475,000 followers. Their TikToks often brim with specific references — in one video, Sabatine manages to reference rising signs, veganism, trips to Home Depot, and Shego from Kim Possible in under two minutes. There’s also a joke about Dakota Johnson’s Architectural Digest home tour. “Everyone really resonated with that, and I didn’t even know that was a gay thing,” Sabatine says.
There is something undeniably queer about Johnson’s home — personally, I chalk it up to her impressive collection of antiques, or maybe her lime green kitchen cabinets. But that’s besides the point, which is that memes can be subjective, and they can originate anywhere. Some come from Twitter, Tumblr, or popular culture; some have withstood years or even decades. One of the canon’s most classic punchlines, about U-Haul lesbians, can be traced back to a 1988 joke from Lea DeLaria. “What does a lesbian bring on the second date?” the joke goes. “A U-Haul.”
In recent years, TikTok has become the birthplace of many queer in-jokes and memes. After queer Norwegian singer-songwriter Marie Ulven (who uses the stage name “girl in red”) became a lesbian icon for writing queer love songs, the question “Do you listen to girl in red?” became a code for, “Are you a lesbian?”
The meme, as memes almost always do, evolved. Somewhere along the way, bisexuals on the app created their own coded answer: “No, I listen to ‘Sweater Weather.’” It’s unclear how or why bisexual users came to claim this indie rock song — which was released eight years ago as a single by the band The Neighbourhood — but in an essay for Unpublished Zine, writer Golda Grais speculated that the song evokes a sense of nostalgia for Tumblr circa 2014. At the time “Sweater Weather” blew up, teenagers online were rabidly reblogging pictures of Dr. Martens, moody Halsey quotes, and high-waisted shorts — all of which, arguably, give off a somewhat bisexual aura.
At least, according to TikTok they do. To date, a TikTok sound sampling the 2013 single has over 473,000 videos on the app. In 2020, many TikTokers even started coming out as bisexual to their followers via videos of themselves standing, dancing, or cuffing their jeans as the song’s chorus plays in the background.
The pandemic has only broadened the queer meme landscape, and made it all the more paramount. Charmee, a 29-year-old from Los Angeles, CA, created a TikTok account devoted to bisexuality and astrology — appropriately titled @bi_astrology — in April 2020. “I really wanted to start an account that could be a bi-positive place for other bi folks to come to and just feel safe,” Charmee tells Refinery29. She followed some queer accounts and some astrology pages, but wanted to see more content that specifically related to her experiences — that is, “the femme aspect of my identity, or the Black aspect of my identity, or the astrological aspect of things that I find interesting as well.”
When Charmee first started making memes, she was quarantined in L.A. But soon, she moved back home to “a small, conservative town in Pennsylvania,” and sharing her own content started to take on a new level of importance. “Going back after living in L.A., I was like, I am really experiencing just feeling so isolated, and it was rough,” she recalls. “It was during an election, it was such a critical time. There was a racial uprising happening, George Floyd. There was so much happening. And it was so cool to be able to post about how as a bisexual femme, as a bi, Black femme, I was experiencing these very specific experiences and people were like, ‘I am experiencing that, too.’”
Charmee notes that there’s a secret “shared language” that goes into all the best memes: “Do you listen to ‘Sweater Weather?’” and “Is he… you know?” might make zero sense to someone outside the LGBTQ+ community (or someone who stays offline, at least). But meme culture is just the latest in a long, storied timeline of queer languages, codes, and slang. There was Polari, a 20th century British slang form often used as a code to suss out other gay people or protect oneself from prosecution. Additionally, the ballroom lexicon, originated by Black and Latinx trans women in Harlem’s drag ball scene, still informs a lot of queer slang used today.
In 1994, William Leap, PhD, a professor of anthropology, coined the term “lavender linguistics” to describe the specific language used by queer people. In his 1996 book Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English, Leap explained that coded language helps “confirm gay identity during informal conversations between strangers in public places.” But, as he wrote in the 2007 anthology Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader, queer language has never just been about safety; it also helps individuals “describe, interpret, and account for the new directions now taking shape within their lives.”
Community is also an important part of language, especially among queer people. And it’s always been a part of meme culture, too: After watching a show, experiencing something painful, or even reading the news, someone can log onto Twitter or TikTok and find an endless supply of jokes, observations, and witty exchanges. Boiled down to its essence, a meme is kind of like an inside joke that welcomes anyone, which can be affirming in an invaluable way if you grow up feeling like you’re, well, on the outside of mainstream conversations about identity, dating, sex, gender, and more. Queer memes, Sabatine says, “can be funny, but it’s also like, ‘Hey, we all kind of feel like that. Isn’t that kind of cool?’”
Boiled down to its essence, a meme is kind of like an inside joke that welcomes anyone.
In particular, Sabatine points to a funny TikTok from a nonbinary creator. “It was a nonbinary meme where this person was trying to explain their gender, and they’re like, ‘I’m not a boy, but I’m not a girl, but sometimes I like wearing dresses, but sometimes it makes me want to gag.’ Just going on about the dichotomy of the nonbinary experience,” they say. “And I think that, for me, really validated my experience and gender expression.”
Lola Trifunovic, the 21-year-old creator behind @princessdyke, says she’s sometimes surprised by how much her followers identify with her content. “It’s interesting because I only have myself as my wealth of knowledge and how to be relatable to thousands of lesbians,” she tells Refinery29. Recently, she shared a meme about her girlfriend supporting her during a premenstrual breakdown, and got over a hundred comments. Many followers wrote that they could relate; others tagged their partners. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. I really thought this one was going to be way too niche for you guys.’ So it’s exciting when I kind of don’t just go through to the main stereotypes [like] U-Haul and actually get super specific, and mutuals still relate.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, community and connection have become all the more important. Trifunovic, who started posting her own memes three years ago, says her account has seen “good progress” this past year. “Everyone’s resorting to that community online,” she says. “But another interesting thing is, a lot of people don’t even have that community without quarantine.”
Sometimes, this online community can cross over into real life. Cheyenne, the 24-year-old behind @hotmessbian, used to create “matchmaking posts” for their 170,000 Instagram followers, and in 2020, they decided to launch a second account, @hotmessbianhotties, to help followers find local friends, hookups, and dates. “I know so many people have made connections from the Hotties account, and just in the [@hotmessbian] comments, even,” they tell Refinery29. Cheyenne, for their part, has made friends through Instagram, and even gone on Zoom dates.
Multiple studies have shown that social media has a negative impact on mental health, but other research indicates that it can have a very different effect on LGBTQ+ youth, who might not otherwise have a safe space to express themselves and find answers, a community, and relatable content. According to a 2021 study, apps like Instagram and TikTok can help queer users “maintain critical access to emotional support, develop their identities, find important information,” and, of course, “be entertained.”
A good queer meme can help on all four counts. Take one of Sabatine’s most popular TikToks, in which they take on the role of a lesbian on their first coffee date: As the joke goes, it only takes minutes for the conversation to turn into a very serious, meaningful one about past relationships, boundaries, and deep connections. Many commenters laugh at the accuracy of Sabatine’s videos and reply that they feel seen, but others write that they want to experience that, too — that there’s something calming about watching Sabatine’s TikToks and imagining what it would be like to accidentally go on a ten-hour first date with an Aquarius sun, Scorpio moon.
TikTok and Instagram are both ruled by Gen Z, which is often dubbed the queerest generation yet. And notably, on both apps, even the sad, embarrassing, and awkward videos and memes carry an undercurrent of comfort, joy, and hope. In 2020, LGBTQ+ TikTokers started sharing their glow-up videos, poking fun at how uncomfortable and unhappy they looked when they thought they were (or were presenting as) straight or cisgender. Many memes reference internalized homophobia, ignorant questions from cishet friends, and the challenges of coming out to family members. But somehow, they rarely feel bleak.
Cheyenne agrees, especially when I bring up the moody world of gay Tumblr. “I will go back through my old Tumblr posts and a lot of them are like, ‘I’m so sad, I just want to kiss a girl, I want a girlfriend,” she says. Today, “I do see stuff like that, but it’s usually twisted in a funny light and not necessarily people feeling bad about themselves.”
A lot has been said about the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in the media — specifically, the importance of representing love and community instead of trauma, and the importance of amplifying all kinds of queer voices. With more and more popular shows and music centered around queer joy, the tides have been turning online, too. But still, content creators are acutely aware that queer pop culture has a diversity problem. Cheyenne typically uses popular meme formats and film stills to make her memes, but sometimes, “it’s hard to find something that isn’t a thin, cis, white woman and her thin, white, cis femme partner,” they say. “Even if you want to make a meme about a butch or stud, that’s not really out there.”
There’s a duality, though. Memes have the power to create queer representation as much as they reflect it. “I’ve noticed some other people I follow started doing this, so then, I also started. It can be tricky, but they’ll take random characters and just edit them, have them in beanies and colorful hair and nose rings, maybe a shaved side of their head,” Cheyenne says. “You kind of have to create your own content, because it’s not there.”
And visibility, especially on TikTok, can be vital. It’s why Sabatine loves the app so much. “The algorithm allows nearly any person the opportunity to go viral,” they tell Refinery29. “If I would’ve seen someone like me, who is a nonbinary lesbian, on the internet when I was their age, I wouldn’t have gone through such an immense period of hating myself or putting myself in the closet or participating in compulsory heterosexuality.”
Memes help us find each other while making us laugh, which matters in the wake of an impossibly dark year. They let us create our own representation. And they give us a realm in which we can celebrate the awkward, funny, stereotypical, and beautifully universal parts of being queer, whether it’s drinking oat milk to crushing on Zendaya to trying to discern whether someone is… well. You know.