A History of YouTube Undermining Its LGBT+ Creators

The platform’s celebration of Pride Month is a show of hypocrisy.

YouTube have at this point become known for taking the uncontroversial moral stance on terms-of-service violations even when there’s little proof to back up their commitment. The platform served as the initial battleground for LGBT+ individuals, couples, and collectives to voice their grievances about their disillusion with mainstream media, and their videos have made it far easier a prospect for a youthful generation of LGBT+ people to come out, regardless of culture, provenance, religion, ethnicity, race, or any other identity marker. The message for LGBT+ unity was compelling because it was difference-agnostic, and its intersection with other forms of oppression only further emboldened that message of solidarity. For a while, people could comfortably say that their video sharing adventures were one of the only ways they could connect with a community they might’ve been isolated from, or otherwise felt not beholden to, but YouTube — this behemoth of a social sharing platform — has morphed into such a sharp recreation of our bleakest penchants for bigotry, that it has become impossible to ignore just how detrimental to queer people’s safety it has lately become. Not only in physical terms, but also in financial and emotional ones.

One of the major ways YouTube has influenced the way queer creators approach the platform and its wide variety of audiences is by pushing them to dilute the queer imagery to make it as passable as it possibly could to YouTube’s preferred brand of advertisers. Now this may strike people as strange since we can’t escape the scent of Pride flag-themed goods throughout the month of June, but to YouTube, the calculus is a little bit more complex than “marketability”. There’s also a component of adherence to right-wing politics that it once hadn’t made entirely clear, but now with every and each new comment on their policies, makes it quite hard to not put nefarious intentions where they elsewise may not belong.

The first major instance was back in March 2017, when the alarm was sounded about YouTube’s fishy attitude with LGBT+ themed content as popular creator Tyler Oakley called into attention an undue inclusion into Restricted Mode of a video he made about black LGBT+ icons that have inspired him and his endeavor. The video had subsequently gotten a lot less views than Tyler’s rough average, and it stifled visibility for a topic that should not have been by all means controversial given the historical dimension it’s tackling.

Elsewhere on the less popular side, Fiona, queer vlogger on YouTube was hurt hard. For her relatively modest subscriber number, the damage was even more felt– Tyler Oakley gets to have the benefit of his subscribers actively seeking his content out, but Fiona has no such solid fallback to rely on. Her videos with the restriction in place are comfortably getting one fraction of a thousand of they would normally do had they not been affected.

Film critic Rowan Ellis had made the same observation in a video talking about the issue in detail. She explains that restricted mode operates in such a way that it allows families to enshrine their children within an environment that no video with heavy subject matter or explicit content gets promoted to them. It also demotes them on YouTube’s discovery categories — whether that’s Search, the recommended tab, and much else of anything that allows content creators to grow their audience. This presented a challenge to Rowan whose content focuses almost exclusively on the clash of feminism, queerness, and geek culture, even when the videos contain little to no reference to explicitly queer themes.

It’s already steep enough of a climb for small YouTubers to get noticed, but YouTube putting the screws to smaller channels on ground of being “kid-unfriendly” borders the line of immorality, and it called into question whether the platform itself wasn’t governed by some old-time misconceptions and stereotypes that queer content is unfit for children to learn or get accustomed to do–basically soft-censoring them out of existence. Age-restriction was especially complicated as it meant the video was automatically discarded from demonetization–rendering the qualification damn-near moot.

This made momentarily the hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty trend, and it was a true look at how a monopoly can sustain its business even when acting against its own established mission statement. Elle Hunt wrote the following on the issue for the Guardian:

Many members of the YouTube community are now questioning whether LGBT content are inherently “sensitive” or “mature”, given inconsistencies in the videos that are restricted. In a statement to the Guardian, a spokesman reiterated that restricted mode was an “optional feature used by a very small subset of users” that, if enabled, meant some videos “that cover subjects like health, politics and sexuality may not appear”.

Whatever YouTube did, it was either not enough, or it didn’t matter at all in the end. Reports of age-restriction kept popping up from notable LGBT+ creators every now and then throughout the rest of 2017. As early as April, Gaby Dunn, comedian, author of “Bad with Money” and one recurring half of ‘Just Between Us’, voiced her concern about YouTube demonetizing her most popular video on the channel — with 8.4 million hits — because it included an acted-out scene where she kissed Stephanie Frosch. Because it might be tempting to make a false equivalency between it, and scenes of romantic intimacy in a heterosexual setting, Gaby made it a point to denote the same fate wasn’t met when she made out with a man–clear evidence of YouTube’s double-standards in regards to child safety.

In December of the same year, Colleen Ballinger (Miranda Sings) put out a video jokingly saying she was to marry Lilly Singh (IISuperwomanII), YouTube immediately took notice despite there being no explicit mention of a lesbian rapport and age-restricted the video, therefore demonetizing it. That decision has not been retroactively amended since, and it still makes no money for its creator despite how relatively benign the comedy skit is. And those concerns carried well into next year as creators continued to make their discontent known.

Shannon Beveridge, infrequent variety vlogger and noted queer creator spoke out publicly by revealing that YouTube deemed her videos unmonetizable after it included the “LGBT” tag to them. This sounds even more ridiculous in retrospect given that YouTube’s algorithms haven’t seemingly stopped making mistakes since late 2017.

Ingrid Nilsen shot into stardom after a heartfelt coming out video in 2015. She’s a variety vlogger that still makes a healthy diet of videos even as a great number of vloggers have abandoned the platform under the heavy weight of creative burnout. She rose in indignance in January 2018, prompting a discussion about YouTube continuing to promote extremist content even as it deoxygenizes the space from the creators it pretends to care about.

Hannah Hart expressed similar concern, citing her conflicted feelings about YouTube even as the platform continues to degrade its LGBT+ creators by not deeming them worthy enough of staying within their family-friendly filters, even as content of political radicalization continues to make the cut. Filmmaker Sal Bardo contributed to the Guardian by highlighting the human element that is often forgotten about LGBT+ content existing on YouTube, and how almost uncanny it is to continue to thrive despite all odds being stacked against:

YouTube’s inaction sends a message to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people that their stories, their work, their careers — their lives — do not matter. During a conference call with two YouTube representatives last month, I was assured that steps were being taken to fix what they admitted where flaws in the system. One of the representatives also wanted me to know that these issues are important to him because he’s gay. But it’s mere lip service unless things change.

That message mostly went over YouTube’s head however, as Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers who form the creative duo “BriaAndChrissy” have encountered similar resistance from the platform. It wasn’t again anything explicitly queer our adult-like that it would’ve warranted a remotely-understandable (but otherwise asinine) explanation, but it was their engagement video. YouTube said it re-instated monetization, only for the call to be reiterated since they couldn’t correctly identify the right videos for review.

Musician/Variety vlogger Joey Graceffa made his grievances publicly known about a similar controversy on the periphery–YouTube had used the algorithm to alter subscribers’ intake of their own subscribed channels through the use of a method eerily similar to shadow-banning on Instagram. It’s impossible for sure to know whether it had anything with Joey being so unapologetically gay on his channel, but it wouldn’t be out-of-bounds to assume so since his content constitutes almost exclusively of queer imagery. This in particular highlighted an extra-ethical aspect of YouTube not even fulfilling the implicit contractual obligation of serving your favorite creators’ content even after hitting “Subscribe”. Joey was decidedly not happy about a good portion of his subscribers not tuning in even as he continued to appease the algorithm by releasing content on a regular basis.

If that wasn’t salt to the wound enough, sex education was not left untouched by the onslaught of content demonetization YouTube had recently undertaken. Actress and Sex Ed pioneer Stevie Beobi, was slapped with limited monetization (which could just about equate to standard demonetization) as she communicated crucial information on how to emotionally deal with sexual assault. This happened in Sexual Assault Awareness month, and couldn’t prove any grimmer for the platform’s reputation as a safe haven for children even as it advocates against videos made with cross-generational safety specifically in mind.

Jack Merridew remarked upon the same thing as he confirmed that merely adding the word “Gay” to a video title on content that was previously monetized, is grounds for near-certain demonetization. This once again puts a solid pin on the idea that YouTube isn’t necessarily scanning content or manually reviewing as potentially unsafe for children–it is running on the idea that queer content inherently is explicit in sexual terms, which just does a major disservice to LGBT+ youth. Musician and YouTube personality Trevor Moran made a similar observation by pointing out that LGBT-related words are still treated as potential grounds for demonetization, even months after creators spoke out in protest.

To treat accusations of years past as relevant can be a tricky route to travel, but renewed concern over YouTube’s monetization policies remained afoot as activist and LeftTube icon Kat Blaque reiterated calls to directly contribute to her through Patreon or a direct donation. This is a classic case of YouTube taking their shot at smaller creators since they’re in relative safety from major retaliation, but while YouTube’s history of past actions doesn’t inspire any cursory confidence in their ability to deal with homophobic and transphobic content and demonetization of LGBT+ content, the latest altercation between Carlos Maza, host of Vox’s political commentary series Strikethrough, and right-wing pundit/comedian Steven Crowder may prove to be a potential turning point in what could be enough of a media-wide pressure to encourage YouTube to embrace more encompassing policies.

YouTube last night put out an official statement in response to Carlos Maza’s claims that Steven Crowder harassed him publicly on homophobic and racist grounds. The case to reprimanding Crowder was substantiated by an occurrence of doxing last year, and a newly-brewed deluge of homophobic and racist comments under the Strikethrough videos Crowder makes a rebuttal of each time they come out. But the statement fell short of satisfying–it once again portrayed hate as an alternative opinion, and not the violation of terms-of-service it actually is, further perpetuating the false notion that LGBT+ people’s qualm with the platform is one of ideology, not basic dignity.

The best YouTube was able to offer was removal of any monetization capabilities from Steven Crowder’s videos until he removes links to his T-shirts with a homophobic slur on them. Furthermore, they’ve gone on to reinforce common convention in the YouTube community as their terms-of-service keep getting violated with no explanation as to why punishment hasn’t followed. YouTube’s statement was all kinds of revealing about the platform’s true intentions with regards to content monetization. This is what they said on their official blog:

To be clear, using racial, homophobic, or sexist epithets on their own would not necessarily violate either of these policies. For example, as noted above, lewd or offensive language is often used in songs and comedic routines. It’s when the primary purpose of the video is hate or harassment. And when videos violate these policies, we remove them.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki once spoke in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher saying that “there’s misinformation, there’s foreign government interference, there’s hate.” Further adding “there are many different areas that [they’re] focused on, and [they’ve] made a lot of progress. And [she wants] to say there’s more progress to be made, [she] 100 percent [acknowledges] it.” There’s no telling what Susan meant as this statement seems to contradict the narrative YouTube is currently trying to sell, but it’s just further proof that the company has no focus or resolve with regards to what content violates its policies, as they’ve continued to flip-flop on the correct interpretation of their terms-of-service just to strawman a false equivalency situation.

It’s quite unfortunate that the largest scale battle between YouTube and its queer creators, created only further grief for the LGBT+ community on the platform. It wasn’t only that YouTube spat on their calls for better treatment and better enforcement of their rules, but it was also a confirmation of what everyone suspected was true all along–YouTube doesn’t care about homophobia as long as it’s made as part of a larger political point.

YouTube can continue to do the corporate thing and gayify its logo to match the colors of the LGBT+ pride flag, but what they can no longer do, is pretend to be the lightning rod they once were for the LGBT+ community. The heyday of queer YouTube is long gone. And those who abuse queer people still remain amply compensated, while their victims are rotting in a cashless bin of obscurity and neglect.