Visual Culture

Tumblr Helped a Generation of LGBTQ+ Artists Come of Age

Kelsey Ables
Jun 25, 2019 2:59PM

Laurence Philomene, me vs others - molly soda as me, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah Maxwell’s pink-hued, sultry illustrations look like Roy Lichtenstein paintings with a lesbian twist. But unlike Lichtenstein, who had an abundance of readymade heteronormative tropes to satirize, Maxwell’s work doubles down on sincerity. Her cigarette-smoking, lovesick queer girls are unapologetically dramatic, reveling in the spotlight. Maxwell, whose graphic novel-esque illustrations have appeared in Wired and Playboy, traces her inspiration back to Tumblr, which she joined over a decade ago. “I was always searching for lesbian visibility in the media, whether it was in TV shows, movies, or art, but there was hardly any,” she said. Encouraged by the growing LGBTQ+ presence on the platform, she began her drawing practice “to get the representation that [she] craved.”


When Tumblr launched in 2007, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in full effect, marriage equality across the U.S. was eight years away, and a mere 1.1 percent of regular characters on broadcast television identified as LGBTQ+. (Among them, so many were killed off, it became a running joke in the gay community.) The internet offered new means of connection for a group that historically relied on covert signals and underground bars to find each other. Tumblr expanded that digital haven, making space for more positive, deliberate depictions of queerness: loving illustrations of gay couples, binary-breaking self-portraiture, and eclectic zines and comics exploring themes long ignored by publishers.

Today, with increasingly streamlined social media platforms, spaces for creative expression and collaboration can already feel limited, but the landscape is especially suffocating for LGBTQ+ creators. Earlier this month, YouTube refused to classify homophobic comments as harassment. Facebook and Instagram’s notoriously stringent community guidelines have drawn criticism for marginalizing non-binary bodies. Tumblr, long seen as the zany cousin of these more buttoned-up social sites, has moved away from its irreverent roots, and incited ire across the web over a controversial decision last December to ban all nude content. Creators who use the body to explore gender and sexuality have had years of content suddenly removed.

Courtesy of Jua O'Kane.

It wasn’t the first time Tumblr alienated its loyal queer userbase. In 2013, just after Yahoo bought the platform, Tumblr blocked #gay, #lesbian, and #bisexual hashtags on their iOS app’s search feature, and, in 2017, a blip in a new content filtering system temporarily censored LGBTQ+ content. Still, despite these missteps, in its heyday, Tumblr defined a generation of artists’ coming-out experiences and understanding of representation.

Queer creators overwhelmingly describe Tumblr’s early community as close and intimate. Unlike Facebook, Tumblr’s tendency toward anonymity leaves users free to shape their identity how they pleased and, unlike Twitter, the commenting system is more contained, disincentivizing bullying and curtailing the spread of hate speech. Hobbes Ginsberg, a Los Angeles–based photographer who grew up in Nicaragua, believes the emotional openness fostered on Tumblr is rooted in the intertwining of images and text. “Because it was so multimedia, it lent itself to talking about things next to sharing images,” she said. “I made a lot of really personal and vulnerable text posts alongside my photo work.” Today’s platforms, she added, are not as conducive to that vulnerability. “You can’t free-flow, diary-post on Twitter.”

Arvida Byström, a Swedish photographer, added that these longer text posts also allowed for political and social discourse to emerge. Nuanced discussions of identity cultivated vibrant and diverse LGBTQ+ subcommunities. When Nevhada, an illustrator who runs the zine queer-spirit, joined Tumblr around 2010, she wasn’t familiar with the lexicon of gender and sexuality, having been raised in a small Italian town. “I just knew what I had felt towards other people,” she said. On Tumblr, she found the words to describe what she felt.

Arvida Byström
What happens in may stays in may 1, 2015
Annka Kultys Gallery

Such a culture laid the foundation for more mainstream inclusivity down the road. Alex Norris, the artist behind the popular comic Webcomic Name, noted, “Tumblr was the first place I saw accounts announcing their pronouns and gender/sexual identities at the top.” It was standard, Norris added, for many artists, not just those making art with LGBTQ+ themes.

Tumblr’s reblog feature made the platform less performative and more participatory. Users weren’t just posting for likes, but became curators of an ongoing, massive group exhibition that included artists’ work alongside found media. Subcommunities recirculated imagery from queer film classics like But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) and Paris is Burning (1990). Political commentary lived alongside GIFs from the show The L-Word (2004–2009), explainers about LGBTQ+ flags, and darkly humorous memes about coming out. Andre Cavalcante, a professor of LGBT media studies at the University of Virginia, described how this mixing and matching of visual imagery on Tumblr is better suited to queer communities, allowing users to craft an identity that is “patchwork, dynamic, and evolving,” and “express[es] an emergent identity in a way that sites such as Facebook and Twitter simply do not allow.”

Liberal Jane, Save the Binary, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Until 2017, Tumblr’s dashboard was chronological, affording everyone an equal shot at visibility. Rather than silo users off in algorithm-driven, interest-oriented echo chambers, the original dashboard facilitated the intermingling ideas and discovery of new subcultures. “It was usual to see that the person who reblogged that Lord of the Rings meme has a post about the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality or transgender rights in India,” Norris explained.

For artists posting original work, reblogs offered a way to find like-minded creators. Ginsberg was drawn toward the “sea punk” look—a Tumblr aesthetic that blended nautical motifs with ’90s nostalgia and spawned an art, fashion, and music movement. Her work was reblogged alongside artists like Laurence Philomene, who took cues from “the classic Tumblr aesthetics: the pastels, the still lifes, the slightly shocking but hyperfeminine,” they said (Philomene uses they/them pronouns). The artists, who became friends IRL, were similarly inspired by Tumblr’s visual trends, including “vaporwave” and “soft grunge.” They featured nostalgia-inducing soft palettes, moody gazes, and dreamy settings, contributing to the introspective, cinematic atmosphere that came to define the platform.

Tumblr’s collaborative framework was also conducive to fan communities. For many users, fandom played an important role in the coming-out process. Maya Kern, an illustrator who makes body positive illustrations, got into Tumblr through digital comic fandom. “The character I felt most strongly drawn to was a lesbian, and I was like ‘hey, this is weird, what does this mean?’” Kern recalled.

But it was not all acceptance and community, Kern noted that even within the LGBTQ+ community, some identities were not treated with the same legitimacy as others. And on the quest for social justice and tolerance, “a lot of discourse that started with good intentions turned into a really weird mess of people fighting to be the most outraged person in the room.” Today, she said, the community has fragmented, polluted by infighting and hate speech.

Spurring on Tumblr’s demise is the sanitization of the site. Scrolling through Philomene’s abandoned page offers a glimpse of the consequences of the nudity ban. Littered between their photos are notes from Tumblr: a post containing “adult content” has been hidden from public view. Still, what’s left on their page—solo portraits featuring symbols of femininity: florals, hairbows, and bright orange wigs in Philomene’s likeness—reflect the kinds of representation that flourished on Tumblr during its prime.

The deterioration of Tumblr’s community marks the downfall of one of the last sites where the charm and adventure of the early internet still lingered. Social media platforms have become more homogenous, dominating over the web’s earlier eccentricities: DIY GeoCities sites, hyper-customizable MySpace profiles, rambling web forums. If Instagram’s purpose is to brand and sell your identity, Tumblr was founded as a space to question and explore it. In that way, it was always a little queer.

Kelsey Ables