To celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month, TenEighty is taking a closer look at the UK’s gay YouTubers in a three-part series.
In the first part we met Gary C, Trent Owers and Luke Shayler, and Lewis Parker, who discussed the ways in which their content has been affected by being open about their sexuality. Trent and Luke revealed that most of their content is gay-themed, but this is because they’ve built their audience around that topic. Gary and Lewis felt that being out allowed them to address LGBTQ+ issues more openly, but it didn’t mean that their content was defined by their sexuality.
All four talked at length about how YouTube and coming-out videos not only helped them on their own personal journeys, but has also become a resource for their own education and understanding of LGBTQ+ people. In recent times, however, the positive message of these videos has arguably been manipulated, via the rise of Queer-baiting.
Queer-baiting on YouTube is when a content creator – often heterosexual – alludes to homosexual relations to provoke a response while downplaying it as a joke or the audience’s misinterpretation. For example, when Joe Sugg announced his graphic novel earlier this month, the title of the video was My Big Announcement and the thumbnail used fan-made photoshopped pictures of him kissing Caspar Lee.
Gary points out that Queer-baiting could be an unfortunate side-effect from the rise in slash fan-fiction and shipping culture. “I have no idea why homoerotic images resonate with teen girls… Over the past year, shipping and fan-fiction has grown,” he says. “But Queer-baiting is increasingly exploitative of that.”
When TenEighty interviewed three slash fiction writers last year, we asked them their thoughts on YouTubers who play up to fandom pairings by being suggestive and putting homoerotic undertones in their videos. One of the writers told us that if slash fictions writers have the freedom to write their stories, YouTubers are free to play up to it.
“If someone can get followers by playing things up, I think that’s OK,” they told us. “Their YouTube persona is not their real life one, so what they’re doing is just fiction too.”
In My Big Announcement, Joe reveals that the pictures in the thumbnail were fan-created. It could be that Joe was simply acknowledging parts of his fanbase that ‘ship’ him and Caspar by playing up to it. Although, he does then go on to ask them to stop.
Jazza John called the incident out, in Is Joe Sugg Gay Baiting?, speculating that Joe knew what he was doing because he included an inlay annotation that said ‘Soz 4 da clickbait thumbnail lolololol xoxo’.
“There is a possibility of a Queer kid seeing that thumbnail, clicking on it with the hope of their favourite YouTuber coming out as part of their Queer/LGBTQ+ community,” says Jazza. “For the YouTuber to use that click-bait and to then shoot down the possibility of them being Queer as being weird and gross, that’s what made me angry.”
Jazza goes on to say: “I don’t think that Joe is a bad guy, he clearly saw the opportunity to get more clicks and used that. I mean, that’s how you win at the YouTube game, through thumbnail and title optimisation.”
It’s important to note that click-bait – or thumbnail and title optimisation, as Jazza puts it – is a widespread and largely accepted tactic amongst YouTubers. But while queer-baiting essentially utilises the same methods, it shows a lack of understanding or concern for LGBTQ+ people and their feelings, which is why most LGBTQ+ people find it disrespectful.
In Queerbaiting on YouTube, Beckii Cruel explains the importance of coming out videos; pointing out that they’re a way for LGBTQ+ people to establish themselves in a heteronormative society. “The reason that it can be make-or-break is because we do live in a society which is not completely accepting of non-heterosexual relationship, preferences and identities,” she says.
She argues that it’s a very empowering moment when LGBTQ+ people find out someone they admire, who is also very successful in their lives, is non-heterosexual. “It helps us normalise non-heterosexual relationships which helps us with the end goal of universal acceptance, love, kindness and support,” she says.
“When you queer-bait or make non-serious content about coming out, as a straight person, you are invalidating many people’s experiences of coming out,” she explains. “You affirm the heteronormative nature of media, and you make people feel foolish for thinking they could trust you.
“While click-bait is morally debatable,” adds Beckii, “you can do it without preying on something that is so crucial to so many people.”
It is likely that Joe was simply doing what he had always done – click-baiting – and was simply unaware that he had crossed a line.
But there can be arrogance, as well as ignorance, behind Queer-baiting. When straight people play up to notions of Queer identities, they can pick and choose the parts of the identity that benefit them, without having to deal with the real-life consequences of those identities that actual Queer people have to endure.
Luke has since changed the title of the video and apologised. In a statement in the description of the video he says: “I’ve realised it wasn’t right to use this term when it is usually used by the LGBTQ+ community for sharing their sexuality with friends, family, loved ones or anybody else they choose to share it with… ‘Coming Out’ videos are of massive importance to LGBTQ+ people struggling with the prejudices of the heteronormative world and it wasn’t right that my video be suggested when people were looking for those videos as a source of comfort, inspiration or encouragement.”
Trent isn’t outraged by the rise in Queer-baiting tactics, but finds click-bait, in general, annoying. “Click-bait is an ancient YouTuber secret but everyone is starting to catch on,” he says. “That’s not really the way to expand your audience or to get a reaction because it’s probably just going to annoy people.”
However Gary feels very differently. “Maybe it’s naïve of me, but I would expect people to be more thoughtful,” he says. “In 2015 most thumbnails and titles are click-bait on some level, as it’s their job to bring in traffic. And yet, exploiting anyone – let alone a minority group – for clicks is very disappointing.”
Lewis agrees. “Queer-baiting is evident in the media in general, so of course it happens on YouTube,” he says. “I am completely against it when it becomes misleading and sly.”
Acknowledging both incidents separately, Lewis reminds us that the act of misleading can be very damaging. “I would hope that creators learn from their mistakes and know better,” he adds.
What have I missed and what’s to come?
This is the second of a three-part series! In the first part, TenEighty met Gary, Trent and Luke, and Lewis, and found out whether their sexuality has affected their content. In the third part, we will be discussing LGBTQ+ content creators who are out in their private lives but have chosen not to disclose their sexuality online.
Alternatively, you could check out our interview with Alex Bertie who discusses being trans on YouTube, our coverage of the LGBTQ+ panel at Summer in the City 2014, or watch five of the best videos that deal with sexuality.
Correction 2 March 2015:
TenEighty misquoted one of our contributors in the article above. The quote from a slash fiction writer that reads – “If someone can get followers by playing things up, I think that’s OK,” – previously said – “If someone can get followers by playing things up, I think that’s great.”
We have apologised to the contributor and corrected the mistake in this article, as well as the original feature we took the quote from.