As I write this, I’m watching the views on my YouTube videos about LGBTQ equality tick upward, just now passing 3,208,812. As a creator and activist who uses video to make the world a better place for queer people, YouTube’s been one of my most powerful allies. It’s also a source of constant frustration.
Proposition 8 made me a YouTuber. After California’s marriage ban passed a decade ago, I started posting weekly video updates about marriage equality. That led to a partnership with the group funding the lawsuit to overturn the marriage ban. After marriage equality was won, I expanded my production to cover even more topics: Now I produce a weekly series about global LGBTQ equality called “Weekly Debrief,” and a monthly show about queer stories in movies and television called “Culture Cruise.”
We’ve all heard about the frustrations with YouTube’s treatment of LGBTQ creators: Certain queer-focused videos are placed into a restricted mode, hidden from users who most need to hear that they’re not alone. Thumbnails are deleted without warning. Videos are demonetized, signaling to queer creators that their content isn’t welcome. And most recently, YouTube’s been allowing homophobic ads to run before videos on LGBTQ themes.
Without YouTube, there’s no way my messages could have been seen over three million times. I love the site, I love my viewers, I love making videos. I love that YouTube gives me the power to speak directly to queer people all over the world and gather in a community that, just a few decades ago, was secret, dispersed, and forbidden.
When YouTube is good, it’s very good indeed. But when it is bad, it is horrid.
My first indication of the most recent difficulty came from my viewers who started sending alarmed tweets and leaving unhappy comments. Before they could watch my video about how to talk to family members about equality, they were forced to sit through an advertisement for bakers who think they should be allowed to break nondiscrimination laws. Other viewers were shown an ad for Donald Trump.
I certainly don’t think that YouTube would deliberately target queer people for mistreatment like, say, Chick-Fil-A. Everyone I’ve ever met who works for Google has been lovely, supportive, and often queer themselves. When I worked on the Prop 8 trial, Google reached out to live stream a play about our work that reached millions of people; they invited us to their headquarters for training; they provided free advertising through their ad network.
So what’s going on?
“I know that it’s the algorithm and the bots and the way that everything is coded,” said Chase Ross, a transgender YouTuber, in a recent video. But the fact that YouTube’s problems originate in a robot’s brain doesn’t soften the blow, either for the creators or the viewers.
“A bunch of people tweeted me more screenshots and videos of anti-LGBT ads (specifically from Alliance Defending Freedom),” Ross said in an interview with Forbes. “This started up the conversation with other LGBT+ YouTubers and we all realized our videos had anti-LGBT ads placed on them.”
“The ads are targeted from organizations that are taking advantage of the system,” said Amp, host of the YouTube series “Watts the Safeword.” “They know they can put religious stuff in front of LGBTQ content to undermine our platform.”
Creator Gaby Dunn was even more direct. When the YouTube Diversity team invited their top queer earners to attend a Pride-themed networking event, she tweeted a screengrab of her refusal to attend: “It’d be really awesome if you guys would stop running anti-gay ads on content where my vulnerable queer audience can see it,” she responded, and added in her tweet, “PRIDE ISN’T ABOUT RAINBOW FLAGS AND BANNERS AND OPTICS, SORRY. … How you gonna invite me to an LGBTQ dinner and then demonetize me and my friend’s shit and run anti-gay ads on my channel hell to the no.”
“How fucking dare you @youtube?” tweeted Elijah Daniel with a screengrab of ads on their channel. “You restrict creators beyond belief with what we can have ads on, but don’t screen ads like this before going live? and let them run on LGBT channels? for days? during pride month?”
This is a particularly sensitive time for YouTube to allow anti-gay messages on their platform. Here in the United States, the opponents of equality are pursuing an agenda to dismantle what few legal protections exist for queer Americans. Although marriage is legal, sexual orientation and gender identity are not federally protected, and it’s legal to fire, evict, or expel someone for being queer in most states. Anti-equality groups are spending millions to overturn the country’s limited nondiscrimination laws, making it harder than ever for queer people to hold a job, have a home, go to school, or simply to access government services.
If YouTube’s commitment to Pride is genuine, it must include a commitment to take action to protect queer creators.
Internationally, the situation is far more dire. Queer people face violence and persecution in Chechnya, Egypt, and Indonesia, just to name a few. Under the Obama administration, the United States imposed sanctions against countries that target queer populations. Now, the State Department is silent–not surprising, given that Mike Pence recently defended the criminalization of homosexuality.
In that climate, it’s vital to reach marginalized groups with news, community, and support for organizing. And while YouTube makes it possible for queer creators to do so, its advertising system also undermines that work by allowing the enemies of equality to get the first word in with pre-roll ads. I can’t imagine how discouraging it must be for a young queer person, isolated and unable to access support from those around them, to seek out supportive voices online, only to be ambushed by a message about how they’re not wanted. How many people in need of help have closed the tab before even having a chance to watch the video they came for?
“Right now LGBTQ videos might save a kid who feels they’re not valid or acceptable to society,” said Amp. “For me to know that kids are seeing anti-LGBTQ ads, I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.”
For their part, YouTube is aware of the problem and has offered a solution. Unfortunately, it’s a solution to a different problem.
“You can keep these ads from appearing by setting an ad exclusion for a specific advertiser URL,” tweeted an anonymous company representative, including a link with instructions.
The problem with that method–besides being too jargony for many users to understand–is that it doesn’t actually work. It’s true that you can block advertisers by their specific URL, but how are creators supposed to know what URL to block? YouTube doesn’t tell creators what ads have appeared on their channel. The only way to block them is to wait for it to be shown to a viewer, then for that viewer to click on the ad to get the URL, and then to report the ad back to the creator.
There’s a simpler solution that YouTube could implement. They already have a way for viewers to flag ads by clicking an almost-invisible symbol in the lower left of the screen. YouTube could make that symbol clearer (such as with the “This particular post sucks” button that Tumblr employs) and then provide creators with a report showing which ads have been flagged on their channel.
Or better yet, YouTube could refuse to accept advertising from groups that advocate for government policies that are morally reprehensible.
But instead, their solution is to “use machine learning to evaluate content against our advertiser guidelines,” according to YouTube. “Sometimes our systems get it wrong, which is why we’ve encouraged creators to appeal. Successful appeals ensure that our systems get better and better.”
In other words: We built an advertising robot that allows malicious actors to target vulnerable populations. Maybe someday our robot won’t do that anymore. Maybe. Shrug emoji!
It’s great that YouTube has a rainbow banner. It’s great that they highlighted It Gets Better videos in an ad once. It’s great that they invited their top queer money-makers to a diversity party. At a time when crackpot business owners are litigating for their right to turn away queer customers, it’s meaningful that the largest corporations in the world are eager to associate themselves with rainbow flags. It wasn’t always this way.
Mike Stabile, who represents an adult-industry group called The Free Speech Coalition, is hopeful that YouTube will come around.
“What you see is largely a matter of straight privilege,” he said. “And corporate privilege. You can make sure you’re hiring a diverse workforce and supporting LGBTQ causes. You can commemorate Pride and do wonderful things, and at the same time have a blind spot about how your policies are adversely affecting the LGBTQ community.”
As Gaby Dunn noted, Pride isn’t just about banners and optics. There’s more to Pride than a flag. Pride started as a riot against police brutality, as a brick thrown through a window, and as queer trans people of color refusing to be silenced.
If YouTube’s commitment to Pride is genuine, it must include a commitment to take action to protect queer creators — particularly those who are most vulnerable, such as trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, and the economically disadvantaged.
Pride is not a time for marginalized people to perform volunteer work on behalf of a multi-billion dollar company in the hopes that one day they’ll teach its robots not to discriminate. It’s a time to smash the systems that oppress.
“People don’t want to make ripples,” Amp acknowledged. “But the only way to get change is to push back.”
Hopefully, that pushback produces some change. Last week, one of my viewers reported seeing an ad for Donald Trump, and supplied me with the associated URL. I jumped through YouTube’s hoops to block it, and a few minutes later clicked over to one of my videos to check the comments. But before my video played, I was presented with an ad for the very website I’d just blocked.