As YouTube continues to take heat for its defense of conservative pundit Steven Crowder, LGBTQ employees within Google are angered by the company’s decisions. Still, they’re afraid of speaking out — not just because of the repercussions from the company, but also from their colleagues who may be right-leaning.
Within Google, employees who spoke to The Verge say they feel frustration, anger, and exhaustion over what they see as a recurring problem, especially for the LGBTQ community. The Verge talked to four Google employees, most of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely and without fear of retaliation. “Internal outreach to executives has not been effective in years. They ignore us completely unless there is extreme unrest,” says one employee. “We can’t trust them anymore to listen in good faith.”
Googlers have consistently said they’re afraid to speak up or be too loud about issues that matter to them. Wired has previously reported on outspoken diversity advocates being targeted by their own co-workers. Screenshots including personal information and internal discussions have been leaked to many far-right sites.
“When these doxxings were brought up, Google said they were not responsible,” a source tells The Verge. Although the company eventually updated its policies, the source says that Google employees ordered separate phones and removed as much personal information as they could from internal directories. Further sowing distrust, Google walkout organizers say they faced retaliation for their activism; today, walkout organizer Claire Stapleton announced that she’s left the company for that reason. One employee describes the company culture as a place where advocates fear retaliation from their company, bad faith weaponization of HR, and more doxxing.
“It’s not safe for us,” one employee says. As a result, many employees have limited their engagement on these topics out of fear. “We need to look out for our jobs, our personal safety, and our families.”
As a platform, YouTube has long struggled with its LGBTQ community. Creators found their videos restricted seemingly for including the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual,” even when sexual content was not discussed. Last year, during Pride Month, YouTube was demonetizing queer creators’ videos while adding anti-LGBTQ ads to others.
On May 30th, Vox host Carlos Maza tweeted a thread that pointed to a pattern of homophobic harassment from conservative pundit Steven Crowder. (The Verge and Vox are both owned by Vox Media.) One supercut of Crowder’s comments includes him referring to Maza as a “little queer,” “lispy queer,” and “the gay Vox sprite.” After several days of investigation, YouTube ruled that Crowder did not violate the platform’s policies, but the company did not provide any insight into its process, and it chose to issue an unsigned statement via a reply to Maza on Twitter.
Following YouTube’s decision regarding Crowder’s use of homophobic slurs against Maza, some Google employees say they worry about the message it sends.
“This kind of makes me feel like it would be okay if my coworkers started calling me a lispy queer,” says one. “...It’s the latest in a long series of really, really shitty behavior and double-talking on the part of my employer as pertains to anything to do with queer shit.”
After further outcry and investigation, YouTube later opted to demonetize Crowder’s channel, citing “widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior.” The company has now also promised to “evolve its policies” on harassment in response to widespread backlash to these moves. Many YouTube creators have publicly derided the company for its decision, and many have called it an unsurprising move from a platform they feel has failed to properly address harassment.
“It feels like YouTube is just giving far-right trolls a guide to circumvent the policy and get away with whatever they want,” says one employee.
Employees view this decision as cowing to far-right pressure. “Google and YouTube don’t want to take any action against any far-right channel for fear of stoking the far right to say they’re being persecuted,” the employee says. “But that strategy doesn’t pan out. They will never stop saying they’re persecuted.”
Senior software engineer Irene Knapp says that as someone with a salary that grants them a position of privilege, they have an obligation to use that power for people like themselves. Those that speak up, they add, are “mostly people who are either queer, or people of color, or disabled, or religious minorities.” Knapp expressed frustration at employees within Google, but also the tech industry at large. “You don’t have to stay out of history as it’s happening around you. You can choose to be involved and to use your voice and try to pull things in the direction that you believe is right.”
Moving forward, some Google employees say they hope their company will allow them greater access and feedback, with a formal process that allows them to do so. Demonetization of channels like Crowder’s aren’t enough, says one employee.
“It’s kind of offensive,” they say. “LGBT support channels get demonetized on a regular basis so by doing that they’re putting LGBT support and hate speech on the same footing... There should be no doubt that calling someone racial and homophobic slurs for years is not allowed on the platform.”
Others want YouTube to fully enforce its policies, rather than act in what they see as a contradictory manner. They’ve also called for upper management making these decisions to take responsibility for the damage they cause.
“It sends a message that queer communities continue to face existential threats,” says Knapp, expressing frustration over what they call YouTube’s unwillingness to take a clear stand. “The company takes half-measures, and pats itself on the back for those half-measures.” Knapp says that even after last year’s debacle, the company still wound up with “half measures” that failed to stop the current problems it’s facing. “This is chronic,” says Knapp. “They will absolutely happen again ... That’s just how it goes.”
Internally, employees have petitioned YouTube to strip its social channels of Pride branding. They see it as a hypocritical co-opting of their community and symbol while the company is actively damaging the community. One employee referred to it as “mere lip service,” adding that the company has lost its right to use the rainbow flag and other LGBTQ branding by allowing homophobic harassment to exist on its platform. “The company can’t have it both ways,” they say. “LGBTQ employees won’t stand for it.”
LGBTQ Google employees say they bear the brunt of the burden of being activists for diversity and tolerance within their own company. “I am sort of forced into that position internally because if I don’t do it, it’s like there’s going to be one less person doing it,” says one. “I don’t want to be doing it. I just want to be doing my fucking job.”