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Michael Andor Brodeur | @Large

Online and off, Pride Month is off to a rocky start

CEO Susan Wojcicki addressed why YouTube isn’t removing abusive content.
CEO Susan Wojcicki addressed why YouTube isn’t removing abusive content.(Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

An Alabama mayor musing about “killing” us. Some Tennessee sheriff’s detective calling for us to be executed. Attention-starved trolls throwing shade in the form of a weirdly passionate straight pride parade. Dudes on a bus punching women for their refusal to kiss. Ugh, and that same snooty baker once again refusing us the cakes we so rightfully deserve!

Suffice it to say Pride Month is off to a rudely interrupted start. Keep it up, and just see if we don’t file for an extension and claim the whole summer for being all gay and proud. Maybe we’ll just do it indefinitely. Uh oh!

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But for all these real-world dangers that never seem to go away no matter how many sassy friends turn up in the sitcoms, some of the most irritating, persistent, and threatening attacks against LGBTQ folks (as punishment for the wheel of fortune depositing us upon one of those letters) happen in virtual space.

Take the recent harassment campaign waged against gay Vox journalist Carlos Maza, who has endured years of online abuse from a legion of trolls egged on by an aspiring right-wing comedian commentator on YouTube (who you can go look up yourself because this column isn’t giving him a click). Said commentator has regularly taken shots at Maza for his ethnicity, his sexuality, his voice, his mannerisms, and, oh yes, sometimes his reporting.

Maza called out the campaign of abuse as well as YouTube’s uneven enforcement of harassment policies on Twitter.

“I don’t give a flying [expletive] if conservatives on YouTube disagree with me,” he tweeted as part of a long thread documenting the abuse and scrutinizing YouTube policies. “But by refusing to enforce its anti-harassment policy, YouTube is helping incredibly powerful cyberbullies organize and target people they disagree with.”

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YouTube declined to remove the videos, saying in a statement that “while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don't violate our policies.” The civilized Internet gave this a thumbs down. 

“Kind of seems to me like YouTube is using ‘freedom of speech’ to protect a profit model that would otherwise force them to regularly confront the racism, sexism, and extremism that has been rejuvenated all throughout the world due to their unchecked algorithm,” tweeted NBC reporter Ben Collins.

YouTube backtracked and announced its new decision to demonetize the channel, due to a suddenly visible “pattern of egregious actions [that] has harmed the broader community and is against our YouTube Partner Program policies,” but by then the damage had been done — all but spoiling YouTube’s rainbow-emblazoned celebration of Pride Month. If it’s not clear, I’ve turned a little pinker just talking about this.

When asked if she had any remorse for the kinds of abuse LGBTQ people have faced on the platform — where positive queer-created videos are regularly flagged or demonetized for their content, while plainly abusive “debates” appear to thrive right alongside them — YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki offered an apology — of sorts.

“I’m really, personally very sorry,” she said. “YouTube has always been a home of so many LGBTQ creators, and that’s why [the decision] was so emotional.”

But she defended her decision to let the attacks against Maza, and presumably any other “lispy queer,” stand.

“As a company we really want to support this community,” she said. “It’s just that from a policy standpoint we need to be consistent. Because if we — look, if we took down that content, there would be so many other — so much other content that we would need to take down.”

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That does sound like a lot of work, Susan. (You hiring?)

The fragrance of this excuse carried swiftly.

“If you don’t regulate hate speech and harassment, you haven’t actually created a ‘home’ for queer people,” Maza tweeted in response to Wojcicki. “YouTube loves gay people when we’re dancing in their Pride videos or feuding with each other over makeup,” he tweeted. “But if we want to talk about politics or philosophy or anything interesting, YouTube says we should expect to be harassed. That’s not allyship. That’s exploitation.”

And at this point, it’s whatever. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve grown so accustomed to the wild, wild WWW where my young queer self was first weaned getting paved over by a bland, corporate, homogenous Internet that feels like a Simon Mall, I hardly bother to expect anything different. And if that sounds cynical, hi, I’m a gay man in his 40s, nice to meet you.

But still, this new virtual frontline on the war on us really stings. I remember the circled wagons of “web rings” on the early Internet — homepages linked by a system of hyperlinks, giving queers safe passage from one blooming web presence to the next. I remember the newsgroups, and listservs, and bulletin boards that allowed LGBTQ folks to gather unbothered, unmoderated, uncensored.

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For queer folk, the democratic vistas of the wide-open Internet represented a new way to realize ourselves and to experience freedom. But this virtual world still retained the contours of real life; we still protected ourselves within our online communities. Like a speakeasy door at an unmarked bar, our earliest online communities were able to celebrate what was inside by staying aware of what was outside.

These days, it’s not easy to find a place of our own online. Our Tumblrs have been scattered into the ether. Our personal ads and casual encounters foiled before they can begin. Even our dating apps are getting sent home to put on some clothes.

Just as how in the real world, our parades are routinely disrupted by uninvited guests, even in the endless expanse of virtual space, our spaces get invaded, our peace disturbed, our business minded by those who can’t seem to mind their own.

So where can we go once the places we’ve coded for ourselves are no longer safe? Or when the spaces we haven’t programmed yet are predisposed to treat us as lesser-than?

The answer is nowhere. As we used to say, way before we could tweet it: We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.