If you are a fan of a queer artist or media personality, you may be aware of the ongoing trend of social media platforms censoring queer content. Twitter users are finding their accounts suspended for reasons they suspect are rooted in homophobia, while Instagram has been accused of disappearing queer users through hashtag filtering and flagging queer content as against its “community guidelines.” YouTube, perhaps the most directly profitable site for young content creators, has been hitting many of its queer artists with sanctions and demonetizing their content without warning, leaving many users confused, frustrated, and unable to sustain their income.
Taken separately, these incidents could be construed as careless application of AI, inadvertently labelling queer content as offensive because of a lack of differentiation between positive and derogatory use of LGBTQ+ terms. But there is a context to silencing queer voices and art that goes well beyond a clumsy algorithm; it is a systemic, targeted action that is rarely done in total innocence. It’s a history that is well demonstrated by the plight of Canadian queer booksellers through the past fifty years.
Specialist LGBTQ+ bookstores are a rarity nowadays, with only a handful left across the world, but between the seventies and the early 2000’s, queer people operated over 45 independent bookstores in North America, as well as many of its 120 feminist bookstores. These spaces were central to the LGBTQ+ and feminist movements, providing accessible physical locations for people to socialize within their communities, seek out queer content, and openly explore their identities.
They provided a much-needed sanctuary for LGBTQ+ people, whose existence in the public space was routinely challenged by homophobic cruising and crossdressing laws (along with oppressive social values) and whose reading options were otherwise at the mercy of public librarians and mainstream publishers. But as queer people’s literary output and communication networks began to increase, so did efforts to censor it.
In Canada, where LGBTQ+ literature was largely imported from the U.S., booksellers started to have shipments routinely stopped at the border, labelled “obscene” by customs agents and destroyed without compensation or explanation. It was an issue that affected all three of Canada’s queer bookstores, including Toronto’s Glad Day and the now-closed L’Androgyne in Montreal. It wasn’t until 1990 that the problem received international attention, when the Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium in Vancouver brought a Charter challenge against the Canadian government. It would become one of the nation’s most famous, if least satisfying, legal debates over censorship.
Little Sister’s had been targeted on the grounds of obscenity ever since their grand opening in 1983, but it was the seizure of $15,000 worth of Christmas stock three years into operation that drove the owners to action. Jim Deva and Bruce Smythe had poured all of their money and energy in the store, and were even living in a back room out of necessity. They simply couldn’t afford to keep losing stock in such large quantities. When their public protests went ignored, they went to court to object to the targeting of their business and continued seizure of their goods. Besides its queerness, here was little consistency between the censored content, named in the trial as: fiction, travel information, general interest periodicals, scientific studies, erotica, and safe-sex material, including advice for HIV/AIDS. Much of it was detained for months or years and then destroyed rather than returned to the store or its sender.
Though it seemed clear that customs officers were acting with prejudice - shipments of the similar books had been delivered to mainstream booksellers without issue, and some reports claimed that up to 70% of the agents’ total seizures were LGBTQ+ material - stalled legal proceedings meant that it took ten years for the case to reach the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the judge found that while the bookstore had indeed been specifically targeted by customs for its queerness (and ordered them to stop doing so), the agents had the legal power to turn away material at their own discretion. Owners of confiscated shipments would have to prove that they were not obscene on a case-by-case basis, a mammoth task far beyond the capabilities of small-scale alternative booksellers.
The message from the state was clear: it’s okay to discriminate against queer artists. Little Sister’s returned to court a few years later, after shipments of gay comics were once again detained at the border. Their requests for court funding to continue their battle were denied, and without cash, they could not go on - Smythe and Deva had already lost over half a million dollars in two decades of litigation fees. When Deva reluctantly dropped the case in 2007, he told the Globe and Mail that the store’s shipments had been delayed again just weeks after their initial Supreme Court ruling in 2000, and that he expected it to continue indefinitely. For Deva, who passed away in 2014, the overall message was “justice denied.”
State censorship might not seem immediately analogous to social media clampdowns, but the internet has increasingly become the first point of access for people seeking answers of any kind, which undoubtedly includes young queer people who are just beginning to explore their identities. People who might have made a nervous trip to the bookstore for their first peep into the LGBTQ+ community, now have the experience of millions of others like them at their fingertips, a wealth of information that surpasses and often replaces the meagre LGBTQ+ health and social provisions available in their area.
One such resource is the content produced by Aaron Ansuini, a 24-year-old trans man who was hit with a three-month strike from YouTube earlier this year, for his video on how to administer a subcutaneous testosterone injection. The sanction prevented him from livestreaming and automatically demonetized or severely limited the ad viability of any new videos, which he found to be an “incredibly discouraging” process.
“I couldn't understand why this was happening,” Ansuini told me in an email. “Even my videos just about me opening packages or gifts for my birthday were demonetized.”
Ansuini, who is based in Montreal, has been providing practical and emotional resources for the trans community for years, and had uploaded the video in question two years before its strike in March. He soon found that contacting YouTube for clarification provided no answers, and that unless the video had received at least a thousand views in the past seven days, his issue was not even eligible for review. It’s an automated process that he feels “places a glass ceiling over marginalized creators.”
“Our videos are immediately 'not advertiser friendly,' so we make no money,” said Ansuini, explaining how the knock-on effect of being classed as "not advertiser friendly" prevents videos from appearing in YouTube’s trending lists or otherwise attracting viewers, making it difficult to receive the requisite amount of views to be considered worthy of attention in the first place.
“They are restricting our content, restricting our ability to grow, and then using that as an excuse as to why they won't even bother reviewing our content that they've restricted. It's a vicious cycle.”
It isn’t just viewers and readers that reap the rewards of LGBTQ+ bookstores and social media platforms’ existence. The manager of Little Sister’s, Janine Fuller, wrote in her book about the store’s brush with censorship, that former teacher Deva’s aim when founding the store was to never again have to “take any job where he would have to hide his gayness.” Freelance content creation has offered these same opportunities to many contemporary LGBTQ+ artists operating within a hostile and homophobic job market.
People who may struggle to find employment without harassment or discrimination can set up workspaces in their own homes, earning a living on their own terms. But the fact that their income often relies on the profit incentives of multimillion dollar corporations leaves them vulnerable, since neither they nor their audiences are considered big or important enough to listen to. Bisexual comedian Gaby Dunn, whose own videos were affected by YouTube’s actions, commented in a Guardian interview that by going after small creators, the website’s new policies hurt “the ones who need to be monetized the most.”
Ansuini has received little support from other YouTubers for his and his community’s issues, and no acknowledgment from YouTube of the stress that they've caused him. Along with friend and fellow YouTuber, Chase Ross, he started the You Can’t Delete Us campaign to raise awareness of the issue and gather funds for small creators that can’t absorb the hit of sanctions.
“This is why it's really scary for smaller creators: no one hears us,” he told me. “We just need to kind of hope that it affects someone with a larger following in order for the issue to actually get addressed.”
Neither Ansuini nor Little Sister’s were the ostensible targets of the censorship rules that took away their livelihoods. YouTube’s tightened demonetization policies are thought to be a response to advertisers’ concerns about their ads running against "controversial" content, such as the site’s healthy supply of free porn and strange violence. Queer booksellers operated in the wake of R v. Butler, a 1980’s legal case where feminist groups pushed for censorship laws to have a specifically anti-pornography bent. The conflation of queerness with being inherently explicit, pornographic, or otherwise shocking is a prejudice that we just can’t seem to shift.
The bookstore trial saw numerous LGBTQ+ activists and allies provide testimony against the classification of LGBTQ+ literary materials as obscene, but it made little difference. Author and activist Sarah Schulman detailed her own testimony in her book Gentrification of the Mind, having argued passionately against the confiscation of books written by her friend John Preston. Her arguments for the books’ merits went ignored, leading her to claim that gay and lesbian literature “has always been contextualized” as pornography in the public eye, and her time defending the bookstore made it “crystal clear that in the minds of many people, homosexuality is inherently pornographic.”
It’s an attitude that still prevails at YouTube, where LGBTQ+ vloggers’ content continues to be flagged regardless of context. Ansuini’s friend Ross, who has been making videos for over a decade, had many of his videos age-restricted for including the word "transgender," while YouTube’s first ever lesbian sex-ed vlogger, Steve Boebi, had all of her videos demonetized by the platform for being “controversial." To many, simply acknowledging LGBTQ+ existence is an inherently inappropriate act.
“[Youtube] needs to realize that their algorithm [sees] the definition of 'family friendly' or 'advertiser friendly' is white, cis-normative, hetero-normative, able bodied people,” said Ansuini. He acknowledged that while the site might not imagine itself as deliberately targeting queer people or understand the scope of the issue, “if you're catering to the advertisers, then that also means you're catering to transphobes, homophobes, racists, et cetera."
Restriction is not full on censorship, but when resources are scarce, access is even more important. The books that Canadian border agents destroyed en route to Little Sister’s represented a loss not only for the bookstore, but for Vancouver’s extended LGBTQ+ community, who were unlikely to find such a wide range elsewhere. It deprived them of the opportunity to be represented and validated in media, but more pertinently of the mortally important HIV and AIDS materials being shipped in from the U.S.
YouTubers, like Ansuini and Boebi, provide an invaluable service to young people without access to comprehensive sex education, peer support, or medical treatment, all of which can be inadequate for LGBTQ+ people even when it does exist. The process of demonetization and age restriction greatly reduces the likelihood that these videos will be found by those who need them the most.
And it’s not just social media sites that are carrying out a cull of queer content - queer LGBTQ+ literature still struggles to get out into the world. Amazon has come under fire for removing sales rankings from queer-themed books, one of the primary means of placing well in Amazon searches. In both 2016 and 2017, LGBTQ+ titles made up the bulk of the Banned Book list, an annual American Library Association report on the most frequently challenged books in the U.S.
In the past year, a school in Georgia came under criticism for its decision to remove LGBTQ+ books from a book fair event, and a group of conservatives in Iowa voted to ban all LGBTQ+ content from their local library. The notoriously conservative mother’s group, One Million Moms, started off 2018 by petitioning to get books with gay and trans themes dropped by children’s publisher Scholastic, calling them "morally toxic" and accusing them of harming children. Almost all of the LGBTQ+ books that were targeted, particularly those aimed at children or young adults, were deemed sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate, regardless of the mildness of their content.
It can be rare for censored queer people to be able to enter into a dialogue with their censors, given that the action is often faceless. YouTube has yet to explain its decision making process to Ansuini despite his visit to YouTube's head office back in June. There is still no explanation as to why Instagram repeatedly took down posts of Zoe Leonard’s iconic 1992 poem, “I want a dyke for president,” from the many accounts that posted it in response to the Trump inauguration. The Little Sister’s case demonstrated that even when queer censorship is ruled discriminatory at the highest possible level, it can still continue regardless - just a few years after the trials finally ended, a film screening about the bookstore’s ordeal was stopped by the provincial government due to the lack of a permit.
Still, if the history of queer censorship proves anything, it is that queer culture is indomitable. Little Sister’s is still up and running, queer authors are still writing, queer YouTubers are still making videos - though many of them have turned to Patreon to pay their bills. Queer bookstores are very much in the minority, but those that are left remain pillars of their respective communities. The online LGBTQ+ community is ever under development, but contains a wide array of passionate and highly active people who are willing to call out injustice wherever they find it. No state or internet body can stamp out their presence, no matter how hard they try.
"We are a vital part of the YouTube community," Ansuini said of his own experience with censorship. "In trying to delete us, they're deleting part of themselves."