One night, Kimberly Linn and Katie Streeter were sitting on Linn’s porch. They were drinking wine. Linn had just broken up with her girlfriend and was, in her words, “super depressed.” So, a lot of wine, probably. “I was looking at my phone, waiting for a text from her,” Linn said. Then Linn looked through her recently used emojis, “and it’s was like, ding!” She realized what was missing, if not from her life, at least from her phone: lesbian emojis.
Four weeks ago, Linn posted the first image on an Instagram account she and Streeter co-created, @lesbianemojis. They only had about thirty followers. That grew, slowly, to 65, “and I was kind of thinking about not even finishing the project, because it just didn’t seem like it was going anywhere,” Linn said. That changed when Shewired picked up the feed last Thursday. At press time, @lesbianemojis had over 3,200 followers. “It’s spiraled out of control,” said Linn, not that she’s worried about running out of ideas: “I have a list of about 200 of them that Streeter and I came up with in two nights. I plan to throw out a few a week.”
Linn got her start in graphic design and is now an art director at an advertising agency in Culver City; she works for big-name clients, including Burger King. We spoke by phone this afternoon. Read on for her thoughts on the original emoji, gay stereotypes, and the surprisingly universal language of lesbianism.
What made you decide to create these lesbian emojis? Did you not feel adequately represented by the emojis that already exist?
Basically, the thing is, everyone knows that the emojis are completely—a little, I don’t want to say racist, but they don’t represent pretty much everyone. My old partner at work did this article about how blondes are completely under-represented in emoji. There’s only one blonde, and she’s wearing a princess crown, but there’s ten different emojis for brunettes. And that got me thinking about how there weren’t gay emojis. And then Apple released the two little girls standing side-by-side, the two little girls holding hands—they look like schoolgirls, not really a lesbian couple.
And I started noticing the only emojis that I use are the kind that can be interpreted in gay ways. I use the scissors and the eggplant. God, I sound like I’m 12 years old.
It’s hard not to sound like a 12-year-old when you talk about emojis, though.
Right? I noticed, it was a lot of fists, and anything that can be interpreted kind of gay. And even among friends, when I say I have a date, after the date they’ll send me “how did it go?” with two little fingers, or the scissors and a question mark. So I wanted to do something that was easier – instead of “Are you guys moving in together?” just a U-Haul. And instead of “How was the date?” just the fish taco.
Are you surprised to see so many people connecting with the images you chose?
To be honest, I thought they were just insights about me and my friends. It’s been kind of amazing to see how universal this is among all lesbians.
How long does it take you to design one of these pictures?
Tegan and Sarah took a really long time because of all the intricate details, but some just take half an hour. It’s hard designing in such a tiny space. I want to actually release these as an app someday, so I want to make sure everything I do can be scaled down small. It’s the same logic you do when you design a logo.
It is amazing to me how versatile the original emoji have become. And even though it’s easy to dismiss them as something new and trendy, if you think about emoji as, say, hieroglyphics for your phone, emoji are basically one of the oldest forms of human communication.
My mom, I remember, kept trying to get me to install emojis on her phone, and it’s really cute to see the ones she uses. I remember the first time I started using the little ghost instead of saying BOO. Or when someone says something and I say no, I put up the little girl with her arms crossed in an X. I think we’ve all seen the retelling of Les Miz in emoji.
How does it feel to see that these images that mean something to you have meaning for other people?
I think it’s pretty compelling because I remember when I was coming out, it took me 22 years to come to terms with the fact that I was gay, and it was because I didn’t see anyone like me. I saw really masculine girls and really feminine girls, and I didn’t fit into either of those camps. So this has been fascinating. Like the blazer one, I thought that was just me—if I’m going out, I’ll just throw a blazer on—so it’s funny to see people gravitating to that and saying, “That’s exactly me.” And the snapback with “boi” on it, that’s not me at all. I don’t wear snapbacks, but a lot of lesbians do. And I think it’s really fun for a lot of people to be able to find meaning in them. I think it’s really cool to see all the ways they could be used. I saw a comment on the U-Haul Instagram where she tagged her girlfriend in it and said, “This is what so-and-so and I are doing today!” and I wrote back to congratulate them.
Are there any emoji ideas you’ve had that you decided not to do, because you were concerned about playing on a stereotype or being offensive?
It’s tough, because I don’t want to do anything offensive. I’ve already seen people be offended by the U-Haul, and I don’t even understand how to be offended by it. Lesbians are more prone to move in together more quickly than your average couple. And at the same time, there are stereotypes that are really accurate! It’s meant to be humorous. I kind of want to steer away from super-crass things, but at the same time, they’re really easy. The fish taco is pretty crass. Some people were telling me, “you should do the shocker!” But I don’t know if I want to do that. I want to be clever about things. If I did do sexual ones, they would need to be clever. That’s the only thing I’ve rejected in my pile of things, anything that’s a little gross. At the same time, I don’t want my mom clicking on them and just being like, oh, this is not really something to be proud of.
I want to go back to this idea of the original emoji, because I have mixed feelings about the claims that they’re racist or not inclusive enough. Because, as important as those issues are, the people who make emoji is not obligated to make anything at all, or to include pictures that will make every user happy: they don’t really owe anybody anything.
Right, I don’t think they owed anyone anything. That’s what’s pretty great about them: you can make your own stories with them. Even before they made two girls together, I put two girls together. In my opinion, they don’t need to include gays, but that’s why I created my little set, because I wanted something that my friends and I could exchange back and forth. I wanted our own little language.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.