What queer Instagram can teach us about building community: Why brands should be more gay

As Pride months draws to a close, Senior Editor Suky Stroud explores what brands can learn about community from the queer community on social.

Here we are, at the end of another sweaty, rainy Pride month. Rainbow weather. And that auspicious time of year when Logo_Pride1080.png gets its long-awaited screen time… Yes, the well-intentioned pinkwashing really is back again for another year: From the Royal Mint’s scrrreaming 50p coin, to Burger King Austria’s confusing Whoppers. The memes make themselves.

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It’s always a bitter-sweet time of year for queer people. As we celebrate 50 years of Pride in the UK, mainstream media is platforming ‘debates’ about whether trans people deserve to exist, and racism is apparently still rife even within Pride organisations. Easy to be cynical about it all, isn’t it? 

However, in a dramatic departure from this dearly beloved industry tradition – slagging off organisations doing Pride wrong – maybe it’s time we focused on actual LGBTQ+ people? Why we’re so excellent – and how brands could channel a little of that big gay energy for themselves, instead of strategically co-opting and commercialising it. 

Now, we all know that queers are better than straights at everything. Cowboy hats. The act of longing. Throwing weddings. Salad… And community – us queer people have it by the shedload. 

Never the only gay in the village
Growing up marginalised and isolated, community isn’t just about socialising for many LGBTQ+ people – it can be a matter of survival. Perhaps that’s why we seem to have an almost supernatural ability to find it. You could call it gaydar… Or, according to a 2012 study by Sheffield Hallam University, feeling an ‘intangible’ connection to other lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people. For them, they discovered, community is as much a sense of ‘belonging’ as it is a physical space, a chosen family, a shared experience – or even a meme page. 

Queerness finds a way
When you’ve spent so long without it, getting that sweet hit of belonging becomes addictive. Lucky that in my part of London, we have a primo grade supply. You can go weeks without needing to leave your tiny gay bubble. Sometimes I do. And then more clubs, events, classes, projects, businesses, sprout up to lure me back in…

For them, Instagram is the perfect hot-house. From fetish brands to fundraisers to football leagues to funghi walks. Online discovery, offline connection, over and over. Extrapolate this local social phenomenon, and you begin to get a sense of just how expert queer people must be at building communities, always with both real life people and social media at their heart.

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So, what’s our secret? In my mind, there are a few. 

How to build community like you’re queer

1. Get physical 
Not in that sense – although there is a trope about friend groups where everyone’s your ex – but in that these communities are galvanised by IRL roots: meet-ups, protests, markets, club nights. Further case in point: after decades of closures, sorely needed queer spaces are popping back up. Partly because that physical proximity has been undervalued. 

Now, I am famously not a neuroscientist. Nevertheless, I’m quite sure there’s some brain gubbins involved here… We are all simple creatures who need to be seen and touched, ultimately. (Sorry, metaverse, but I’m not fully sold.)

And so for brands? Retail space, stunts, events, or even sponsorship of local initiatives can play a role. Standard. But why not think social-first? Create community by facilitating that one-on-one connection like (controversial) author Florence Given does. She regularly drops posts encouraging like-minded fans to comment and link up locally. 

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You could find inspiration in Queering The Map, a community-powered project creating a cartographical archive of stories spanning the globe – 197,000 and counting. What would your audience’s experiences look like in a digital format? How can you give space to real people at the heart of your community? How could you help them feel seen, understood, and together?

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Or, take blurring online-offline further, like DJ collective Queer House Party. Their legendary streams exploded from a locked-down houseshare into full blown ‘IRL/URL’ club nights. A pioneering ethos of radical accessibility helped keep their community tight. They continued to centre all fans, even those who now aren’t comfortable or able to attend physically – they party via Zoom, projected slap bang in the middle of the stage. 

2. Small is good
You’ll probably have noticed that all of these communities seem unapologetically, vocally queer – Queer Brewing, Bender Defenders, Lez Bags. Yes, that acronym is one thing that unites them, but they’re more than that. More varied, more niche. 

Because queers know that difference is what makes us. So we give yet more space to it, building homes for our beautifully concrete passions, experiences, and causes. Sometimes heady combinations of all three: craft cans funding visibility in the brewing industry, muay thai for self-defence against rising trans hate crime… or simply, ‘clear bags for queer fags’. 

For brands, the takeaway here is that grassroots are strong roots. And once you’ve got a hold, starting small and slow, your community is better placed to bloom. Queer House Party were once a few anarchist pals in a kitchen, and now, thanks to the strength of their community, they’re playing a packed out Wembley. Same applies to memes, as it does to marketing – the more specific you are, the stronger the pull will be for the people who do relate, the stronger your community.

3. Have an agenda
Hate to break it to ya – the gays do have an agenda. Well, several, probably – we’re not one homogenous group. But what I’m saying is: a cause to rally behind unites humans. In fact, to bring us full circle, it was the catalyst for the very first Pride, in the wake of the Stonewall uprising. 

“Nothing brings a community together like mutual aid and support for each other,” to quote many a queer’s favourite tattoo artist, Billy Slicks. Just look at the reaction to Jake Daniels’ coming out: a compelling display of solidarity from football fans from all walks of life.

Whether it’s harnessed for a personal cause, like Billy – who donates their profits to gender-affirming surgeries – or for a political cause: queer communities find power in intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989). This is the idea that because all identities overlap, we have a duty to actively fight oppression of all kinds. 

Hearteningly, companies are stepping up to this challenge to put the ‘business case’ aside, to brave the backlash. Even if it’s a bit scary. And even if, on a surface level, it doesn’t really seem ‘relevant’ to them. Your brand, like Bungie Games when they stood their ground on universal access to abortion, might find this ruffles a few feathers in your community. You also, like them, may find it helps you build a stronger one.

True allyship. There’s no doubt it’s a force for good… when it’s authentic. And true authenticity? That comes from self-reflection. About the real role you need to play, about who you’re trying to represent, and why. So, what better way to end this all than with a tricky question for marketers to ponder on, over an M&S LGBT sandwich: Is another Pride campaign really the most helpful way for us to show up for LGBTQ+ people… or are we just in it for the KPIs?