If you took a look at Instagram over the past month, it is likely that you saw posts and stories peppered in with fun stickers and rainbow-hued features to add some color to Pride festivities around the globe. While we are in a time where hate has come to the forefront in the American narrative, seeing symbols of the culture, activism, and strength of the LGBTQ* community can remind us why we must celebrate our progress and continue to fight for equality.
Jeffrey Gerson, a Product Marketing Manager at Instagram, came up with these stickers last year in collaboration with fellow queer artists, and has continued to work on new forms of outreach to the community. As an openly gay man, Gerson has used his role at the social platform to highlight LGBTQ* narratives through new initiatives, activism, and even his own art.
We chatted with Gerson about why he celebrates his identity, the need for queer visibility, and how even social media platforms can be the birthplace for change.
Lonny: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up and how LGBTQ* folks were accepted there?
Jeffrey Gerson: I grew up in a small-town northeastern Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains. The town, Hawley, has a population of around 1,300 and it’s set right on a lake and is very charming. But it’s still a small town in the rural northeast, and a lot of people are still fairly conservative. I don’t think I even really knew of anyone LGBTQ in our town (though in hindsight of course they were quietly there).
I came out before my freshman year of high school, and my parents were unconditionally supportive. I had an amazing group of friends who stood by me and teachers who shielded me from the worst of it. Despite occasional hallway bullying, I was even our school’s first openly gay homecoming king. I was lucky — and I know that my experience was much more the exception than the rule, even for the people growing up alongside me.
What was it like when you publicly embraced your identity?
JG: Coming out wasn’t necessarily a moment for me. I had a bisexual camp counselor the summer before my freshman year of college, and hearing her talk about her girlfriend opened up the space for me to talk to her about my own identity. From there, I told other campers, then my parents, then classmates back at school in the autumn. I didn’t grow up in a closed-minded household, so I never really dealt with any internal struggle or shame — it was more just something I realized about myself, and from there it just became a fact of who I am. Coming out is a process that never really ends, but in that process there’s an opportunity: visibility still matters, and with every new person I meet, I make the choice to never hide any part of who I am.
Did you always want to be involved in LGBTQ* activism?
JG: I’ve always been interested in bringing LGBTQ communities together. There’s so much power in sharing your stories, fears, humor and dreams with other people and seeing them nodding along, seeing your own light reflected back to you and glowing even brighter. In high school, I helped pull together our first group for LGBTQ students and allies — but I really focused on community building much more deeply in college.
The LGBTQ community at Stanford was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and in 2008 it embraced me with open arms. I arrived just as Proposition 8 catalyzed our community, and I learned firsthand how beautifully a community can come together towards a common goal. I went on to study Queer Theory alongside my major, and I took an internship at The Advocate magazine where I learned more about how we can shape and tell our own stories. Those years lit the fire, and I was lucky enough to be there as that fire caught in others like ALOK and Raymond Braun who have also become leaders in our community.
Can you tell me a bit about how your photography and art become a place for you to highlight queer narratives?
JG: As a photographer I focus primarily on portraiture. I’m useless with a landscape in front of my camera, but I always see so much potential in a portrait. Every photograph causes its viewers to ask a question — and in portraits, it’s, “Who is this?” To me, that’s an opportunity to take advantage of a natural spark of curiosity and foster empathy or broaden world views by sharing someone’s story. I spend a lot of time supporting queer initiatives, whether through the businesses I frequent, the art I buy, the people I connect — and I try to bring that ethos into my portrait work as well.
How did you first start to work on Pride projects at Instagram?
JG: I’ve been at Instagram since 2013, and we’ve always had a very active and engaged group of LGBTQ-identified employees and allies. Last year, when I was running creative programs for Instagram Stories, we saw an opportunity to work with queer artists to commission stickers that represented Pride from their own points of view. That year, we also led a mural project in cities around the world to turn walls into colorful beacons of support for the LGBTQ community.
This year, we wanted to build on the success of our initiatives in 2017 and go bigger. In the spirit of knitting LGBTQ communities closer together, we set out to develop initiatives that would encourage people to discover, connect with, and honor the role models who inspire them.
What has it been like to see the positive reactions and users engage with them on such a global scale?
JG: It’s always extremely humbling — and it gives me great hope. In everything I do to support the queer community — whether it’s a ten-person dinner or an initiative that could reach a billion people — my hope is always that it leads to someone feeling more accepted, more loved, and more confident in who they are.
How do you hope to support the community with your work in the future?
JG: Outside of my work for Instagram and my photography, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can best give back to and support the queer community — especially the parts of the community that are often left out of the mainstream narrative. I have a lot in the works, but right now I’m especially excited about a new scholarship for LGBTQ+ students that I founded — and just awarded — at my high school back home. The scholarship is meant to show LGBTQ+ students at my school that they belong by seeing something positive set aside just for them. And for the awardee, it’s a vote of encouragement for their future endeavors as a reflection of the success they've found by embracing who they are.
At my own high school, I'm especially excited to watch a community of recipients grow over the years, and I hope that the awardees can serve as role models to younger students as examples of how to shine. This is hopefully only the first step of where I see this going, and I’m excited to explore where it could lead as a larger program.