How YouTube Continues to Alienate the LGBTQ Community
A few years after they started their channel, Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers, also known as BriaAndChrissy, got the email saying they were verified. They remember that moment in 2014 well. It had been two years since they started their channels, where they posted LGBT-themed skits and music videos, and they had amassed 100,000 subscribers, the minimum amount required for YouTube verification.
The day they got that check mark, “I felt recognition for working so hard and being able to build up an audience,” Chambers tells Rolling Stone. “It was like the company was saying, ‘You matter to us; you are a part of what people are contributing to this platform.'”
Five years later, Chambers and Kam have more than 850,000 subscribers and have built a brand as prominent LGBTQ YouTubers. So they were shocked when they received an email last Thursday, brusquely informing them that they had been unverified. It was, Kam says, “humiliating.”
“We’d worked so hard to get to this place only to be told we don’t matter,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Kam and Chambers were not the only prominent content creators to receive the email. On that same Thursday, many YouTube content creators of all stripes shared on social media that they had received an email informing them that they had been unverified. YouTube was dramatically overhauling its qualifications for verification criteria.
The email offered little insight into its new guidelines, saying only that verification would now be awarded to those who are “widely recognized outside of YouTube and have a strong presence online,” as a way to “make channel verification more consistent for users and creators across YouTube,” the email read.
Following the outcry, the platform swiftly backtracked, promising creators that had already been verified that they would get to keep their badges. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki quickly apologized, and a post on YouTube Creators’ blog said the company had “missed the mark” in terms of its verification update. When reached for comment, a YouTube spokesperson referred us to the blog post, saying, “The idea behind this update was to protect creators from impersonation and address user confusion. Every year, we receive tens of thousands of complaints from creators about impersonation. Also, nearly a third of YouTube users told us that they misunderstood the badge’s meaning, associating it with *endorsement of content*, and not an indicator of *identity*.”
But for many content creators, particularly LGBTQ content creators who have long felt marginalized by the platform, the damage had already been done — at least in terms of morale. “They just said, ‘We missed the mark,’ which they always say,” Kam says. “I think if YouTube had a slogan, it would be: ‘YouTube: We Missed the Mark.'”
To be clear, it wasn’t just LGBTQ content creators who were affected by YouTube’s verification guidelines overhaul, and none of the content creators who were informed they would be losing their verification status said they felt uniquely targeted by the policy change. “We sent an email to EVERY creator who had a badge,” a YouTube spokesperson told Rolling Stone. “Creators who had a badge and were going to keep it, received an email. Creators who had the badge and were going to lose it, received an email with a link for appeals.”
But for some LGBTQ YouTubers who say they have a complicated past with the platform, getting abruptly unverified — without warning or any insight into the verification process — felt like just another way the platform has increasingly made creators feel unwelcome. Kat Blaque, a writer and prominent LGBTQ content creator who has been on YouTube since 2005, tells Rolling Stone of the platform’s decision to retain users’ badges. Yet the immediate effect last Thursday was to make many creators feel like YouTube was saying, “‘We don’t really want you here and we don’t care that you’re here.'”
Ostensibly, the verification system on YouTube and other platforms is intended to protect creators by preventing people from impersonating them and stealing their content. In reality, however, it’s far more of a status signifier than anything else, says Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communication at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Verification systems are “skewed toward verifying those in a position of power,” Grygiel says. “Verification is so tied to visibility that removing it is an erasure, to a large extent.”
Part of the initial backlash to YouTube’s announcement on Thursday stemmed from the fact that the company provided little clarity into what prompted it in the first place. Dan Olson, a verified YouTuber who runs the channel FoldingIdeas, interpreted it as part of the platform’s “pivot to mainstream credibility”: prioritizing verified Hollywood celebrities with channels on the platform and its YouTube Red partners over homegrown content creators. The verification system could have been overhauled as a step toward demoting creators with extremist views or who disseminate misinformation — who may have been verified simply because they had met the threshold of 100,000 followers.
Olson does not believe that the policy would have impacted creators’ ability to monetize their content or attract eyeballs as much as they may have believed. “The hidden cost of all of this, the hidden damage, really is in morale,” he said. And many creators who had felt marginalized on YouTube to begin with echoed this sentiment. The initial policy announcement felt like “a very pointed slap in the face,” says Blaque. “For many of us, it just smelled like disrespect,” she tells Rolling Stone.
That sentiment was particularly felt among some LGBTQ vloggers who have accused the platform of turning a blind eye to or outright discriminating against them. In 2017, YouTube was met with intense criticism when a number of prominent LGBTQ content creators — including Tyler Oakley and Rowan Ellis — accused the platform of putting a number of innocuous videos, such as makeup tutorials or same-sex wedding vows, in restricted mode, thus implying they were not appropriate for children. YouTube quickly apologized, blaming an error in its filtering mechanism, and vowed to remedy the situation.
Despite YouTube’s vows to do better, and the company’s outreach efforts to the LGBTQ community, many prominent LGBTQ creators say they have not seen a difference in the platform’s treatment of their content. In 2018, transgender vlogger Chase Ross accused the company of demonetizing his videos with the keywords “trans” or “transgender” in the title. YouTube denied that its flagging system was automatically triggered by such words, although it conceded that “sometimes our systems get it wrong.”
YouTube was also criticized earlier this year for failing to ban or remove content by Steven Crowder, a right-wing vlogger who posted multiple videos mocking the LGBTQ journalist Carlos Maza. After much backlash on social media, YouTube eventually decided to demonetize Crowder’s account, a decision that struck Maza as highly ironic: “For the record, demonetizing Crowder means that YouTube now treats anti-LGBT harassment the same way it treats pro-LGBT content. Bonkers,” he tweeted.
Tensions became so high that, last month, Kam and Chambers were two of eight LGBTQ plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against YouTube, alleging that the platform systemically prevents them from making money by age-gating their content and demonetizing their videos.
“Not having access to advertisers and being such a low priority on the totem pole, not having access to the same ad revenue abilities, having so many of these channels silenced or having age restrictions or having our content flagged or demonetized — the list just goes on and on,” says Chambers.
As the platform has attracted bigger and bigger names and become a more major player in the tech ecosystem, many LGBTQ content creators who have been there since YouTube’s early stages have felt left behind.
“In 2013, 2014, YouTube was at its peak. But it’s since made a very big shift,” says Stephanie Frosch, the LGBTQ creator behind the channel ElloSteph, who is also listed as a plaintiff on the suit and says that about a dozen of other LGBTQ creators were notified they were being deverified as well. “It’s gone from being about celebration and authenticity to being about Gucci hauls and challenges. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the kind of environment where we feel we can thrive.”
Mon. Sept 23, 2019, 5:17 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from a YouTube spokesperson.