The instructions for Queer Voicemails are simple: “Got news to share? A message for an ex? A thought to spare? Call & leave us a voicemail. We’re listening.”
The project, which was launched on May 2nd by partners Mariella Mosthof and Lauren Burrows, has so far only one steadfast rule: Calls should be 60 seconds or less so that they can be transcribed into an Instagram post. Otherwise, the purpose of Queer Voicemails is to give members of the queer community a space where they can literally speak their minds — and whatever thoughts, concerns, or anxieties they have that they might not be able to share with a specific person: an ex who has broken their heart, for example, or a flame that’s dimmed in the forced isolation of quarantine.
The callers are varied, as are their messages. Some are trapped in quarantine with families who don’t understand queerness. Others haven’t “seen” friends in person for months. One caller feared for the future of their two black children. Another, trapped in quarantine, wanted to share their feelings of uselessness in the wake of nationwide protests.
All are authentic; all are themselves. Their words, transcribed on Instagram without the armor of pictures or images that are usually associated with the platform, capture what the caller is feeling in the moment — which is exactly how Burrows and Mosthof intended Queer Voicemails to be.
“You can tell a lot of people are really vulnerable when they’re speaking to us,” Burrows tells GO. “This is such a healing moment for them in whatever way that is.”
For Burrows and Mosthof, who have not previously disclosed their relationship to Queer Voicemails, the project began as a quarantine diversion. Burrows, who reads and writes poetry, found that her creative energy was stifled by the isolation. “I felt like all those juices of creativity were just getting sucked out of me, and probably [out of] a lot of people,” she says. “I wasn’t able to find anything to write about because a lot of my poetry is based on human interaction, which I was not getting.”
She first turned to an old standby for writers — writing prompts — and was inspired by one in particular that called on the writer to compose a poem in the style of a voicemail. The prompt itself was reminiscent of a book Burrows had been gifted by a cousin in college, called “Verses that Hurt: Pleasure and Pain from the POEMFONE Poets,” which centered on a 1990s NYC-based art initiative where writers left poems as voicemail messages that callers could listen and respond to.
“So that’s kind of where the idea sparked from, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is a great idea. I would love to get the queer community involved.’”
Burrows was also, at the time, going through her own separation; her ex-wife asked her for a divorce on Mother’s Day, leading her to find solace in creative efforts — and an unexpected source of support and comfort. “More and more voicemails came in, and there were four or five of them that were going through the same thing I was going through,” she says. “There’s, like, part of me that wishes I could reach out to these people and talk to them. But at the same time, it was just lovely and comforting to listen to them and say, ‘Oh, wow, we’re going through the same thing. I’m not the only one.’”
Burrows didn’t expect her idea to become as popular as it did so quickly, and as people began leaving voicemails, Mosthof, a culture writer (who has written for GO) came on to help with transcribing. To date, Queer Voicemails has over 1500 followers and, at peak times, can generate 2 to 3 voicemails each day. All calls received are posted and transcribed as left in order to maintain the authenticity of the caller’s voice; Mosthof, who is responsible for transcribing, adds in only punctuation.
So why, in an age of digital communication, did Burrows and Mosthof decide on voicemail — a somewhat archaic in our age of texts — as a way to bring queer folks together on a visual platform like Instagram? The answer is simple: nostalgia. “I grew up at a time when I had an answering machine in my house, and I loved getting messages from my friends when I got home,” Burrows says, recalling the days when blinking red lights and tiny cassette tapes were the most convenient ways to record messages in the days before cell phones.
“I wanted the nostalgia of voicemails to be something,” she says. “I think people are afraid to leave their voices in this void of a phone and for somebody to hear their voice. So I just wanted to bring that back a little bit and see if people would grasp onto it — which I think they did.”
“It’s funny, because millennials are kind of stereotyped as being scared of talking on the phone, which I think is probably true for people a little bit younger than us,” adds Mosthof. Some prospective callers have DM’d asking if they can write their message instead of leaving a voicemail, but the couple sticks to the calls-only rule. However, most have adapted to the analog technology, even if it means some have had to call back seven or eight times before feeling confident enough to leave a message.
Sometimes, too, the void is the best place to leave a message, especially if the intended recipient is somehow off-limits — an ex, for example. “A theme we’ve gotten a lot is from people who are experiencing ‘no contact’ with somebody and need an outlet to say what they need to say,” says Mosthof. Callers are “re-diverting that energy that they know is going to get them in trouble or [will] maybe not be emotionally productive for them. They can leave it in a queer voicemail and kind of get it out.”
Not all such “off-limits” persons are exes. One recent message that had an emotional impact on both Mosthof and Burrows came from a caller who left a message for their deceased father. The person called twice before leaving the message, which included a 27-second pause which Mosthof — who transcribes the calls as they are spoken — included as part of the post.
“I’ve never seen such a literal manifestation of holding space, which has kind of become this meaningless phrase in queer discourse, but literally, [they’re] just holding the line for 27 seconds for their feelings, their pain,” she says. “The first time Lauren and I listened to that voicemail, we both cried. We were sobbing.”
The message has received over 250 likes and is just one example of the support that followers give for those who put themselves out there in a time when both support and connection sometimes seem in short supply.
“That’s another thing that I love about this,” Burrows says. “People are able to comment on people’s voicemails and just show them some love and support. And hopefully, I hope those people are reading those comments of support and love.”
Mosthof and Burrows, who recently moved from New York to Chicago, where Mosthof’s family still lives, had taken some time away from Queer Voicemails during the move. However, they are now back to posting and are working through the calls left during their hiatus, which is probably welcome news to their followers.
“We get so many messages just in our inbox thanking us for providing the space for them,” Burrows says. “It’s just it’s been a very positive response overall. We love that. That’s all we wanted to provide for people during this time.”
At a time when space is confined to online platforms, often remote and impersonal, or used more to divide than unite us, it’s good to know that there is still room for a more genuine and kind connection — a space where community can congregate, letting us know that we aren’t actually alone.