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The pink shadow ban: How LGBTQ+ influencers are fighting censorship

The pink shadow ban: How LGBTQ+ influencers are fighting censorship

The pink shadow ban: How LGBTQ+ influencers are fighting censorship
Sergei Elagin/Shutterstock

The gay glory days are gone for LGBTQ+ content creators, who now face a hostile algorithm and political climate.

Arisce Wanzer goes live on TikTok while she does her makeup. It’s an easy way for her to connect with some of her online followers, a network she’s built up to about 150,000 people over a decade of living and working in Los Angeles. She talks about her day, a phone call she had with her mom, and how excited she is about the event she’s hosting tonight. But after the broadcast, she receives a notification from TikTok regarding the replay. Wanzer’s live video had been flagged for having sexual content, a violation of the app’s community guidelines.

“Nothing I said had to do with sex,” she says. Wanzer appealed the decision and was told that mention of the word “trans” was the reason for the flag. “Queer trans content is under review right now as sexual content. Just being trans is ‘sexual content.’ I was like, what? This is literally erasing us from public life.”

Wanzer’s censorship summarizes the plight many queer creators currently experience. For entertainment and hospitality professionals — industries that attract LGBTQ+ people in higher numbers — online reach is critical for visibility, future bookings, and financial security. “Attention is the most important currency in our media,” Wanzer says. “Trans creators are being blocked from uploading content, and it’s keeping us from being hired now.”

The algorithmic discrimination only adds fuel to an online dumpster fire ignited by political vitriol. Entertainers say corporate bookings are down, a consequence of last year’s conservative online pressure campaigns that derailed LGBTQ+ visibility initiatives at brands like Bud Light and Target. Unfortunately, these harassment initiatives worked, as some corporations have walked back their support of queer talent and creators. At least one major entertainment studio attempted to only spotlight allies in its 2024 Pride efforts before pulling the plug altogether, according to an email obtained by Out. Many others are toning down their visibility efforts as interest in DEI declines, a decision that results in queer people being hired less and paid less.

“I have a group chat with some other performers — you know these girls’ names,” says Wanzer, “And people were getting a lot less bookings this year.”

The attention economy, Explained

When social media began gaining serious traction in the late 2000s, traditional avenues for media and entertainment were disrupted. Individuals could now broadcast multimedia content and ideas more easily on the internet, and users gradually curated their information feeds to see more of what they wanted and less of what they didn’t. In some ways, social media has been great for queer people: No-cost platforms allow marginalized folks and niche communities to find one another more fluidly than traditional media structures (when working properly). Our social media feeds, designed to exploit human psychology similar to how addiction-inducing behaviors work, have extraordinary stickiness.

The result is high screen time, and platforms know this. So their go-to business model is to monetize this attention in the form of ads. A lot of ads. In a court filing with the Federal Trade Commission, Instagram parent company Meta Platforms revealed that Instagram generated over $32 billion in advertising revenue in 2021. The more attention a platform can gobble up, the better it is for business, so in recent years parent companies like Meta and ByteDance (which owns TikTok) have established creator funds in order to appeal to superproducers.

YouTube has long been the platform of choice for creators serious about long-term monetization thanks to its 55 percent CPM (cost per mille, or thousand) revenue share on ads. This model has no cap, meaning the platform will pay an 8-year-old $26 million a year, but not a queer person if their content is deemed a violation of community guidelines. Other platforms are trying to catch up by earmarking billions of dollars for “creator funds,” but with hundreds of millions of daily active users, this bounty doesn’t go far. TikTok’s creator fund, initially trumpeted as a $2 billion investment in talented users, continued to dilute as user participation grew before being dissolved at the end of last year.

“When I got invited to the TikTok Creator Program, I was like ‘OK, finally, it’s happening. I can use this — I can ride this wave,’” says Matthew Krumpe, a professional choreographer. As with many arts and entertainment professionals, the arrival of COVID-19 forced Krumpe to lean into social media to maintain his livelihood. He says a friend who had worked at Musical.ly, the lip-syncing app that later turned into TikTok, convinced him to start making videos to promote his choreography work.

“This girl was wearing a LaCroix bathing suit, and I was like ‘That’s amazing, I’m gonna buy it too,’” he says. Krumpe wore the swimsuit to the beach in 2020 during Pride weekend, shot a video that took “literally eight seconds to make,” and posted it. When he returned to his phone a few hours later, the video had over 700,000 views, and in the coming days, the hundreds of stitch videos — reposts of a video with a responsive clip attached — from users learning Krumpe’s choreo brought him tens of thousands of new followers.

“Then I started to notice that I would try to post something, and it would not post right away. It would go through like a process that took a couple hours where they were reviewing my content,” he says. “I thought that was a little weird, so I did some research and basically found out that I was shadow-banned.”

Meaning, Krumpe’s videos were being reported for adult nudity and sexual activity, a censoring that he says creates a double standard. “There’ll be kids under 18 [on TikTok] shaking their dicks inside their gray sweatpants and actually being sexual, whereas I’m just out here in a shirt and pants, smiling, and that is considered sexual content.”

Wanzer says the situation is urgent. “It’s alarming. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is how they’re going to get rid of us. They don’t want to pay us anymore,’” she says. “They don’t want us to be seen in public life anymore. We’re not going to be in commercials. We’re not going to be in TV shows. And people are still riding off the wave of Pose, like that wasn’t five fucking years ago. That show’s not been on the air for a while — your identity politics won’t work here.”

Other forms of censorship

Since users now rely so heavily on social media to organize and be informed, debates about free speech rage on. For another category of queer professionals — those whose services involve consensual sex, BDSM, or bodywork services — a pair of laws enacted in 2018 known colloquially as FOSTA-SESTA add an additional layer of complexity, says Love Bailey, a creator based in Hollywood.

“They made this bill to protect children from sex trafficking, which is good in theory, but it’s actually done the opposite,” says Bailey. “Sex trafficking that was done through Craigslist and shady back pages was easier to catch than it is now.” She explains that sex traffickers have simply moved to more encrypted channels to work online, and the resulting FOSTA-SESTA regulations have made it harder for creators who have consensual practices to have a business safely.

“A lot of my imagery is provocative and erotic,” she says. “I maintain the social media standards, but they’re always changing, and they never really have any remorse for what’s being taken down, so a lot of my audience has been limited online.”

@lovebailey Speaking out against the unconstitutional decision to out Trans and Lgbtq students to parents! ⚧️ #transrights #parentalrights ♬ original sound - Love Bailey

Bailey and her mother own and operate Savage Ranch, a nonprofit queer retreat space that includes an artist sanctuary and an animal rescue. “We have gatherings, retreats, photoshoots and workshops,” she says. “It’s a community center in Temecula, [California], which is mostly Republican. There’s a lot of political unrest towards trans people and gay people in that town. It’s more important now than ever that spaces like these are protected, so that is my duty and my mission.”

The financial impact

When creators’ accounts are improperly flagged or shadow-banned, both inclusivity and equity are impacted as a result.

“My finances are in the shitter right now,” says Krumpe. “Especially since the writers’ strike and actors’ strike that happened last year. I know it’s over, but the work that’s happening now pays nothing like it used to.” He says when he was unemployed, the government worker who advised him had a suggestion to make extra money: Go on TikTok. “In today’s economy, when a bag of groceries can cost $100, that advice was not helpful,” he says.

Bailey agrees. “Rent has gone up. The minimum wage hasn’t increased. All the money from the government is going into the war machine; there’s no money being put back into the economy for education or job security or whatnot,” she says. “Where’s the give-and-take? People are just over it. We’re tired of seeing the money being spent in the wrong places.” She argues that consenting creators should have agency to monetize their bodies however they want.

“My pronouns are ‘fuck you, pay me,’” she adds.

Support queer creators

As corporate DEI initiatives falter and algorithms play coy, queer creators say the best thing supporters can do right now is drive LGBTQ+ equity efforts directly through the community.

“We live in a capitalist society, and I am against capitalism, but we do have to navigate within it. We have to spend our money wisely,” says Wanzer. “Do not spend your money at anti-queer places. It’s very easy to do, actually; you just don’t go to a lot of places. I only spend money at this coffee shop, I only buy that makeup brand, and so on. It’s super effing easy.” She also wants queer people to open their eyes and ears.

“We have got to organize and unify. Being organized is why we contained [mpox] on our own a few years ago. We admitted we were big hoes, and then we lined up and got our shots immediately, before it became a thing. Pandemics are for heterosexuals. You don’t want us in your bathrooms. You don’t want us to be in your school sports that just promote camaraderie. And what about scholarships? Well, we need to rework that whole thing, because school is supposed to be free anyway. Don’t talk to me about scholarships when we’ve defunded education and refunded the police 10-fold. You can quote me on all of this — I don’t care.”

Without queer people jumping up and down to be seen, eroding visibility and equality become the status quo. Showing up makes meaningful progress in ways that bolster our earning power and ability to break free from systemic financial shortcomings. Seek out ways to bolster and support your favorite queer creators online — by doing this, you help spread the message that algorithmic censorship cannot stand.

Nick Wolny is Out’s finance columnist. He also writes Financialicious, an email newsletter on LGBTQ+ business, finance, and culture. For more on Wolny, visit NickWolny.com or follow @nickwolny.

This article is part of Out's July/August issue, which hits newsstands on July 2. Support queer media and subscribe— or download the issue through Apple News, Zinio, Nook, or PressReader starting June 18.

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