Tyler Oakley talks about journey as YouTube LGBTQ activist
Tyler Oakley, a renowned YouTuber, podcast personality, author and activist, came to the Champaign-Urbana area to talk about being an openly gay internet celebrity and other LGBTQ topics.
Oakley began making YouTube videos at age 18 as a freshman at Michigan State University. Upon the emergence of YouTube, Oakley was exposed to many content creators and was intrigued by the platform.
“[I] spent an entire week on YouTube,” said Oakley, regarding his first interaction with YouTube; at first it was all “viral videos.”
He loved that it was “a place where you can have your channel [and] you can talk about nothing.”
Oakley then reminisced about his beginnings in YouTube, making videos in his dorm room, and slowly gaining momentum. This lead to his first talk, which happened in Champaign; 10 people came.
“This is truly where this part of my life began,” Oakley said to the now packed auditorium.
Oakley then talked about how no one was making content for YouTube full time at the time and how he saw the potential. He used the platform to connect with other users and express himself in a comedic way. When he first started, there were three other gay YouTubers and although he connected with them, he felt he had something to contribute to the community.
“Nowadays it’s not only white gay dudes,” Oakley said. “YouTube does a great job of doing that.”
Oakley specified that on YouTube, one has the opportunity of being exposed to a very diverse community.
“There’s like a million ways to come out,” said Oakley, when talking about the videos people make in support of the LGBTQ community. “You get a sense of community around the world. I had such a supportive family, I was in a bubble [and] I learned about other families [where people]… couldn’t come out [and] had to flee their country.”
Oakley then talked about his activism and how at one point in his career he looked for a charity to involve himself in. He stumbled upon the Trevor Project which is “the leading national organization for suicide prevention [and] focuses on LGBTQ.”
“I reached out [and] I became an intern,” Oakley said. “I host their red carpet gala.”
It was through his involvement with the Trevor Project, and the videos he made for them, that he noticed that the “average donations were 10–15 dollars,” which showed Oakley “the power of community and what the internet can really do.”
Oakley then passed on some advice from the Trevor Project, telling the audience members about necessities when coming out to family and friends:
“Make sure it’s safe and make sure you have a support system,” Oakley said. “[The Trever Project has] a website online where you can talk to others that are in the same boat as you.”
Oakley also talked about the opportunities he received as a YouTuber and social media icon.
“The first time I went to the White House, President Obama invited a small group of YouTubers,” Oakley said.
Former President Obama was planning on “using the internet to reach younger people regarding healthcare,” Oakley said.
Oakley was asked to use his fanbase, and the platform he had created of acceptance and positivity, to engage a younger audience in important topics.
His comedic personality shone when he retold an embarrassing story of his first time in the White House.
“He took us into the Oval Office,” Oakley said. “I need to say something that he’s going to remember…he’s showing us around, talking about this historic fancy old desk…[there was a] lull in the moment [and] I say the first thing that comes to mind, ‘It’s a cute desk!’”
He continued discussing the opportunities he was given as a YouTube content creator with such a large audience.
“The second time I went back [to the White House] was the first-time meeting…Mrs. Obama,” Oakley said. “I interviewed her…I was moderating a panel… about higher education.”
Oakley expressed that it is because of his internet stardom that he feels his word has the weight that it does.
“I appreciate it [and] 10 years into it, [I] learned to be responsible,” Oakley said. “The opportunity I have to reach people, it took a lot of messing up and a lot of learning.”
Oakley talked about the responsibility he gained and the process of getting used to people listening to him. He expressed that it is difficult, especially as a Youtuber, to know what your responsibilities are as a public figure.
“It’s not very clear what we should be doing as YouTubers,” Oakley said. “I guess we can do anything. It’s intimidating and liberating.”
Oakley covered topics ranging from being a gay public figure to making sure his activism is intersectional. He said he tries to surround himself with diversity.
“A lot of that comes from making sure that what I hear and listen to is diverse, because you are a product of what you surround yourself with,” Oakley said.
“The amplified voice I have [and] making sure I use it for the people in my community that need it,” is what makes a good ally Oakley said.
Director of Enriching Programs for the Illini Union Board Dixie Limbachia, was the organizer and the moderator for Oakley’s talk.
The Illini Union Board is a student-run organization at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana that revolves around “students planning events for students.”
Limbachia talked about how divided the UIUC campus felt after the recent election and how she felt she needed to bring a speaker on that was positive and would be able to connect students and community members.
Limbachia chose Oakley because of his activism and his supportive platform. Limbachia felt that by bringing Oakley she’d be bringing the “energy back” that the community has lost because of the recent elections.
Limbachia felt she was being underrepresented as a minority and wanted a speaker that would make people that felt the same way feel more uplifted and loved.
The Women of Pride, which is a student group “made for queer women and their allies” as stated on their website, were co-sponsors for the event. They helped market the event and get the community excited.
For more information on Oakley, his content and activism, visit his YouTube channel at youtube.com/tyleroakley.