News & Politics

This DC Couple Started a Queer-History Instagram. Now They Have Almost 400K Followers and a Book Deal.

Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown were inspired by DC activist Frank Kameny.

Photograph by Steve Zabel.

Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown had been dating about a year and a half when they decided, on a whim, to attend the 2015 unveiling of a tombstone for longtime DC gay activist Frank Kameny in Congressional Cemetery. As they listened to the dedication, they realized how little they knew about all of this history that they hadn’t learned in school—their history. “Here we are, well-educated and privileged—we thought we had a place in the world,” said Riemer, sporting a crew sweatshirt that read “Get Your Priorities Queer.” “Hearing these activists talk about people we didn’t know anything about, events that we never heard of—we felt really isolated and sad and angry because this mattered and we felt it, but we didn’t have any clue what was going on.” That moment eventually led the couple to write the book they wished they’d had when they were younger. Titled We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation, it’s a thoughtfully curated collection of images and words that seeks to capture a woefully undertold story.

Both history majors turned attorneys, Riemer and Brown had met in 2013 at a local networking event for gay lawyers at Number Nine in Logan Circle. (“We cruised each other on Linked­In—that’s what lawyers do,” Riemer jokes.) On the ride home from the cemetery event, Brown started searching for historic photos of Kameny and other queer activists—and didn’t stop. Two months later, he had collected some 5,000 images. “We fell down the rabbit hole,” says Brown.

Wanting to share the pictures and stories they’d found, the couple started @lgbt_history. It attracted 20,000 followers in six months—people interested not just in the pictures but also in the long captions that accompanied them. “There’s far more to say but there’s a character limit,” says Brown. (It’s capped at 2,200, but the pair insists it should be longer.)

Photograph by Bettye Lane.
Photograph by Bettye Lane.

Riemer and Brown had no qualifications other than a keen interest in the subject, and “we were flawed messengers,” Riemer acknowledges. “From the get-go, [readers] talked to us, pushed us on choices of language, pushed us on perspective.” They weren’t daunted by the criticism, but they did listen. “I mean, we were white cis guys, lawyers in DC,” says Brown. “We knew enough to know how little we know.”

Then, just a year after launching the account, they got an e-mail from West Coast publisher Ten Speed Press. Would they want to turn their hobby into a book? After quitting his job six months later, Riemer dove into archives across the country to put it all together. “I worked harder on the book than I ever did as an attorney,” says Riemer. (Brown continues to work as an attorney.)

The finished product includes about 300 photos and digs into more than 100 years of history, including DC’s role in gay-rights efforts and Frank Kameny’s pivotal leadership. “[Learning about] this context has made the two of us more complete, stronger, queerer, and happier,” says Riemer. “It’s an incredible history that we didn’t know we were missing.” The book ends, fittingly, with a photograph of the authors standing next to Kameny’s grave.

Riemer and Brown will speak about We Are Everywhere at Solid State Books on Wednesday, May 8.

A version of this article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.