The Narcissism of Queer Influencer Activists

Getting a lot of likes on a specious infographic is a bad way to build a brand

oung man Holding Smartphone With a Rainbow or Pride Flag
Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images
Jason Okundaye
it gets better

I grow tired of “queer influencer activists.” You may or may not know the type. Their Instagram feeds are composed of infographics, screenshots of their own or (usually) other people’s tweets, sandwiched between selfies with long captions saying nothing at all. Their modus operandi is creating share-able or easily digestible content which a social media follower can repost because all of the thinking has already been done for them. This is designed to make the copious amounts of complex information circulating online less overwhelming, like a SparkNotes for someone who wants to be able to drop, “yes, and isn’t it ironic how conservatives refuse to wear masks but would wear them during the AIDS crisis to avoid catching it?” in a group chat or in affected conversation in a club smoking area.

Through a combination of self-assertion and a collective culture of low standards, these influencers have established themselves as thought leaders — particularly when it comes to finding the “queer angle” on whatever latest news item, whether serious or banal. If you spend any time observing queer social media, these people become inescapable. Maybe you side-eye when you see a follower mindlessly reshare a graphic from that same account again, or perhaps you yourself throw something a “like” while passively scrolling. It’s a great engagement strategy for the influencer — calls to “share,” “save,” and (my favorite) “boost this post” equate so-called “algorithm-defiance” (gaming Instagram’s system of prioritizing or hiding posts by using all engagement tools) with activism through digital communication. Resharing an infographic about “how to be a good ally during Pride month” or whatever is presented as akin to tweeting during the Arab Spring.

Beyond simply being annoying, the bigger problem is that the content and claims these influencers post are so often specious. Many of their posts, endlessly reshared, fall into a category of folk knowledge I call “things that sound true, and so must be true.” The verification system many followers use to vet the accuracy of these posts seems to be pure vibes. A sense that, because what is written feasibly aligns with a vague understanding of structural oppression, then it is undeniably true, and unquestionable.

One particularly irksome example of this recently came from the influencer activist and author Adam Eli, who has over 100,000 Instagram followers. In a tweet, which was copied to Instagram, Eli wrote in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “In times of war, marginalized people are always hit first. This includes queer people, especially trans people. Below is a list of organizations that are helping queer people in the Ukraine.” This is incoherent, of course. The Russian invasion has launched an indiscriminate bombing campaign which endangers all Ukrainians, regardless of identity. But I nevertheless saw this claim shared across Instagram stories countless times.

Many of their posts, endlessly reshared, fall into a category of folk knowledge I call “things that sound true, and so must be true.”

It’s understandable why. The proliferation of an ill-defined and silly version of intersectionality discourse online has made it such that every event and circumstance is instantly framed in terms of its alleged effects on marginalized groups. This isn’t a bad instinct, but systems of oppression are complex, there is not a one-size-fits-all model for how different communities are affected by those in power. The rapid, reactive nature of online discourse is antithetical to nuanced understanding. It compels the social justice-minded among us to frame all events and all circumstances through the idea that, within a complex chain of oppression, we can universally expect outcomes to be worst felt by the most socially marginalized groups. This simply does not apply to Ukraine. Ukraine has military conscription, with reservists, men, and boys obligated to stay and fight against invading forces. While Ukrainian women have been granted the right to fight in combat since 2016, and conscription has been expanded to women, the reality is still that the majority of soldiers are men and boys. The country is reported to have banned all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 from fleeing the country. What has any of this to do with queerness?

Any serious assessment of gender as it operates in the context of war would understand that these men and boys are victims — war inflicts a cold and broken masculinity which physically and psychologically damages men, often beyond repair. If we’re to introduce axes of exploitation, it is poor and working-class men, whose lives are literally disposable during wartime, that are sent off to die to protect the interests of an elite class of overlords. Certainly many of them will be queer, but that is not the subject position upon which they are being recruited to fight for their country. Marginalized groups of course face specific harms that relate to their social position. On conquered lands, women often become victims of mass sexual violence from invading forces. And certainly I support donations to The Ukrainian’s Women’s Guard which work to prepare women for the extreme conditions of wartime. As we are seeing, racial hierarchies in Europe have meant that Ukrainian nationals are enabled to escape occupation while African medical students are left to languish at the border. Certainly too, queer people face the prospect of political imprisonment and restrictions of freedom. But this “first hit” analysis centered singularly on queerness is not only unable to track the specific short- and long-term harms faced, it actually obfuscates them.

Many claim that these kinds of posts are well-meaning and attempt to elevate alternative voices, but the thoughtlessness underpinning much of it is striking. In Eli’s example, their suggestion of donations needing to be distributed to groups such as Kyiv Pride and NGO Insight is an odd choice. I looked at the social media profiles of some of the groups recommended to donate to, finding posts about “aromantic spectrum awareness week,” and wondered why these would be the priority. With no disrespect to these organizations, who surely do need donations and resources at large, wouldn’t it be more sensible to direct funds to groups which provide disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and can transport people out of conflict zones — services which would inevitably have a net positive impact on queer Ukrainians? Individuals in the comments section of Eli’s Instagram pointed out this issue, but they seem to have been ignored.

There is a deeply rooted narcissism that lies at the heart of a lot of online queer politics. Queer influencer activists scramble to frame all things through queerness as it allows them to insert themselves into narratives for issues which have nothing much to do with them at all. Eli has a history of this. In fact, this urge has informed their own writing, presenting the theory that “queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere” in their book The New Queer Conscience. It’s a bizarre claim — an impossibly high burden to meet if sincerely held beyond the playground of infographics and paint-by-numbers activism guides. It leads not so much to humane concerns with international crises, but a centering of the feeling and savior instincts of queer people living in the global north. This mentality has that same smug flavor of “I’m illegal in 72 countries,” and can easily be used as the pre-text for imperial aims of liberating queer people from savages of their nations. As Daniel Spielberger writes in a review of Eli’s work, it is dependent on a flattening of liberation struggles which have little to do with each other — “drawing up a web of oppression that links gay men in Chechnya to Black transgender women in the United States reflects a highly superficial understanding of what are in reality quite disparate issues.” I suppose it means that Eli, or any of their passionate Western followers, could imagine that they, too, are a queer person fleeing heavy bombardment in Kyiv, and that this is the only lens through which they can empathize with a colonized people.

This “first hit” analysis centered singularly on queerness is not only unable to track the specific short and long-term harms faced, it actually obfuscates them.

Eli is just one of many culprits. I was particularly wound up by a recent, now-deleted, tweet from influencer activist Matt Bernstein, posted on Instagram to 967,000 users and tweeted to 126,000 people, both under the handle @mattxiv. In response to a Terrence Higgins Trust statement that claimed “the number of new HIV diagnoses in heterosexual people is higher than in gay and bisexual men for the first time in a decade,” Bernstein responded, “that’s crazy will they be allowed to donate blood?” It’s the kind of frog-and-teacup emoji one-liner that’s instantly rewarded with virality. Before deletion, the post had over 12,000 retweets, 50,000 likes, and was shared absolutely everywhere. But this comment from Bernstein was not smart, it was actively offensive, and in fact cruel. It rests on the preposterous idea that the “heterosexual people” being infected are a homogeneous blob composed of middle-class conservative white men who manage over discriminatory blood donation laws.

This is not the case. Among straight people in the United Kingdom, HIV incidence is most sharply felt among migrant groups, and particularly Black Africans. In 2017, 46 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women were Black African, compared to 23 percent among white women, with HIV being transmitted via heterosexual sex. Bernstein’s sassy dunk does not account for this — nor for the fact that a number of ethnic minority groups beyond MSM have been excluded from blood donation, for reasons as outrageous as having traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa. In a public response to Bernstein’s statement, the writer and academic Zoé Samudzi wrote, “Black women carry a huge burden of new infections. In the U.S., Black women account for something like 60 percent of new infections among women despite being 15 percent of the population.” Bringing this back to U.S. statistics reveals the arrogance and desperation to comment inherent to Bernstein’s response — he has appropriated statistics coming out of the United Kingdom for viral social media content, despite the fact that he lives in the U.S., where an “unconscionable number” of Black men who have sex with men in particular are still dying of AIDS-related illness, and where, as Samudzi writes, Black women bear the brunt of new infections among heterosexuals. Bernstein’s ignorance therefore depends on viewing queerness as the only dimension of social vulnerability. As the feminist and political scientist Cathy J Cohen writes, “very near the surface in queer political action is an uncomplicated understanding of power as it is encoded in sexual categories: all heterosexuals are represented as dominant and controlling and all queers are understood as marginalized and invisible.”

After Samudzi’s intervention, Bernstein deleted and backtracked on these comments. But it’s yet another example of “post first, think later.” Not all of Bernstein’s content is necessarily as cruel and misjudged as this, most of it is simply annoying. The tone of urgency and sass is uniform whether discussing the most trivial issues, from “unsexy M&M’s” to serious concerns like the risk of terrorist massacres of school children. It’s all in that same, sparkly, rainbow-adorned gradient. The uniformity of this register points to what the writer Rachel Connolly calls “this sense of twitchy anxiety about the state of the world [that] seems to be transposed onto smaller problems” — scroll past enough of these and everything begins to feel equally urgent.

This general vapidity is exhausting. What do these influencers have to gain? Followers, I suppose. Visibility. Attention. Brand partnerships. Publishing contracts. But I also wonder about the people who consistently share and engage with these posts. I suppose there is no harm in wanting easy-to-read content, guidance to help us make sense of a convoluted world. But so often what is most widely read and shared is wrong. What should be used as a jumping off point for learning about an issue ends up being the final word for many. Having to walk back from something that was shared without thinking is embarrassing. And so I wish that people would think critically and not have so much blind faith in these people.

I’d like to think that those who shared the idea that queer people suffer first in war feel a genuine despair for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians and wish to spotlight their suffering. My more cynical instincts tell me that this is another form of shallow digital queer politics that can only empathize through the lens of queerness — or views queerness as a satisfactory, singular prism for assessing oppression and struggle. The graphic Eli used to accompany their post about Ukraine was one of friendly looking queer protestors, beautifully adorned with pride hearts and flags. I wonder if you could ever elicit the same empathy, or a call for asylum, using the imagery of a burly, menacing-looking, straight Ukrainian man.

I sometimes feel lost with all this. I hope that people read more, and read not only one narrative, but opposing sources. I sometimes want to tell people that, actually, you do need to read and engage with the difficulty of these issues and you can’t hope to learn through Instagram, even if you use it as a starting block. But it feels as though we are too far gone, and the number of influencers posturing as intellectuals increases every day. In his book Get Rich or Lie Trying, the journalist Symeon Brown rejects Andy Warhol’s famous line that “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” affirming that social media has made it so “anyone can now be famous for far longer than 15 minutes.” Brown is correct. Activism by Canva sustains the relevance of these people far past their date of expiration. And God do we suffer for it.

Jason Okundaye is a London-based writer who comments on culture and society.