Memes, as multimodal tools of discourse, have become a significant part of online culture. This also counts for the LGBTQIA+ community. They are often used for producing humorous content that would appeal to a wide audience. That being said, when analyzed (be it for academic purposes or discourse analysis), memes reveal high semiotic productivity (Varis & Blommaert, 2014) that enables them to convey complex social messages.
A meme and its contents are effective tools to raise awareness about the struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community
This article will analyze an internet meme that has a particular focus on a common LGBTQIA+ issue. Through the three arrows of linguistic landscaping, this article will not only attempt to uncover truths about the producer of the meme but also how memes can be used to highlight recurring social issues. The meme in question (Figure 1) can be considered an example of how a meme and its contents are effective tools to raise awareness about the struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The data that will be analyzed in this article is a meme extracted from an Instagram post. The account posting the meme is @_thisgaything (_thisgaything, 2019). This is an account that publishes LGBTQIA+-related memes and is not the original producer of the meme. The original meme was posted on Twitter by [a user that cannot be identified] in 2013.
It may be important to note that LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for the community including people of all genders and sexualities, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, asexual, pansexual, and allies (Betts, n.d.). This is the most current and grown acronym, representing a larger variety of members. This abbreviation continues to evolve with the growth of the community through the years (Daley, 2017). The community was also referred to as LGBT in the past, potentially explaining the difference in abbreviations in this meme.
To understand the depths of this meme, it is essential to understand its many layers. Accordingly, (1) the producer of the meme (identity characteristics, struggles, and intentions), (2) the meme as we see it (the methods and modalities used to convey the complex meaning within), and (3) the receiver of the meme (the message as it might be understood) need to be recognized. The three arrows of linguistic landscaping will be utilized in uncovering these layers. As any such analysis is highly complex, the notions of indexicality and intertextuality will also be utilized. Each arrow of linguistic landscaping will be handled in this particular order and will lead the reader to recognize both the meanings they build together and the social results the meme may achieve.
Past arrow: The producer of the LGBTQIA+ meme
In the past arrow of this linguistic landscaping, the meme will be analyzed in terms of what it communicates about its producer and the conditions in which it was produced (Maly & Blommaert, 2019). Through the entirety of the meme, the assumption can be made that its producer is part of the LGBTQIA+ community. To better understand the data, it is important to clarify some of the references made in the meme. The saying “being in the closet” refers to an LGBTQIA+ member who hides their sexuality, which can happen for different reasons (Urban Dictionary, 2020). As the producer’s family asks why this person cares about LGBTQIA+ rights and asks if this person is gay, the assumption can be made that this person has not revealed their sexual identity yet. The fact that this person is going back to the closet in the image insinuates that they make a very conscious decision to not tell their family about being part of the LGBTQIA+ community (Figure 1).
The concept of coming out of the closet can be defined as telling your family, friends, or the public that you are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, while you kept your identity a secret before. The person in question might not feel ready to “come out” to their family since the family might not be supportive of their LGBTQIA+ identity. The family’s demonstrated reaction of immediately questioning whether the person is gay because they defend LGBTQIA+ rights points to two things: A generalization is made by the family that if an individual discusses LGBTQIA+ rights, this person would have to be a part of the community; this generalization shows that there is a severe lack of allyship towards the LGBTQIA+ community in society. Allyship in this context is used as a term to define those who do not have LGBTQIA+ identities yet chose to actively support and assist the community. Based on the producer mentioning going back to the closet, the meme conveys the producer’s fear of being discovered without intention, also known as “being outed”, due to showing interest in LGBTQIA+ rights. For many people, being passionate about a topic triggers discussions and a desire to take time to educate those around them. In this situation, however, the producer of the meme tries to keep their LGBTQIA+ identity secret by avoiding a possible confrontation, as can be seen from the action of “going back to the closet” (Figure 1).
Present arrow: Spacial and social understanding of the LGBTQIA+ meme
In terms of the present arrow of linguistic landscaping, a spatial analysis will be conducted in addition to the social issues connected to the experience demonstrated in the meme. To that end, attention will be given to where the meme was originally posted and what this spatial scope entails. The different spaces in which the meme can be found will also be presented along with the particular implications of these placements. Secondly, the indexical meanings of the meme will be discussed. The context that brings value to the meme itself and the social issues that it related to in society will be pointed out.
“Shit. Back into the closet. Back into the closet”
The meme was originally posted on Twitter by a user seen as “angela”. Even though the account tag (@iknwapla...) can be partially seen in the image (Figure 1), the user's identity could not be found. On the online social platform Twitter, you can upload your creation anonymously which means you do not have to worry about revealing your identity. This anonymity allows users to share their opinions or ideas more actively than in the real world without the fear of other people’s judgment. Encouraged by this anonymity, the members of the LGBTQIA+ community started to share their experiences and talk more openly about gender identity. Since the 1990s, the LGBTQIA+ community has had a lot of resources to learn about themselves and to connect with others (Subhrajit, 2014, p. 320). As one of these resources, Twitter is thus often chosen to publish LGBTQIA+-related content such as this meme. Another distinctive feature of Twitter is that there is a 280-character limit. Consequently, short messages and images are widely used and shared instead of detailed descriptive writing to avoid exceeding word limits. The meme (Figure 1) is using multimodality of words and a picture to convey meaning. To vividly describe the situation, the maker chooses the form of a dialogue between him- or herself and the family member adds an action to convey feeling (“Shit. Back into the closet. Back into the closet”), and an image of running to a closet at the end.
The last line included in the image adds yet another layer to the maker's internal reaction to the presented dialogue. The image is captured from the episode “The Gang Gets Held Hostage” of the TV series It’s Always Sunny Philadelphia (Shakman, 2011). The image, with the inclusion of the line “Yippee-aye-kye-yay” also adds a sense of humor to the action ladened reaction conveyed by the meme.
After its initial appearance on Twitter, the meme was transferred to another social network platform — Instagram — by a different user (_thisgaything, 2019). The user allowed this post to be open to the public and from then the meme could pop up in the search result for ‘LGBT meme’ on Google. When searching for the ‘LGBT meme’, Google shows numerous memes similar to Figure 1 in terms of both the structure and the message relating to the LGBTQIA+ community (see Figure 2). It implies that this is a common and widely accepted format used by the online LGBTQIA+ community.
As provided in the past arrow of this linguistic landscaping, the meme indicates that the producer of the image has reservations about “coming out” and revealing their LGBTQIA+ identity to their families. This meme, through its indexical meanings, highlights some significant issues of the LGBTQIA+ community. Coming out is a practice that is commonly feared among community members as a result of very real and serious negative consequences community members experience due to their identities. Being “out” can often lead to social, economic, medical, and educational obstacles, and even violence for LGBTQIA+ members. Different research has shown that LGBTQIA+ members struggle to reveal their true identity due to the fear of rejection and exclusion from their circles of family, friends, and co-workers. Most LGBTQIA+ members wait until their adulthood to talk about their sexual orientation (Subhrajit, 2014, p. 320). Research shows that 50% of the family reactions to a family member coming out were rejecting (FAP 2010, cited in Subhrajit, 2014).
“People who are marginalized have relatively little control over their lives and the resources available to them; they may become stigmatized and are often at the receiving end of negative public attitudes”
Members of the LGBTQIA+ also have to deal with marginalization and social exclusion. as "people who are marginalized have relatively little control over their lives and the resources available to them; they may become stigmatized and are often at the receiving end of negative public attitudes” (Subhraji, 2014). The marginalization of this group can lead to exclusion from support systems, such as families, medical care, education, jobs, and legal service. As a result, many members of the LGBTQIA+ drop out of school, have reduced options for healthcare and employment, and thus become more vulnerable to health problems, homelessness, and illegal work. This marginalization is a result of stigmas attached to the community members as they do not conform to the heteronormativity of society. These stigmas can best be combatted through education and increased social awareness of non-LGBTQIA+ members of society, in other words, widening the circle of allies.
Future arrow: The receivers of the LGBTQIA+ meme
Finally, the future arrow of linguistic landscaping points to the audience that this meme will reach. Who is this meme intended for? What is the purpose behind it? What are the intended uptake and message?
As for the placement (present arrow) of the meme and the account that posted it (i.e. @_thisgaything), it can be assumed that the primary intended audience is the followers of the producer of the meme and the followers of its publisher. As the account _thisgaything consists mostly of LGBTQIA+ related memes, from the point of view of the community members, it can be said that an important part of the audience is the LGBTQIA+ community. In that sense, one of the meme’s potential purposes is to be relatable. Persons struggling with these very common issues of not having revealed their identity to their families, fearing to be discovered, fearing exclusion, fearing being reduced to one aspect of their identities and marginalization could find the situation represented in the meme familiar. Finding other voices in the online platform with similar experiences, and sharing these experiences through the humorous form of memes can thus be the first intention of the producer and the publisher. This could result in a valuable support system for the members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who lack such understanding in their personal lives.
As the speed of globalization increases, so does the potential reach of content on the internet. This is to say that, this meme, though primarily posted on specific social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram, can now be found in any public domain. As demonstrated above, this meme is accessible to anyone who can use Google search. In other words, it is public content (Figure 2). It is then not apt to limit the intended or potential audiences to the followers of the creator of the meme or the re-posters. It is not enough to analyze the preferred uptake by such a particular audience. The majority of the public, unlike the first group that was mentioned as the meme's audience (followers of the creator/publisher of the meme), cannot be assumed to relate to this post on a personal level. It can even be said that, due to the lack of allies, the majority of the general public cannot be assumed to understand or empathize with the situation relayed in the meme. The second intention of this meme can then be to create basic curiosity in the public regarding the LGBTQIA+ community, urging people to search for knowledge about the acronym and the intended meaning of the meme.
If a member from the general public receives this meme and has the sociolinguistic repertoire to understand “LGBT” and “going back to the closet”, they will encounter a message they can understand
If a member of the general public receives this meme and has the sociolinguistic repertoire to understand “LGBT” and “going back to the closet”, they will encounter a message they can understand, even if they cannot personally relate to it. The general public is then introduced to a very particular yet recurring experience of the LGBTQIA+ community. Through this meme, the public reader is now familiarized with the notion that people’s identities as LGBTQIA+ community members are often disregarded or even belittled in casual discussions. This new understanding may prevent this reader from asking “Why do you care?” to an individual discussing LGBTQIA+ rights in the future and may help to empathize with a potential member of the community instead. This would already be an important improvement toward having more allies.
Moreover, the public reader may realize that LGBTQIA+ members can often fear discussing LGBTQIA+-related issues in their social circles, due to the fear of their LGBTQIA+ identities being discovered involuntarily. This understanding, combined with a predisposition to help can then lead the public reader to show interest in LGBTQIA+-related conversations, realizing they can take part in them without any such personal preoccupations. This elaborate yet still reasonable outcome of the meme is the creation of a new ally for the community. Encouraging a member of the public to learn about the LGBTQIA+ community, its members and common struggles creates an awareness that could directly and positively impact LGBTQIA+ members’ experiences.
Based on the fact that this meme was found as the third image on the first page of a basic Google search (Figure 2), it can be assumed that the meme has been seen and will be seen by more than one hypothetical person, but millions of internet users. Such exposure should allow the meme to matter on a grander scale, potentially having a significant impact on the recognition of the LGBTQIA+ community and the struggles they face.
The power of memes for the LGBTQIA+ community
In conclusion, through the dialogue and the insertion of the image, this meme is not only expressing a common struggle experienced repeatedly by the LGBTQIA+ community; it allows readers of the LGBTQIA+ community to relate to the meme while simultaneously creating an opportunity for non-LGBTQIA+ members of the public to learn about the existence of such struggles. A meme, with the right humor and the right placement, has the power to empower a support system for the LGBTQIA+ community and to widen the support of the non-LGBTQIA+ public through the creation of empathy.
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Daley, B. (2017, June 2). Why LGBT initialism keeps growing. Chicago Tribune.
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Urban Dictionairy. (2020). return to the closet. Urban Dictionary.
Shakman, M. (Director). (2011). It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia [Motion Picture], Season 7 Episode 9, t. 05:11.
Subhrajit, C. (2014). Problems Faced by LGBT People in the Mainstream Society: Some Recommendations. International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies (IJIMS), 1(5), 317–331.
Varis, P. K., & Blommaert, J. M. (2014). Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures. Journal of Language and Politics.