Erin Armstrong posted a video to her YouTube channel after her grandmother died last summer. But if you’re under 18, you may not find it.
Armstrong, a trans vlogger better known as “Grishno,” had cut off from contacting her grandmother once she began transitioning in 2009—her parents were afraid the news would affect the elderly woman’s already failing health. In 2015, she was finally allowed to meet her grandmother as her true self.
She hugged her and, as Armstrong explains in the video, said she would always love her. “I’m so glad my grandma got to know me as Erin,” Armstrong tells NewNowNext. “That she loved me and supported me meant so much.”
Two days after her grandmother passed away, Armstrong received an automated email from YouTube informing her that the video wasn’t approved for monetization—the content wasn’t “advertiser-friendly.”
It was the first of many such emails that Armstrong, one of the first transgender women to document her transition on YouTube, would receive. In protest, she demonetized her entire channel, so that she no longer receives payment for any videos she posts. But Armstrong still gets notifications every time a clip is flagged as violating "community standards."
“It feels like they’re kicking me when I’m down,” she says. “It’s not that I’m changing what I’m doing. YouTube’s changing around me.”
Armstrong is just one of many LGBT content creators whose ability to make money on a platform they helped create has been jeopardized. Some have watched their income from the site drop by 90% in just the past few months. Lesbian vloggers BriaAndChrissy and ElloSteph, who command more than a million followers between them, have quit YouTube since the new ad guidelines were implemented.
In her farewell, ElloSteph (real name: Steph Frosch) warned of a coming exodus.
“A lot of LGBTQ content creators like myself have been financially struggling due to these new restrictions being implemented,” she says. “Just because these new restrictions are being implemented doesn’t mean we have to quit YouTube... But what you do have to do is make a living.”
It was called the “adpocalypse”: After advertisers like AT&T and Verizon took issue with spots being attached to ISIS videos and neo-Nazi propaganda, YouTube’s parent company, Google, changed how and which videos were considered advertiser-friendly.
In an April video, “YouTube Is Over Party,” game vlogger PewDiePie warned that giving brands more control over which channels their ads appeared in would decimate content creators. Analytics firm Captiv8 found that comedy and gaming channels were hit hardest, experiencing revenue drops of 37% and 29% respectively.
But LGBT vloggers say the new system has made it nearly impossible for them, as well. Many were already dealing with YouTube’s “Restricted Mode,” which rendered many LGBT-themed videos invisible—even ones without mature themes (like Tyler Oakley'a video on black queer trailblazers.)
Johanna Wright, YouTube’s vice president of product management, claimed the censorship was an error caused by “improvements” to Restricted Mode, one that resulted in the site “incorrectly filtering videos for this feature.”
She maintains the problem's been "fixed," and that YouTube was “talking with creators and third-party organizations to better understand their experiences and questions.” But queer content creators say the issue is ongoing.
“They put out this statement that they changed the algorithm and now a lot more videos are going to be available,” says Matt Baume, who posts videos on LGBT politics, pop culture, and international issues. “I’m sure that they did, but mine aren’t among them. They’re still blocked.”
Among Baume’s posts that are still unavailable on Restricted Mode are videos about the persecution of gay men in Chechnya and the importance of job protections for LGBT workers.
In some cases, the situation is even more severe: Genderqueer YouTuber Ash Hardell says that, for a while, every one of her videos were invisible on Restricted Mode. When you search for either of their channels with Restricted Mode on, you can’t find them at all. “I refuse to change my content, but I'm making significantly less money,” Hardell tells NewNowNext. “Eighty percent of my revenue has disappeared these last few months.”
While the revenue that Baume receives from YouTube has never been substantial, he compared the income he makes these days to the money you’d earn “mowing your neighbor’s lawn.” Davey Wavey, whose frank discussions of sex and sexuality has garnered him more than 1.5 million followers across several channels, was making $30,000 a month at his peak. His last check was for $200.
“The dramatic falloff took place about two months ago,” Wavey explains. “My earnings had been slowly decreasing and then just fell off a cliff when the adpocalypse happened. There are a lot of creators that are having to pick between making video content and being able to pay their bills. That’s scary, and it’s going to affect our community negatively.”
YouTube claims Restricted Mode only affects 1% of total traffic, but the numbers add up differently for LGBT content creators: R.J. Aguiar, who has almost 250,000 followers on Shep689, says views have dropped 57% on videos he's posted since April. In the same time period, Baume’s traffic has dropped by 68%. Davey Wavey’s newer clips average 92% fewer views than his older ones. It’s even worse for Armstrong: Her videos used to earn about 17,000 views. Since April, her posts have garnered less than 600 each, a 97% plunge.
And this is all after YouTube reportedly "fixed" its problem.
Even LGBT videos that perform well earn considerably less than they once would have: Frosch told The Advocate that a video called “The Girlfriend Tag” earned just $20, despite racking up nearly 700,000 views.
The issues of monetization and restricting LGBT videos might seem distinct, but when YouTube sends the message that content is not suitable for a general audience, companies listen. “If LGBT channels are flagged as not safe for work or not for your kids, that makes it much harder for even your videos that aren’t flagged to be attractive to advertisers,” says Aguiar.
Adding to the confusion is the problem that YouTube doesn’t offer feedback on what makes a video objectionable: Baume's piece on Justice Neil Gorsuch being confirmed to the Supreme Court was not flagged under Restricted Mode, but a subsequent clip about Gorsuch and conversion therapy was.
“YouTube is super-vague and super-inconsistent,” says Baume. “I have no idea what is okay with them and what isn’t. I could spend a lot of time experimenting to try to figure it out or I could make videos that are less controversial, which means avoiding topics that are super-important.”
To keep the lights on, many queer vloggers have begun exploring other revenue streams. Wavey, for example, relies on brand integration: Pharmaceutical companies, travel agencies, and gay dating apps reach out to him to plug their products. An August 2016 post about Stockholm Pride, for instance, features an interstitial by gaming app BestFiends.
But Davey Wavey has more than a million subscribers. Not everyone is so fortunate.
The situation is particularly dire for gender-nonconforming vloggers, many of whom now rely on donation platforms like Patreon to fund their work. Gabriel Coppersan, who posts videos about their transition, says it would be next to impossible for them to attract the kind of sponsorship Wavey gets.
“It’s already hard for trans people to have those opportunities. For someone like me, who lives at a variety of intersections as Latino and outside the binary, it’s even harder.”
Yes, like everyone else affected by these changes, LGBT vloggers are worried about their financial future. But for many, the bigger concern is for their audience, many of whom are queer youth who rely on them for support and resources—whether it’s advice on transitioning or handling bullies at school.
Before social media, many LGBT people never saw themselves reflected in the media. The first time Armstrong met another transgender woman was on Myspace in 2009. Before that she wasn’t even aware trans people existed. “I realized that she was telling my story,” Armstrong says. “Before that, being transgender wasn’t an option. It changed my life.”
Aguiar, who makes videos with his husband, says he started on YouTube eight years ago to show LGBT kids, who aren't always told of their worth, they could grow up to be healthy and happy. But reaching those kids is hard when your channel is invisible in Restricted Mode.
“They’re not going to have access to potentially life-saving content,” he says. “As much as people like to trivialize YouTube, LGBT creators are making content that saves lives.”
Aguiar says he's yet to meet an LGBT content creator who isn’t either frustrated with YouTube’s shifting landscape or quitting the platform altogether. The moment a viable alternative comes along, he insists, he’s ready to join them.
“I’m done. I’m sick of it.”