Chase Ross started his YouTube channel to talk about his experience as an out-and-proud trans person in 2010. The friends he found through YouTube, he told The Verge, saved his life. Now, nine years later, Ross feels like the platform that he once called a supportive home is unrecognizable and actually harmful to his community.
Ross is one of eight creators — alongside Amp Somers, Lindsay Amer, Chris Knight, Celso Dulay, Cameron Stiehl, and Chrissy Chambers — attempting to fight YouTube over a number of systemic issues that the LGBTQ community say they’ve faced on the platform. In a lawsuit filed last week, these creators allege that YouTube hinders their channels by incorrectly restricting viewership of videos and not placing ads on queer-related content, limiting their ability to make money. The lawsuit claims that “YouTube is engaged in discriminatory, anticompetitive, and unlawful conduct that harms a protected class of persons under California law.”
The fight between the queer community on YouTube and YouTube’s executives has existed for years. Creators believe it’s been harder for their videos to receive ads due to a reluctance from advertisers to be associated with queer content. But creators have also complained that their videos performed worse because of actions by YouTube. In 2017, the LGBTQ community discovered their videos were being hidden simply because they spoke about queer issues. In 2018, Ross found that using the word “transgender” led to his video getting demonetized, as seen in the tweet below. (YouTube updated its policies after the incident in 2017.)
DO NOT LET YOUTUBE GET AWAY WITH THIS.— Chase Ross (@ChaseRoss) May 30, 2018
I uploaded my video TWICE to see if the word "transgender" would trigger the algorithm... and every step of the way was fine UNTIL I added the word Transgender. RIGHT away, the video was demonetized.
Literally. RIGHT. AWAY. pic.twitter.com/mvCucFPyZP
YouTube has denied these allegations in the past, with CEO Susan Wojcicki telling British YouTuber Alfie Deyes that “we want to have all different voices expressing different points of views.” A YouTube spokesperson previously told The Verge that the company’s “policies have no notion of sexual orientation or gender identity and our systems do not restrict or demonetize videos based on these factors or the inclusion of terms like ‘gay’ or ‘transgender.’”
It’s because of Wojcicki’s constant defense that LGBTQ creators are mad. Wojcicki said she wants “to be sensitive to people who have those concerns,” but creators feel that YouTube isn’t following through.
“We’re tired of being placated with clear lies and hollow promises that they’ve either fixed it or they’re going to fix it,” said Chris Knight, who co-hosts an LGBTQ YouTube news show, GNews! “It’s clearly broken. There’s clearly a bias with their AI, their policies. What we really want is for them to change.”
Members of the queer community on YouTube say they feel dejected and used. Chrissy Chambers and her wife, Bria, helped create a pro-LGBTQ video for YouTube for the company’s Pride Month campaign in 2013. The video, which YouTube used to show how committed it was to its queer community and creators, ended up being demonetized.
It was disappointing, Chambers told The Verge, but not unexpected given how they’d seen LGBTQ creators treated in the past. Recently, YouTube was criticized by people inside and outside of the company for not doing more to help Vox journalist Carlos Maza, after conservative pundit Steven Crowder attacked him with homophobic remarks for months. Broader concerns about YouTube’s and Google’s treatment of the LGBTQ community led people to protest the company’s involvement in San Francisco’s Pride Parade. (Disclosure: Vox is a publication of Vox Media, which owns The Verge.)
“The circles that they have us running in is one thing, but now you’re saying you’re going to be part of our community and represent our community?” Dulay said. “It does upset me. It’s idiotic.”
YouTube was once welcoming, but issues discovered by the LGBTQ community have slowly built up. When Chambers and Bria Kam started their YouTube channel in 2011, they found the same community as Ross — one that was full of friendly creators; some people even met their future romantic partners through YouTube. Chambers and Kam wanted to use the platform to demonstrate what a real, loving lesbian relationship looked like, instead of what Hollywood was portraying at the time.
Then, around 2016, things changed. Looming concerns over terrorist content, the spread of hateful ideologies, disturbing videos targeting children, and YouTube being used as a weapon of disinformation leading up to the presidential election caused “something to shift,” Chambers said. YouTube implemented algorithmic changes to deal with the spread of disturbing and hateful content. The company also explored new monetization policies, leading creators to express frustration when the new system affected their revenue. Queer creators found the changes seemed to affect them particularly hard.
“It becomes a struggle to exist when you’re being silenced, when you know they’re doing everything in their power to restrict you,” Chambers said. “They’re just absolutely trying to shut us down in any way possible.”
It was YouTube’s decision to deny an ad from Knight and Dulay in late 2017, meant to promote a Christmas special of their show, that led the duo to start looking into a lawsuit. Knight and Dulay were furious that YouTube’s policies allowed their ad to be denied. It wasn’t until YouTube’s public affairs team got involved that the ad was approved weeks later, after Christmas was over.
The creators involved in the lawsuit want more than just restitution for what they feel like they’ve lost — subscribers, views, and even ad revenue. They want YouTube to change.
“I want them to really realize that, ‘Oh my God, we actually can’t do this anymore,’” Ross told The Verge. “I want there to be change so that everyone feels equal on this platform. I’ve had comments from people saying, ‘I really want to watch this video, but I’m not 18 and it’s restricted.’ And that hurts. It really hurts. These are the people I’m making content for.”
Ross is hopeful that the lawsuit sparks something in the community. He wants all LGBTQ creators, with large platforms and those just coming up, to stand together as they fight. The lawsuit is for everyone, he argued, and on behalf of everyone.
“This is one of those moments, though, where we need to stand together no matter the personal issues we may have with other YouTubers,” Ross said. “This is a much deeper problem than the personal issues we have with each other. This is our entire community. This is not about me, and it’s not about you. It’s about the community.”