When Anna Sward joined Instagram in 2014, she knew she was queer but wasn’t out and didn’t yet have the language to define her identity. Isolated in her small Michigan town, she only posted her baked goods at first, but soon began adding books by queer authors to her feed. Her mini reviews and book hauls proved popular. By the time Sward transitioned to a book-focused Instagram page, she had built a community around her that not only shares her love of literature but guided her through the process of coming out as asexual.

“I probably wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t started my bookstagram,” she said. “The community that I found there inspired me to come out and figure out my own identity. [It’s] one of the most supportive places I’ve ever found.”

The Instagram subculture Sward found herself unexpectedly initiated into is colloquially known as queer bookstagram. On the surface, this online community reviews literature by and for LGBTQIA+ people. But in recent years, it has evolved beyond a space to simply share stacks of color-coordinated books and to-be-read lists. Today, queer bookstagram is a refuge for many readers, who bond over books in one of the few literary spaces catered specifically to people of marginalized identities. In this accessible, welcoming community, queer people like Sward, who might not have access to like-minded peers otherwise, find a much-needed chosen family.

Star, who reviews mostly books by and for queer people while donning rainbow wigs on her account @littlemissstar55, grew up in a desert town in rural Southern Australia. Star knew sapphic novels existed, but without even a bookstore in town, she had no access to them. When she searched Instagram for book recommendations, she noticed that the same reviewers promoting achillean romance novels (a romance genre centering two men) neglected to promote sapphic books — a trend that angered and frustrated Star so much that she jokes that she decided to start her own bookstagram account, “out of spite.”

“The amount of people who have messaged me and said, ‘I have never seen myself represented in a book, and it’s so wonderful to not feel alone’ — it warms my heart.”

Star

The community that sprung up around her cheerful, inclusive book reviews has been nothing short of “life-changing.” Isolated in her small town, Star says that most of her friends are people she’s met through her bookstagram, people who, like her, were searching for connection and camaraderie online and found it through books.

“The amount of people who have messaged me and said, ‘I have never seen myself represented in a book, and it’s so wonderful to not feel alone’ — it warms my heart,” she says. “[My Instagram] is not just for people who have been searching for themselves, but also so that other people can realize that these [stories] exist in the world, too. They open up your mind and give you more empathy and show the true diversity of humanity.”

On the one hand, queer bookstagram mainly serves as a conduit through which queer people find books that reflect their experiences, but it serves another purpose, too. Its very existence demonstrates that there is a huge appetite for queer-led books, and mainstream, Big Five publishers should pay attention — especially because diversity still eludes the staff at most publishers: One 2019 survey found that “81 percent of publishing staff identify as straight or heterosexual” while “78 percent of people who work in publishing self-report as cis women.”

“It really is a grassroots review movement,” Janai, who runs @janaireadsbooks, tells me. She started her account because she felt that bookstragram was “saturated” by straight, white women. “Queer-led accounts promote books to audiences that aren’t exclusively queer, and the result is that more and more people are picking [queer] books until they become mainstream. It was really exciting to see books like The Charm Offensive and Honey Girl become wildly popular.”

Those two books in particular became among the most popular and well-reviewed across queer bookstagram, appearing repeatedly on multiple accounts — as well as Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, and One Last Stop, by the author of smash hit Red, White, and Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston.

Queer bookstagram has the feel of an online, public book club, where readers can collegially trade opinions and perspectives on books. For instance, on her account, Star wrote that One Last Stop “absolutely blew me out of the water, smashing all of my expectations,” while Janai admitted that the book’s “magical realism element to this story … is not always my favorite.” The only requirement to admission is that you love to read and you treat authors with kindness and respect.

Some authors of queer-centered novels agree that bookstagram is a productive space, where readers can gain greater access to their books in particular during the early days of the pandemic when people were less likely to browse the shelves of a library or a bookstore.

“Bookstagram is such a great place to get more eyes on books,” Dahlia Adler, author of queer bookstagram favorite Cool for the Summer, wrote in an email. “It’s so easy, especially during the pandemic, to get lost in a sea of other releases, so when people take the time out to showcase your book, or to include it in a stack of similar titles to make recommendations, it feels really special and validating. It’s also been really hard during the pandemic not to be able to see my books in person, in stores or libraries, so bookstagram’s been a really beautiful substitute that reminds me that my book truly is out there.”

Adler’s book has amassed an impressive following on queer bookstagram, but as Star puts it, queer people are “starving” for even more literary representation. There are multiple efforts underway to make sure those books get a chance in the spotlight, and this corner of bookstagram isn’t the only place pushing for more diverse literature.

We Need Diverse Books donates children’s and young adult books featuring stories and characters from “LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities,” backgrounds to classrooms. Over on TikTok, book reviewers nicknamed videos under the #queerbooks hashtag “queer BookTok”; one user coined the phrase “it’s gay and it slaps,” to describe her taste in literature. If the popularity and success of these efforts (there are nearly 29,000 posts under the tag #queerbookstagram on Instagram, for instance) proves just one thing, it’s that these stories resonate with readers across backgrounds and identities. Queer bookstragam both connects marginalized people to stories that make them feel seen, while also introducing queer books to readers who would have never encountered them otherwise.

“I do think queer bookstagram has the power to continue pushing for more diversity,” says Janai, “in both its reviews and the books that we want to read.”

For now, though, the bookstagram community remains an essential space to relieve the isolation queer people feel off-line (especially during the pandemic, which closed many spaces where queer people traditionally gather, like bars and music venues). Books reviews are only the beginning of what queer bookstagram can do: These accounts have the power to forge connections between strangers, and to help anyone who feels invisible recognize their self-worth.

“When a person sees themselves represented in a book, there’s no better feeling,” says Star. “Everybody deserves to have their story told.”