Rowan Ellis talks to Emily Eaton about creating community online
BY EMILY EATON, IMAGES BY CRAIG SIMMONDS
When somebody says “YouTuber” to you, perhaps you think of a personality? What you may not be aware of is that YouTube isn’t just a platform for people who want to vlog about their daily lives – it’s a space for education too. In a world where many of us only will hear the word “gay” in the classroom if it’s being thrown about as an insult, and never in the content that we are taught, YouTube is a place where inclusive sex education and LGBTQI history comes alive.
Rowan Ellis is an advocate leading some of those important discussions, best known for her videos about pop culture from a feminist and queer perspective. Thousands of people turn to her insightful content to hear her intelligent, well-researched perspective. She’s also a friend of mine. So I asked her, where did this all begin?
“I started making YouTube videos after I finished my masters – I missed researching. I realised that with YouTube videos, you get to research things and you don’t have to write a bibliography! This was the perfect way to spend my time: researching LGBTQI topics, feminism, film, pop culture, and then not having to organise all my sources into alphabetical order with the correct citation!”
I wondered if this had always been the content she wanted to make. “Years and years ago I made some videos which were really random. I used to just make response videos, mostly philosophy and religion based. I was a very… chill atheist, I guess? I feel like a lot of atheism on YouTube is quite intense and very anti-religion. I was more like, ‘Guys, why don’t we just get along?’ I made responses to videos that were full of islamophobia and I said that atheists shouldn’t be doing that.” This was when she was 16, so it’s not difficult to imagine that Rowan would 10 years later be one of the most respected advocates in the YouTube community.
Considering queer media is such a vital part of her channel, and that the media she creates herself is truly beneficial to LGBTQI people, I was curious what she watched growing up. “I didn’t find any queer lady media for a really long time. My introduction to queer media was through gay men. One that I really remember is Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, I absolutely loved the character and how integrated his queerness was in family media. Then I watched Queer As Folk, the American series. My friends and I also went online and found this list of LGBTQI films. We watched them but they were all sad! That was a formative experience that inspired what I do on my channel now. Watching those films back-to-back, I realised that this bury your gays trope wasn’t just in one film – it was everywhere.”
Are there any queer female characters that she’s a fan of now? “I feel like I’ve not actually connected with lesbian media because I hold it to a higher standard. I want to really engage with it. There’s Elena in One Day At A Time because she’s an activist, which is quite unusual in the media. Often a young lesbian character is very virginal or quite spunky, but not in an activist way – caring about stuff isn’t spunky or cool! Elena and Steph from Pride are characters I engage with because they’re activists.”
As a fierce activist herself, something Rowan has spoken out about is YouTube’s treatment of its LGBTQI creators. “There’s been things like demonetisation, which means that your videos stay up but you can’t run ads against them, so you can’t earn any money from it.” There are also issues around restricted mode, which is a voluntary mode you can put YouTube in. “Schools or parents sometimes might put it on and when they do, they won’t be able to see certain videos. Unfortunately, this seems to disproportionately affect queer creators. We’ve seen women who have uploaded a ‘boyfriend tag’ and a ‘girlfriend tag’, light-hearted videos that YouTubers make with their partners, and their girlfriend tag has been flagged on restricted mode but their boyfriend tag hasn’t. The only difference between them is queerness itself.”
Rowan went on to tell me how this could happen. “From what YouTube has said, a lot of it is machine learning. Although, human beings programme that machine learning. If you say to a machine, ‘One of the ways you learn what’s inappropriate is by what’s being flagged by users manually’, then if you have a situation where users are manually flagging on mass queer content, the machine will learn that. When we have such a bias in our society against LGBTQI content, we’re going to see that in these machines unless they put safeguards in place. It’s not necessarily a malicious thing on YouTube’s part, but a complete obliviousness to the reality of what queer people go through.” This affects creators’ incomes, but it also impacts the LGBTQI youth who are suppressed the most. They may be living in homophobic households and as a result of the restricted mode that has been been put in place, they have no way to access the LGBTQI content that could help them. It’s deeply saddening, especially considering that YouTube has become such an essential tool in helping people come to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Rowan is an integral part of the LGBTQI YouTube community and whether she’s standing up for what’s right or analysing the latest queer film, she does it in the most eloquent fashion. I asked her what she’s learnt whilst being active on YouTube. “I’ve learnt there’s a community for pretty much anything. I was an ambassador at YouTube for a while and we would run events for creators. People would say that they’re part of the narrowboat vlogging community and they’d explain that there’s a whole community out there where they talk about narrowboats! It’s something I had no idea about and I feel that no matter who you are, there will be a group of people on YouTube for you. I needed information on LGBTQI topics. It’s been really interesting meeting people who need that information, but also noticing the people who are interested but don’t necessarily need it. A lot of people who watch my videos aren’t LGBTQI themselves and don’t even know anyone who’s LGBTQI. They’ve never thought about things the way I do, and they thank me for speaking about it. YouTube allows you to connect with people who perhaps in real life just wouldn’t be in an environment where they would learn about queer issues.”
When I befriended Rowan in 2015 she was smart, ambitious, authentic and kind. Having achieved increasing success, she’s still very much all those things. They say you should never meet your heroes, but Rowan has been one of mine since we first met. She’s a hero for the entire LGBTQI community, helping to improve society through her words and actions. It’s evident how greatly her work is appreciated and it’s so important that we support YouTube’s educational queer content, especially whilst the platform isn’t.
This interview first appeared in the March 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!