It was a fateful Tuesday night in 2008 when I finally saw myself on TV. Actually, I saw her: a tomboyish lesbian with a lip piercing. So what if she was wrestling in chocolate pudding on a reality dating show? I’d waited years for this shit.
For many young queer women today, they’ll tell you the first lesbian they saw was on YouTube. It’s free, it’s accessible and you can find practically anything you want. There’s no doubt that the rise of accessible LGBT content on a platform like YouTube has helped grow inclusiveness for younger generations. That’s why the company’s new controversial feature leaves a particular sting for young LGBT people.
Recently YouTube rolled out its new Restricted Mode feature. Though many LGBT content creators use YouTube as their primary platform, Restricted Mode blocks a large percentage of their content, deeming it “potentially objectionable content.” Aside from the obvious dangerous implication that being gay = objectionable!, it’s also taking away an invaluable resource and community for LGBT youth.
My story isn’t atypical. In high school, I didn’t know I was gay despite some obvious signs (See: socks with sandals). But when you grow up only seeing male-female relationships, it doesn’t occur to you that there’s an option to have anything else. I’m a girl. You’re a guy. I guess we’ll go see 2Fast 2Furious and make out?
When I got to college, I finally realized that my obsession with new female friends wasn’t just me being an incredible, albeit persistent, friend. I like-liked them. Coming out was fine. But I’ll admit, it felt strange to identify as a lesbian when I hadn’t met any. So the concept of being gay was very intangible to me. I imagine this is exactly how an X-Men felt.
Even in 2007, I couldn’t even tell you the names of any gay women. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know Ellen was gay, I just thought she was an unpolished dancer with a fondness for formal wear. (Come to think of it, I felt weirdly the same thing with Elton John—thought the dude just loved his pastels.)
Even as a charismatic 19-year-old living in Chicago, I couldn’t find other gay women. I tried word of mouth. My friend from home has a friend whose sister is gay but she lives in Ohio, sorry! I’m sure there were some LiveJournal communities I would’ve loved, had another gay friend showed me the light. At one point, I was relegated to a place that most people go to get rid of their gently used armchair: Craigslist. You know that annoying chick on Tinder named Melissa or something, who claims she’s just there to make friends? Well on Craigslist, I was Melissa. I desperately wanted to see another lesbian so badly that I was willing to wade through raunchy W4W personal ads to get there.
But still, nothing. I’d have watched sensationalized lesbian porn had I believed they were actual lesbians. You’re not fooling anyone with those acrylic nails, girl.
On TV, there were few places to see queer women. I’d endure full seasons of drunk heteros fighting with town locals on The Real World, just to catch a glimpse of the occasional lesbian they’d cast for diversity. But straight drama was always in the driver’s seat. Don’t care if you cheated on Travis from back home, ask Ruthie what it’s like to soberly hold a woman’s hand!
I know, I know, we had The L Word. But what good is it to me when my dad didn’t have a Showtime subscription? Even if I had other lesbian friends (which I didn’t), we couldn’t insult each other by saying “You’re being such a Jenny” because I didn’t even know who the hell Jenny was. (Years later, in a sick twist of fate, I’d find out: I’m a Jenny.) My standards were so low for lesbian representation that I’d take any crumb.
But you can’t always rely on traditional media to show you accurate and abundant depictions of your identity. There’s no denying the value of a site that can expose young queer or questioning kids to thriving LGBT people across the globe. And though I was already comfortable enough with my sexuality when I finally stumbled upon YouTube, I’m truly envious of young lesbians who don’t have to associate Tila Tequila with positive, coming-of-age feelings.