When Michael first learned of coronavirus, he planned to steer clear of the subject on @sluttypuffin, his popular gay meme page of two and a half years. The queer media personality (who prefers not to divulge his last name) was understandably wary of offending his 279,000 Instagram followers with posts that poked fun at a public health crisis.
But as the pandemic stretched on, Michael found an entry point into the conversation: Why not make memes about queer people self-quarantining or social distancing without directly referencing COVID-19? For weeks he’s done just that, uploading memes riffing on everything from DIY dye jobs to comfy sweats to instant ramen dinners.
One meme featuring Naomi Campbell even got picked up by the fashion mogul herself. All of us are on our phones, Michael says, and that paired with an endorsement from a big celebrity has caused his “usually good” numbers on Instagram to double.
“There’s something bigger here uniting all of us,” Michael tells NewNowNext. “People are looking for entertainment. They’re not looking to make light of a situation but to find some commonality within it—to find some humor within not the virus itself, but within this idea of being quarantined, and what that means for all of us.”
Michael is one of countless Instagram meme creators navigating a new era of content creation. As the coronavirus pandemic endures with no clear end date in sight, many of us are turning to our favorite social media personalities for lighthearted distractions and a sense of connection. But COVID-19 and its increasingly dramatic death toll continue to dominate headlines and news cycles, forcing these creators to weigh the pros and cons of tapping into the zeitgeist. In a moment of global turmoil, where do you draw the line?
Cheyenne, the lesbian meme creator behind @hotmessbian, is also trying to find her footing in this strange and scary time. She first launched the account in December 2018. Since then, she’s slowly accrued 104,000 followers on Instagram, with queer celebrities like Ruby Rose giving her shout-outs.
“I want to be a source of relief from the constant media cycle,” she tells NewNowNext. “At my job, the news is running 24-7, so I’m constantly getting information about the coronavirus. And I don’t think it’s a situation to make jokes about. I understand joking to cope, and I definitely do that and engage in that, but I like to separate my content from that.”
Summer Breeze Bedard, a queer writer and meme creator, is documenting these unprecedented times on her eponymous Instagram page, too. Since August 2018, Bedard has used her account to make bold, text-heavy memes using stills from animated Disney classics she watched as a child. At the beginning, the self-professed “memelord” mostly used sarcasm to critique systems of oppression. Now, Bedard creates memes to provide levity and comfort for her 24,000 followers—though the base material can still be heavy. Her recent work riffs on quarantining and making the most of a bad situation.
“My love language is sharing memes,” Bedard says, “so it makes me happy that people can share my memes [with friends] when they’re feeling cooped up, or can’t do anything but masturbate.”
Michael also views @sluttypuffin’s posts as a source of comic relief. Though his content has leaned heavily on the topic of self-isolation the past few weeks, he may instate a “no quarantine content” rule once or twice a week. Meanwhile, Bedard plans to keep things silly, whether she’s joking about quarantining or not. “Every time I post something stupid,” she says, “I get a message from someone being like, ’Thank you.'”
Jokes aside, Cheyenne stresses that public health crises like COVID-19 disproportionately affect the LGBTQ community, particularly trans folks and LGBTQ people of color. “In the end, I don’t want to have made a million jokes about what’s going on and then have myself or someone I love on their deathbed think, Oh, I was taking this lightly,” she says, adding that she hopes this moment serves as a turning point for positive change, like progressive legislation or community mobilization.
Bedard, too, thinks the crisis is shedding light on the broken systems in the U.S.—hell, she even made a meme about it. Meanwhile, Michael is using his platform to highlight people and organizations helping those in need during the pandemic. Over the past month, he’s used the donation sticker function on Instagram Stories to fundraise for groups like World Central Kitchen and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“It’s not just one-note, ’let’s laugh at this and [the fact] that we have to stay in it for three months,'” he says. “It’s a luxury to be able to laugh. It’s a luxury to be able to create. And it’s a luxury to be able to work from home. Remembering that is great. It keeps us grounded.”