Between a star’s anti-Semitic rhetoric making national headlines and major brands now pulling ads from the platform over offensive content, YouTube just can’t escape the spotlight. Its latest controversy? Censoring videos made by LGBTQ creators.
Outrage first broke when LGBTQ YouTubers (including some of its biggest stars, like Tyler Oakley) realized that many of their videos — ranging from coming-out stories to makeup tutorials — were being blocked under “Restricted Mode,” a parental-control option intended to filter out “potentially objectionable content.” And while it’s been more than a week since YouTube apologized and promised to adjust its policy, major changes have yet to been seen, leaving a sour taste for concerned creators.
Stephanie Frosch, a.k.a. ElloSteph, 24, is one of those creators. Known for her hilarious LGBTQ-focused videos (check out “How to Piss Off a Lesbian” and “Lesbian Whisper Challenge”), the Los Angeles-based YouTuber and BuzzFeed alumni also has some more serious thoughts — especially when it comes to YouTube’s latest issue, which she spoke up about on her channel. MTV News chatted with the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native about the trouble with YouTube’s “Restricted Mode,” what still needs to be fixed, and the harmful implications it has for YouTube’s queer community.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
MTV News: Why did you create a channel in 2009, and in what ways has it changed in the past eight years?
Stephanie Frosch: I was a musical-theater major in college, and sometimes you would have to submit auditions online. Whenever I’d win [a role], I’d put in on there. But I didn’t actually start utilizing my channel until 2011 and 2012.
Originally, I was very much into writing and I had a very popular Tumblr. So when I was in high school — before being gay was cool — it was very rare to find a feminine lesbian in the media. It was like finding a shiny Pokémon. So my Tumblr was really popular and I gave a lot of advice on there. I was very open about LGBTQ-related topics. Then I got a message one day from someone saying, “You know, I really love what you write, but I hate reading. Could you make a video?” And I was like, I have all this free time — why not? It just kind of took off from there.
So you didn’t have YouTube as a resource growing up.
Frosch: No. That’s why I’m so touched and it’s so moving that YouTube is a source for [teenagers] to feel less isolated, because I didn’t have that. I kind of was the answer, but I didn’t necessarily have it growing up myself. As someone who knows what it’s like to grow up without it, it breaks my heart that some kids are going to be in that position again.
Since you didn’t have YouTube, who or what did you turn to for a support system?
Frosch: I was very fortunate to grow up in a very liberal city in Florida. My next-door neighbor — who was five years older than me — used to babysit me. Oddly enough, she was also a lesbian and came from a similar background. She’s also a feminine. She would sneak me The L Word in my lunchbox and help me navigate the gay scene [laughs].
You made a video titled “The Truth About YouTube's LGBT Restriction.” For those who haven’t seen it, can you describe what prompted you to make the video and what it’s about?
Frosch: I debated making a video, saw they made an apology, and I was like, “They’re going to fix it.” And then time went by and I saw they weren’t fixing it. So I really just wanted to create action. I don’t want this to be something that dies out until there’s a solution. It’s about what the restriction really means, how it affects people in their day-to-day lives, why it specifically targets the LGBT community — not just inappropriate content. It really just is a slap of homophobia in the face.
Why is labeling coming-out videos and makeup tutorials for transwomen as “sensitive” content so problematic, and what kinds of harmful effects could blocking them have?
Frosch: It’s extremely problematic because [you’re] telling people that even if the subject matter isn’t risqué, even if it’s presented in an appropriate way, that anything LGBT-related is something that is unsafe — that it’s something you should be ashamed of or should be censored. What’s upsetting about it is, people can easily find ways around Restricted Mode. People are always going to find the content. The only thing is, now they’re going to have a guilty conscience when they look it up. That isn’t OK.
How is the LGBTQ community on YouTube responding?
Frosch: Everyone in the YouTube community — both creators and subscribers — [is] absolutely livid. We’re also lucky that so many of our straight allies are also on our side. They’re all vocalizing that this is wrong. We haven’t been silenced yet and I don’t think we have any intention of [being quiet] until there is a resolution.
Have any of your videos been censored as a result of YouTube’s restrictions?
Frosch: Actually, very funny, my entire channel doesn’t show up in Restricted Mode. It doesn’t exist, which I find to be very ironic because every time I get a brand deal or I work with a nonprofit, specifically the reason they go to me is because they say I’m one of the only LGBT-content creators that is [rated] PG for the most part and is appropriate for younger audiences.
In what ways has YouTube been — and continued to be — a source of support for you?
Frosch: Honestly, YouTube is my entire life right now. Ever since college, it’s been my entire career. I moved to the other side of the country knowing no one except for people I had met through YouTube. So it really is my family and my life — both careerwise and socialwise. There’s been moments where I’ve debated moving back to the East Coast, but it was because of my passion for the work and the people I’ve met through my work that I was able to stay and get through some really hard times.
What do you think YouTube should do to fix this?
Frosch: A lot of my fellow content creators and I have been discussing why LGBT content as a whole is censored. And because of the algorithm that went into creating the Restricted Mode, the typically go-to topics that are flagged the most are by viewers themselves. And unfortunately, because we do live in a world where there are so many ignorant people, LGBT content is flagged so many times by religious organizations, anti-LGBT groups — things like that. YouTube tries to put a family-friendly thing on to see what viewers are flagging, and unfortunately, LGBT videos fall into that category. So [YouTube] would have to invest some of their time and money into seeing what content is being flagged before it’s “restricted,” but I don’t know if they’re going to want to spend the money and time doing so. That sucks.
For young people who are either upset or personally affected by YouTube’s restrictions, what advice would you give them? Are there actionable steps that they can take?
Frosch: Not being silent is the first thing. We can’t just give up and say, “Oh well.” I feel like the biggest struggle content creators are having right now is that typically in a workplace, if you’re not happy, you try to move to another one. But there isn’t a platform as big as YouTube right now. So experiment with other social media outlets, because maybe one day there will be a platform that will give [YouTube] a run for its money. Then YouTube will see that because of their lack of action on this really, really homophobic [feature], they might lose their entire LGBT-creator platform, which is probably one of the largest — if not the largest platform on YouTube.