It’s been a difficult year for YouTubers, but especially for those who make LGBTQ+ content. From Restricted Mode, demonetisation, and the Adpocalypse, TenEighty speaks to Jake Edwards, Roly West, Ben Hunte and Rebecca Shoptaw to find out whether YouTube is doing enough to support LGBTQ+ creators.
YouTube has always been a space where those who are not represented in mainstream media feel empowered to speak and be heard. Through the platform, they have direct control over how they are portrayed, what they want to say, and why they’re saying it. LGBTQ+ youth in particular use YouTube as an invaluable resource for finding positive Queer role models, contributing to a generation of people who are more knowledgeable and open minded than ever before.
YouTube has reciprocated this dedication in turn, supporting movements such as the It Gets Better Project in 2010 and 2011, and launching their own #ProudToBe campaign that coincides with LGBTQ+ Pride month each year. The company itself encourages LGBTQ+ creators to share their stories in the hopes of creating an environment in which they feel valued.
Then, during March of 2017, YouTube’s Restricted Mode, a resource used to “help screen out potentially mature content that you may prefer not to see or don’t want others in your family to see” came under fire as several LGBTQ+ YouTubers realised their channels and videos, even ‘child appropriate’ ones, could not be accessed in this mode.
“I found that eight out of my 11 short films had vanished and that my whole channel actually no longer appeared in the YouTube search results,” says Rebecca Shoptaw, a filmmaker who exclusively makes family friendly LGBTQ+ short films. “It’s hard to be essentially told that what you create isn’t what YouTube wants on its platform.”
Jake Edwards, a musician who makes videos with boyfriend Alex Bertie, was also affected. “My average views have dropped through the floor and it’s really demotivating,” he says. “The [videos] that don’t show up have ‘trans’, ‘boyfriend’, ‘non-binary’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘gay’ in the titles… it’s just disappointing and obvious.”
Ben Hunte, who makes videos with his friend and previous partner Jack Lewis on their shared channel Our Swirl Life, also noticed certain words in titles triggering demonetisation. “We’ve found that most videos with ‘boyfriend’ in the title have been demonetised – which is the majority of them,” he says. “It’s such a shame, because even though we don’t do YouTube to make money, we shouldn’t be penalised for making authentic LGBTQ+ content!
Roly West, who makes LGBTQ+, piercing, and body modification videos, had the same experience. “When it first happened – like most people – everything [all of his videos] were taken off, basically,” he reveals. “I’ve managed to get most of them back up with ads, but whenever I upload a new video the ads are taken off almost instantly and back up within 24 hours.
“They say ‘it’s learning’ and that ‘it makes mistakes’, but how long does it need?” Roly asserts.
“So much of the LGBTQ+ representation I create is intended for LGBTQ+ youth, who are likely to be affected by Restricted Mode”
As well as issues with Restricted Mode, the wider YouTube community as a whole saw their ad revenue decrease massively across 2017 – in what is now known as the Adpocalypse. Multiple organisations removed their advertising from YouTube following fears of it appearing next to potentially harmful or extremist content. This climate was demoralising for most YouTubers – let alone Queer creators – with many reporting how difficult it had become to make ends meet due to financial instability.
“It’s a pleasant surprise for me to get paid anything at the end of the month now,” says Jake, revealing that before the changes he was finally beginning to make ends meet. “Now this decline in ads on my videos has meant I can no longer look at YouTube as even a small source of income.”
“Filmmaking is very expensive,” Rebecca adds, “so I could have actually used ad revenue to help fund future projects.”
This lack of funding has contributed to LGBTQ+ creators moving away from topics that focus on LGBTQ+ issues.
Ultimately though, if their content is restricted then it’s not reaching the people who need it most. “So much of the LGBTQ+ representation I create is intended for LGBTQ+ youth, who are likely to be affected by Restricted Mode,” explains Rebecca.
To this end, Jake highlights how valuable YouTube can be for the LGBTQ+ community when it’s unrestricted. “Having a free platform, without censorship, to bring minorities together is a vital part of making sure vulnerable people don’t feel weird, or alone.”
“They are definitely listening to our concerns, but their actions to rectify them are a lot slower than we’d all like.”
In March 2016, following feedback and criticism from LGBTQ+ and other creators alike, YouTube released a short statement over Twitter. It states: “LGBTQ+ videos are available in Restricted Mode, but videos that discuss more sensitive issues may not be. We regret any confusion this has caused and are looking into your concerns.”
A message to our community … pic.twitter.com/oHNiiI7CVs
— YouTube Creators (@YTCreators) March 20, 2017
At the time, however, this was met with criticism as it didn’t address all of the issues LGBTQ+ creators had raised. It was soon followed up with a post on YouTube’s Creator Blog apologising and admitting Restricted Mode wasn’t working the way it should.
The blog also promised to use the feedback to better train their systems. “It will take time to fully audit our technology and roll out new changes, so please bear with us. There’s nothing more important to us than being a platform where anyone can belong, have a voice and speak out when they believe something needs to be changed.”
Three months later, during Pride month, YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki reiterated the platforms commitment to LGBTQ+ creators in another blog. Expressing regret for the way Queer creators felt they’d been treated, she revealed initiatives aiming to make YouTube more inclusive.
— YouTube Creators (@YTCreators) June 20, 2017
This included “promoting LGBTQ+ creators and their content as part of the launch of YouTube’s fifth annual #ProudToBe campaign”, “introducing a permanent shelf on the US Spotlight channel to showcase LGBTQ+ videos throughout the year”, “partnering with The Trevor Project and working with 25 global suicide prevention organisations”, and “hosting a series of Creator Roundtables to discuss initiatives that impact the LGBTQ+ community and gather feedback to improve YouTube’s products and programmes”.
Ben was one of the YouTubers present at the Creator Roundtables, which he says was attended by YouTube Executives and had a real focus on improving the experience of LGBTQ+ creators. “They are definitely listening to our concerns,” he says, “but their actions to rectify them are a lot slower than we’d all like.”
In January 2017, YouTube announced changes to the YouTube Partnership Programme, in response to wider concerns about the types of content monetised on the platform. As a result, videos that hit over a thousand views within a week are now eligible for manual review by request, and therefore approved for ads. This move is backed by an increase of ten thousand moderation staff, and should ensure that when demonetisation occurs ads can be swiftly reinstated.
Following all these announcements, and almost one year on from the discovery creators made about Restricted Mode, has YouTube’s policy changes addressed the problem of demonetisation among LGBTQ+ creators?
Despite YouTube upping their manpower, many LGBTQ+ creators believe their videos are being demonetised in the first instance simply for using LGBTQ+ tags, even if the video itself holds no explicit content.
Our Costa Rica vlog got demonitized – could you confirm whether it was flagged by the dinosaur community as offensive? Thanks so much!
Love always (hetero mainstream love) Rose xxx
— Rose Ellen Dix 🌹 (@RoseEllenDix) January 16, 2018
YouTube responded, but their explanation wasn’t so clear:
It looks like the automated system applied a yellow icon (it uses a bunch of signals to apply icons). Checked and the video is currently pending a manual review (by a person) so the reviewer can update the status/icon if needed– thanks for appealing!
— Team YouTube (@TeamYouTube) January 16, 2018
No, thank you! Hopefully with advances in technology 2018 will be the year the automated system treats every creator equally! xxx
— Rose Ellen Dix 🌹 (@RoseEllenDix) January 16, 2018
Another couple, Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers, have also expressed astonishment when their #ProudToLove video – a video that YouTube had specifically asked them to make – was demonetised.
THANKS @YouTube for demonetizing our #ProudToLove video (A video YOU asked us in an email to MAKE!) When we try to refute this U respond with it hasn't had more than 1000 views this week we can't review it, YOU'VE taken the video out of searches so YEAH it can't get a 1000 views! pic.twitter.com/pzUqtIekQm
— BriaAndChrissy (@BriaandChrissy) February 4, 2018
As a smaller creator, Rebecca’s videos do not have the luxury of hitting a thousand views within a week and still continue to be demonetised. “I assumed that the issues with restricted mode had been fixed after March of last year, but I checked today to confirm that nine out of the 12 short films still do not appear, and that my channel is still not searchable.”
“I think they are trying but then every other community wants help as it’s affecting everyone and not just us”
“I think they are trying but then every other community wants help as it’s affecting everyone and not just us”
The disconnect between YouTube’s words and actions versus the experience LGBTQ+ creators are having is continuing to cause tension, because evidently the system is still not working and a solution is yet to be found.
Roly believes the situation is more complicated than merely LGBTQ+ creators versus YouTube. “People are using other words in tags and descriptions and then go off saying YouTube is homophobic when it’s nothing to do with that but something else they’ve put,” he says.
“I think they are trying but then every other community wants help as it’s affecting everyone and not just us,” Roly continues. “I’m part of the piercing and body modification community and we are all getting taken down too. So although I’d like to think they’d focus on us, they have to fix the entire system, and I don’t even want to think how hard that’s going to be.”
So what can YouTubers do? Roly says there are simple ways of ensuring your content doesn’t get flagged. “With tags and descriptions, I never used to put anything really problematic or too x-rated anyway so it’s not been much of a changed. With filming I now don’t swear in my videos anymore but it’s not a change that has bothered me.”
Removing specifically LGBTQ+ tags in videos is another solution creators have found. “I’ve wiped all the tags on my videos that relate to being LGBTQ+,” explains Jake. “I avoid certain words in my titles and just put them in my thumbnails instead.”
“It’s amazing to have one million subscribers, but if nobody’s watching your stuff, then what’s the point?”
However, this is less than ideal as it still means the audiences who are hunting that type of content are less likely to find it. “Now it’s harder to find videos on trans and non-binary topics so we all have to go off word of mouth and other social media platforms,” says Jake.
“Creators must make a choice,” Rebecca states. “If I have to choose between making my LGBTQ+ films easily accessible on YouTube with labels like ‘lesbian short film’ and actually earning money from what I do, I will always put making the films accessible first. That said, this isn’t a choice I should have to make.”
Ben has found, however, that people have still been able to find his channel. “Our audience has remained consistent, so even with our revenue disappearing, we’re still able to make content which entertains, educates, inspires, and GETS SEEN!”
“Some creators are really struggling with getting their huge numbers of subscribers to actually watch their content,” he continues “It’s amazing to have one million subscribers, but if nobody’s watching your stuff, then what’s the point?”
As demonetisation effects all types of creators, YouTubers have been turning to alternate means for making money such as Patreon. The service allows fans to make monthly payments to creators in exchange for rewards, such as early previews to videos, physical gifts, and skype calls.
In a TenEighty feature published last August, Jordan Cope, Creator Relations Lead at Patreon, revealed that there has been “double the rate of new creator growth than we originally forecasted”. This suggests a huge movement of creators diversifying their income streams.
YouTube itself is also investing in alternate ways for creators to get payed. Mimicking the style of Patreon, they have been testing out a monthly payments service where viewers ‘sponsor’ a channel for digital rewards and perks – something that had previously only been available to gaming channels.
Ben also questions whether moving onto a different site would help creators get revenue. “YouTube still holds such a pedestal because of monetisation possibilities, but all it would take is a few of the biggest YouTube creators – and audience bringers – to drop their YouTube accounts and switch to Facebook or Twitch, and we’d all be forced to move too.”
“I really do hope for the best for YouTube,” he continues, “but in the same way that MySpace was incredible at the time then became too slow to react to change, YouTube really needs to fix-up before the audience (and creators) bounce.”
“You can ignore a few people, but an entire community banded together could insight real change”
However, the biggest aid for LGBTQ+ YouTubers is not through crowdfunding platforms, tags, censoring types of content, or changing platform. It’s through the community. There is great pride and support amongst LGBTQ+ creators on YouTube.
“The community has become much closer, which has given me hope,” says Jake. “People from all areas of the platform with a multitude of identities have started banding together, collaborating and promoting each other in the hopes that our strength in numbers will help our content reach the people who need it.”
Rebecca agrees, encouraging people to “help get the word out about each other’s work as much as possible, by featuring other LGBTQ+ creators in videos or at least sharing their content on social media.”
Roly advocates further public discussions of LGBTQ+ work, calling for “more open discussion panels at YouTube events.”
As for the future of LGBTQ+ creators on YouTube, Roly has a pragmatic view. “YouTube is always something that has gone through ups and downs and they seem to pull it back,” he says. “Thing is we all moan and bitch but still carry on making videos and uploading.”
“Regardless of what they are doing we are still feeding the site so I don’t know how much we can moan and moan if we don’t stop and do something else.”
Reflecting on this, Ben asserts that just talking about these issues won’t be enough. “We all already know what each other is going through, so talking amongst ourselves is only useful for a while! The people in charge need to listen and act.”
Jake has big ideas for the future, suggesting “a big creator network or group” that could come in useful. “Maybe someone could start up a directory to list all the LGBTQ+ creators and what they bring to their channels. Anything that helps us stay connected is bound to make us stronger,” he says.
“You can ignore a few people, but an entire community banded together could insight real change.”
Either way Rebecca will keep creating on the platform because of the “unparalleled freedom and accessibility of YouTube”, and is certain others will do too. “What I hope is that YouTube will eventually resolve many of the issues that make it difficult to be an LGBTQ+ creator on the platform,” she says. “What I expect is that LGBTQ+ creators will continue to make wonderful LGBTQ+ content and to support one another even when YouTube fails to do so.”
Check out some of the following features by TenEighty:
- Can YouTube Combat Bisexual Erasure?
- Meet the Trans Vloggers of the UK
- LGBTQ+ On YouTube: Does Being Gay Affect Your Content?
- Riyadh Khalaf: Broadcasting Charm
- Connie Glynn: Unapologetically Pink
- YouTube Apologises For Restricted Mode LGBTQ+ Controversy
- Susan Wojcicki Unveils Plans to Support LGBTQ+ Creators