In 2005, something magical happened, something that would forever change how people around the world interacted and shared video content. That something was the launch of the video-sharing website YouTube. Like MySpace, LiveJournal, and Facebook before it, YouTube promised to bring people together by providing a platform for user-generated content with a user-friendly interface.
YouTube’s founders originally envisioned the site to be a video dating service or a place for friends to upload footage of each other goofing off. Little did they know that it would become a place for cats riding Roombas, Xena/Gabrielle music videos, drunk lesbians cooking food, celebrities reading mean tweets and the super blockbuster “Gangnam Style,” the South Korean music video by Psy which as of January 2016 had 2.49 billion views.
YouTube has been a social media game changer, and the LGBT community has been a major beneficiary. For one thing, YouTube transcends broadcasting limitations of cable and international borders to bring gay and lesbian characters into the lives of viewers who otherwise would never have access to them.
I haven’t seen a single episode of Orphan Black, The 100, Los Hombres de Paco, or Hand Aufs Herz, but I’ve seen every minute of Cophine, Clexa, PepSi and Jemma thanks to YouTube. Nor would I have met Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade (Bad Girls), Sophie Webster and Sian Powers (Coronation Street), Emily Fitch and Naomi Campbell (Skins), or Jasmin Fleming and Anni Brehme (Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten), to name a few, if not for kind souls who uploaded hundreds of hours of videos of them to YouTube.
For many in the gay community, our first encounter with what would become our favorite character or pairing was through YouTube. For viewers in countries in which homosexuality is criminalized or severely repressed, YouTube might be their only access to lesbian representation. YouTube has revolutionized LGBT viewing habits in two ways: first, by exposing viewers to most of the fictional LGBT characters across the world, and second, by allowing viewers to express their love of the characters through creative fan-made videos.
YouTube enables viewers who are interested only in the LGBT characters on a show or in a movie to watch just those scenes in which the character appears, saving them from having to watch whole episodes or the whole movie just to see the few minutes the character is on screen. Rather than dedicating six years and watching 156 episodes in a long-term, committed relationship with a single show like Pretty Little Liars, for example, viewers can just look up clips of Paily, Emison, or Emaya and watch all the show’s gay content in a matter of hours. For a viewer in a rush, the entirety of Cophine can be viewed in a mere hour and 41 minutes. By watching character-centric clips, viewers can get through more of a show in a shorter period of time.
Watching only the lesbian storylines can also save time and heartache for viewers if it turns out the lesbian character is killed, sent to a parking lot from which she never returns, or goes straight. It’s sometimes better to discover that your favorite pairing doesn’t last more than half a season rather than to sink 13 or more hours into a show only to be disappointed in the end, as an example.
Fan uploads of video clips from a movie or TV show can broaden the accessibility of foreign LGBT characters to a larger audience, particularly if they include translated subtitles. For almost every non-English speaking lesbian couple uploaded to YouTube, there are translated clips in English, and often Spanish and other languages as well. For some characters, a kindly upload is the only way foreigners will ever be able to see them because of limited broadcasting. As an example, foreign viewers normally can only watch clips of another country’s soap opera if the clips are uploaded by other viewers to YouTube.
YouTube has also changed the relationship between lesbian viewers and fictional lesbian pairings (cannon and non-cannon) by allowing viewers to upload fan-made music videos as a means to express love and support for characters and pairings.
These videos draw them closer to the characters, as well as to other fans around the world who also enjoy the characters. Some videos for non-cannon couples are so well edited that if you hadn’t seen the show you would think the couple was cannon, sparking hope that one day it will, in fact, become canon…and sometimes they do!
Outside of fictional lesbians, YouTube has of course also enabled the rise of YouTube celesbians, of whom there are too many to count but all of whom are fabulous in their own way, The Unsolicited Project and its hilarious short videos about lesbians, and dozens up uploads of Kate McKinnon as Ellen DeGeneres or Justin Bieber, to name just a few highlights of the hilarious things posted on YouTube. YouTube has not only passively raised visibility for the LGBT community, but social activists have been able to leverage it for social awareness campaigns like the It Gets Better Project, a net win for gay ladies everywhere.
YouTube is like a time machine crossed with a DVD player and a universal passport. Through it, viewers can cross borders and languages to encounter new and exciting characters, celebrate and enjoy the ones they’ve known for years, laugh at gay comedians, and learn new things from lesbian, bi and queer YouTube stars. A true game changer.