Leo Herrera is a marvel—a Mexican artist with vision and heart, which collide with his passion as a queer activist. He’s unabashed with his sharp point of view, as exemplified by his visionary film project Fathers, an imagining of a society in which AIDS never happened and our queer heroes hadn’t died.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, like many of us, Herrera grappled with the lockdown and the new social rules, along with the rising tide of white nationalism under the former president—and how to handle it all. On social media, he started creating blocks of text with his own remarkable takes on current events, everything from new Pride celebrations to the effects of COVID-19 on Black and Brown workers. When the party barge in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, holding a host of devil-may-care, partying gays, sank on New Year’s Eve, Herrera’s biting post calling out those selfish boys went viral. (There were no casualties in the sinking, although I imagine at least one gay sang like Celine Dion.)
I talked to Herrera recently via Zoom, him in New Orleans and me in New York. We talked about his new social-media spotlight, the platforms themselves, censorship, and how it all goes together.
Charles Sanchez: These memes that you’ve been putting out, they’re sort of like a new way to blog. It’s putting the writing out to people via social media, instead of making them come to you on a website. How did you start doing that?
Leo Herrera: I was starting to do these kinds of posts with Facebook already, conversations with myself, like a journal, so I could have a record of moments in time. Social media is out there forever, so I wanted to document in capsules. Then I migrated that idea to Instagram.
I didn’t expect them to get picked up the way they did. By the time the “gays in PV” meme took off, I’d already had a few smaller viral moments that were picked up by LGBT and QPOC [queer people of color] activists. “Gays in PV” was sort of like the crescendo of all the other work I was already doing.
But of course, everyone was like, “Overnight!”
CS: Of course! You came out of nowhere! Overnight!
LH: Everything is always overnight, totally! Part of the frustration of using these platforms for visual media is that we’re constantly censored on them. I put up so many videos for Fathers and so many images from that project, and they rarely got picked up by the [social media] algorithm. When I was working with the GLBT Historical Society, it was always “community guidelines” this and “community guidelines” that. Around the start of quarantine, I thought it would be an interesting thing for me to shift to just text-only on such a visual medium as Instagram.
CS: What’s great about them is that they say a lot in a compact burst, and yet are very visual in the way that you present each message.
LH: The first one I did was about Pride this year: “This isn’t the Pride we expected, but it’s the Pride we deserve.” We forgot what it was like to have Pride during the plague years. I did another one about being Brown during COVID. I don’t see the restaurant, I see the workers. I don’t see chicken wings, I see the meat packers.
When the memes about Pride and about being Brown started getting picked up by bigger activists, I started seeing engagement on my accounts like I’d never seen before. I’m trying to create tools that other people can use as well, to word these really complex emotions. For a people that come from poets, it fascinates me that we still don’t have names for so much of our fears and so much of the stigma and the shaming. I’m trying to create these little capsules. Sometimes I spend months on them because I’m whittling down words. Maybe it sounds weird or stoner-y, but there’s a code that I’m using to create these. I have to pick the right font size. I try to pick the color that matches the emotional impact. That’s why the one about the PV gays was funny, I used comic sans as a font. I felt like, I’m talking to the children, so I should use a really cheesy font.
One thing we lost in the last year was the idea that social media has to present an aspirational image of yourself. All of a sudden, being on the beach and showing it off to people isn’t appropriate. I think everyone being a little more honest on social media, and showing their boredom and showing their depression, and showing the rage, is something that people are responding to. The PV gays post hit a nerve really hard because part of it was related to some people’s tone deafness and inability to read the room.
CS: You’re putting into words what many of us are feeling. I’m jealous that I didn’t think of doing those kinds of posts. I’m still putting images of cake out on social media.
LH: Oh, there’s certainly still a place for cake! I’m going to actually have to start my own personal account, because I do want to put pictures of cake up. I have all these images of king cake, because it’s Mardi Gras season here in New Orleans, and this is all we’re going to get in celebration this year: cake! But then I think people are going to be seeing all these pictures of cake and think, “Why am I following this account?”
CS: Right! Like, what’s the connection between the political memes and cake?
LH: Then it gets into, how much of myself do I really want to share? How much of my personal life? But everything on there is so personal anyway. I think everyone is having such a different reaction to social media. I think we saw that with the Capitol [insurrection], who has the responsibility and who has the power on a larger scale, and so we all had to rethink our place in social media this year, and this was my response to that.
There’ve been double standards [on social media] for a really long time, things that a lot of straight, white males have been able to partake in. They let that shit get completely out of hand. … All the talk about the event on Jan. 6. I was following all the MAGA stuff on TikTok, and they were talking about it for months, saying, “Just you wait for Jan. 6,” so you have all of this stuff viewable online. At the same time, all of my sex-worker friends are being kicked off [social media], they can’t link to their OnlyFans pages. We’ve lost so many platforms.
I’ve seen so many artists, so many photographers lose platforms—Tom Bianchi couldn’t put up his Fire Island Polaroids anymore, the Tom of Finland Foundation, the GLBT Historical Society. All of these places are struggling with putting up images of gay things. I had a video of two women in leather walking in Folsom, and that was immediately flagged. Every time I try to post a photo of two men kissing, it’s flagged as too political.
CS: I can relate! I’ve had posts flagged as inappropriate. I hate when I’m censored, but I’m torn when it comes to things like the former president being kicked off Twitter. I mean, I loved it, but I also wonder, when does it end? Slippery slope and all that, you know?
LH: We’re in an emergency year. When there’s a wildfire, where do you suck the oxygen out? Why do white supremacist insurgents get to exercise the rights of free speech on these platforms that [queer people] haven’t been enjoying for a long time?
I’ve been writing about shame for one of these posts, and it’s taking me a little bit of time. Public shaming is a medieval tool, like bloodletting. What was the commonality between the insurgent, sloppy coup mob and the Puerto Vallarta gays? There’s a through line of social media and personal responsibility and putting your business out there. Where does shame come into that? So many of those insurgents got caught because they put it out there on social media. What level of freedom did they enjoy? It’s the same thing with the PV gays. We know you’re there, because you’re telling us. I think we’re going to have to figure out where this disconnect is, and also be realistic because these [social media platforms] are still private companies that don’t really owe us anything. We were the ones who gave them our content and our time. Everyone made a deal with the devil. And in this moment, you’re not just sharing, you’re setting an example. Like the racists on Twitter setting an example by saying, “Burn the shit down,” and the circuit-party promoter is setting an example to other promoters. We’re setting standards for one another.
That’s the reason that I made this shift in social media with these posts. I’m still figuring out what my place is in this pandemic and what I should be doing. I think we all need to be aware of what our responsibility is and who our followers are.
You can follow Leo Herrera on Instagram and Twitter @herreraimages or on Facebook. For more information on his Fathers project, go to iftheylived.org.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.