In theory, YouTube is a democratic platform that allows anyone to post any content they might want to share with anyone who might want to watch it. The types of barriers typical for entry in the music, TV, and film industries do not, theoretically, exist on the video-sharing site, which is why the platform has such a reputation for serving as a jumping-off point for "making it big." Theoretically, everyone has the same ability to gain recognition, followers, and money for the content they create. There are some invisible barriers, though, that have restricted select content creators from gaining as much visibility or revenue from their content as others. Specifically, LGBTQ+ content creators have, time and again, called out the platform for wrongly demonetizing or otherwise restricting their videos.
YouTube’s “restricted mode,” which allows users to opt out of seeing more “mature” content on their feed, was called out last year for censoring LGBTQ+ content that was not explicit or vulgar in any way. Restricting videos en masse directly affected content creators’ views and exposure, which is a huge problem when many creators involved make a living off of their videos. The company explained in a blog post that there was a learning curve for the algorithm and that it would take steps to restore videos that were unjustly restricted. While this particular problem seems to have been resolved, LGBTQ+ creators are still being disproportionately affected through the act of demonetization or being unable to make a profit off of their work, as well as through exclusion from the site’s “Trending” and “Recommended” features. These are less obvious to viewers, yet are strongly affecting the creators. They’re also harder to pin down, although testimonies from YouTubers who have been victim to these issues have provided important input.
Trevor Moran, a musician and creator who has been on YouTube for a decade, posted a video earlier this year in which he described his experience being demonetized and stripped from YouTube’s algorithm. The video in question, titled “My gender,” is a tearful and honest explanation of Moran’s struggle to come to terms with his gender orientation. The video was neither vulgar nor sexual. The video was originally titled “Transgender,” however, and Moran claims that right as it went up, he got “a notification saying, ‘This has been blocked from monetization.’” While he saw his video on YouTube’s “Trending” page and in “Recommended” lists shortly after he uploaded it, within a few minutes the video disappeared. Viewer counts, naturally, slowed after this. A couple of days later, Moran decided to change the video’s title to “My gender.” He says that “as soon as I [changed the title] from ‘Transgender’ to ‘My gender,’ it got accepted for monetization again and thrown back into the algorithm,” which led to its view count climbing once more.
Image via Trevor Moran/YouTube
While it’s clear that the word “transgender” in the title of Moran’s video was the reason it was demonetized, he did some research to make sure this was the case. He uploaded the same video of a black screen with differing titles; “transgender” and “lesbian couple” were marked “not suitable for all advertisers,” while the same video titled “straight couple” was able to be monetized. Moran is not the only creator who has had to deal with this discrimination. In November of last year, creator Alexis G. Zall initiated a Twitter exchange with YouTube, saying “my video has the word gay in the title so it has INSTANTLY been demonetized.” The video mentioned is presumably “WHY I’M GAY (with illustrations),” which, again, is not sexual or vulgar in nature and has since been cleared for monetization. Rosie Spaughton, one-half of Rose and Rosie, two married British YouTubers, posts solo videos in a series titled the “Bisexy series.” Spaughton is bisexual and married to a woman and in these videos attempts to dispel misconceptions and raise understanding of what it actually means to be bisexual. These videos are informative and not sexually explicit, yet Spaughton has said that they always get demonetized. George Lester, a creator who reviews books, states that his only demonetized videos are those where he reviews queer books. The list goes on.
Seemingly the only solution that YouTube offers is for creators to submit their videos for manual review so that they can bypass their content’s automatic demonetization. Creators can do this while their video is still “unlisted,” or before it is released to the public, so that they do not lose any potential revenue in the case that their video attracts views while it is demonetized. Basically, LGBTQ+ creators have to take extra steps to ensure that their videos are not restricted due to a flagged keyword they may have included in the title (such as “gay”). Seems a little discriminatory to me. Since videos by queer creators are not always demonetized or otherwise restricted, and since some LGBTQ+ content is explicit or unsuitable for ads in other ways, though, a solution is not clear-cut.
What makes this even more hypocritical is the favoritism that is shown to popular (and straight) creators. Logan Paul uploaded a video earlier this year titled "We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest..." which showed a suicide victim's body. It was allowed to reach number 10 on YouTube's "Trending" page before Paul himself took the video down. It was monetized. In February, Paul's monetization was briefly suspended on all videos after he tazed a dead rat on camera, but it was reinstated again by the end of the month. Jake Paul, Logan's brother and a member of the famous Team 10 squad on YouTube, posted a video with a thumbnail of him being straddled by his girlfriend, who was in lingerie, with the title "I Lost My Virginity" (the video's name and thumbnail have since been changed). This video was also monetized.
Without proper exposure for LGBTQ+ YouTubers, they risk not getting adequate compensation, which will inevitably lead to them being unable to create their own content, leading to the tacit disenfranchisement of an important market of creators, making it harder and harder for marginalized experiences to be seen and heard.