Under the influence


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Early 2010s YouTube was a hellscape.

Compared to the busy streets of modern-day YouTube, this was like venturing into the Wild West. My middle school experience consisted of watching Smosh, Ryan Higa and Jenna Marbles, who were some of the biggest creators at the time. I credit my sense of humor to these early influencers. They had a huge effect on me.

But back then, YouTube wasn’t as inclusive and diverse as it is today. There were no openly queer internet stars at the time, and thus, I had no one to connect with or look up to. Since there were no major LGBTQ+ YouTubers, many straight YouTubers weren’t that focused on inclusivity. Homophobic jokes permeated videos. Queer people were used as cheap punchlines for likes and shares. Prepubescent me laughed because everyone else did, but these gay jokes only further repressed my sexuality. The chuckling I feigned was my camouflage in the straight crowd.

Nowadays, there is a huge push for influencers to be a good influence on their young, impressionable audiences. But the very few LGBTQ+ influencers I’ve encountered today aren’t setting a good example for the next generation.

Some of the biggest queer internet celebrities are Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star and James Charles. These internet personalities have huge audiences, racking up millions of followers on various online platforms. Many of their followers are also children, which, to me, is a little worrying. These influencers may be the only queer people some kids know, and that means the weight of the LGBTQ+ community weighs, in part, on Dawson, Star and Charles.

Of course, I’m not complaining that there is more queer visibility in media. But objectively, these influencers aren’t the best the LGBTQ+ community has to offer.

They’re notorious for getting into drama and fights with other influencers and having scandals every other week. Tati Westbrook, another influencer, accused Star and Dawson of manipulating her into making “Bye Sister,” a video by Westbrook where she alleges that Charles was using his fame to make straight men fall for him. Additionally, after many rumors, Charles has admitted to sexting minors on Snapchat and through text.

Not only do these actions reflect badly on the influencers, but in the case of Charles, Star and Dawson, they also actively reinforce harmful stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community — particularly for queer men.

Charles’ actions of sexting minors and the accusations of trying to “turn” heterosexual men are stereotypes that have haunted queer men. For the longest time, hate groups have called queer men “pedophiles” because of incidents between male perpetrators and boys that have been blown up. The idea that queer men are trying to make straight men gay has also dominated male spaces, although it’s a harmful myth. The accusations against Charles, even if only allegations, feed into this idea that gay men are sexual deviants who are out to get children and straight men.

On the other hand, Star and Dawson’s alleged actions of manipulation and deceit mirror the archetype of the gay villain. Many fictional antagonists are queercoded, meaning their queerness is understated or implicit. The trope of the queer villain has created the idea that the LGBTQ+ community is the enemy of heterosexual society. In the case of Star and Dawson, Westbrook’s portrayal of the duo paints them as master manipulators — like they’re the Regina Georges of YouTube. Considering all of their other controversies, Star and Dawson make it seem as though queer men are the instigators of conflict and thrive on drama, embodying the queer villian archetype.

These incidences will definitely affect their young followers’ perceptions of queer people. Followers who see the actions of Charles, Star and Dawson may believe that all queer men are like this. Closeted followers might remain in the closet because they may think queer people are perverted or vile. In an age of LGBTQ+ representation, these influencers may not be the best people for the role.

Of course, I wouldn’t want kids to suffer the lack of LGBTQ+ influencers I experienced in my youth. But closeted kids need better role models that will help them embrace their identities. The only person I think fits that mold is the newly incarnated queer icon, JoJo Siwa. Say whatever you want about her, but she radiates positivity. She’s been dragged to hell and back for her extravagant style and child-friendly persona. But she actively ignores the bullying and continues to express her own individuality, which I think is important for young queer kids to see.

I understand that in the internet age, it’s impossible to vet people before they become famous. But influencers, especially those with younger audiences, need to understand that they have a huge amount of power. It is up to them to wield their influence responsibly, whether they want to or not.

Nicholas Clark writes the Monday column on LGBTQ+ issues in media and politics. Contact him at [email protected]