Jeffree Star and the LGBTQ Community

11 minutes to read
Article
Anne Sieberichs
09/05/2019

Male make-up YouTubers play a big part in the contemporary battle against gender stereotypes and the acceptance of LGBTQ and androgynous styles. In this article, I will discuss this battle in depth while zooming in on the efforts of one of today's most famous YouTube male make-up stars: Jeffree Star. 

Jeffree Star and the LGBTQ Community

Jeffree Star is a male make-up YouTube star, with almost 6 million subscribers. He identifies as androgynous, feeling like both man and woman. Being part of this LGBTQ community, he finds it very important to battle for acceptance and he does this in various ways. In expressing who he truly is, and also by starting a campaign that raises money for the community.

The LGBTQ community has always been a minority group and, in Becker's understanding of the term, a 'deviant' group. Becker uses this concept in a descriptive manner, without either moral connotations or personal judgement. He uses it to explain how mainstream society sees and defines people who do not follow the dominant rules. In 1963, when Becker published his seminal work on 'Outsiders', he described how society defined homosexuals as deviant by claiming that "Homosexuality is" an "illness because heterosexuality" was at the time considered "the social norm" (Howard Becker, 1963). According to Becker, homosexuals were constructed as an extreme example of deviants. In addition, they were believed to have a mental disease. In the sixties, "behavior of a homosexual or drug addict is regarded as the symptom of a mental disease just as the diabetic's difficulty in getting bruises to heal is regarded as a symptom of his disease" (Howard Becker, 1963).

Becker describes the common sense at the time as deeply homophobic. If we read these descriptions today, it looks as if we have come a really long way. We have, but the community is still battling for equal rights and acceptance. Yes, they have gained more visibility and acceptance, but their battle is not over yet. In many cases, even in 2019, they are still seen as 'outsiders', as people who deviate from what society defines as 'normal'. Many people try to make a change and fight as hard as they can, including Jeffree Star.

 

The LGBTQ Community in Contemporary Society 

In comparison with the era when Becker wrote 'The Outsiders', we have come a long way indeed. Most people don't see homosexuality as a mental illness anymore, gay marriages are allowed in almost every western country, and acceptance keeps growing. But people are not fully accepting yet: Trump is disallowing transgender people to serve in the army and revoking their rights. Also, there is still much hatred and bullying directed at the community, e.g. the 2016 shooting in Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. In Canada, surprisingly, schools are neither safe nor respectful for sexual- and gender-minority students (Catherine Taylor, Tracey Peter, 2011, p.11). 

The inequality and discrimination are reflected in the high rate of suicide attempts among LGBTQ individuals. It depends on how much support the person is getting: "A more supportive social environment was significantly associated with fewer suicide attempts, controlling for sociodemographic variables and multiple risk factors for suicide attempts, including depressive symptoms, binge drinking, peer victimization, and physical abuse by an adult" (Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, 2011). By contrast, adversity increases the risk of exclusion. Becker's description of deviance still applies today. When society defines LGTBQ as deviants, it constructs deviance: "Whether an act is deviant depends on how other people react to it. People will gossip, but that's not really the biggest problem, it starts becoming a problem when people start making a public accusation." (Howard Becker, 1963, p.11) So, normalizing LGBTQ sexuality instead of othering it can save people's lives.

The LGBTQ movement is met not only with adversity, but also with a lot of support. After the Orlando shootings, several hashtags appeared on social media, like #PrayforOrlando, #DisarmHate, and #QueerSelfLove. You can questions if this 'hashtag-activism' is nothing more than slacktivism, but it does show a certain sympathy towards the LGBTQ-community. In addition, TV shows, like "RuPaul's Drag Race", where you can dive into the world of drag and see how they deal with heavy topics like non-acceptance and bullying, help to stimulate sympathy, awareness, and acceptance. It is important to have these kinds of sources that help build more acceptance in society. We are not all the same, identity is a learned concept that individuals then perform in the world (Brian C. Johnson, Daniel K. Faill, 2014, p.63). Some people, like male make-up YouTubers, are challenging the definitions of what is 'normal' and what is not.

Star's Passive Involvement in the LGBTQ Community 

Jeffree Star has had a great influence in the LGBTQ community. Not only did he help people come out of the closet, he also learned people to be themselves, to question and break mainstream norms and gender categories. In his behavior, he is questioning the norm and positioning himself as 'a deviant': he disobeys the unwritten rules by wearing make-up as a male (Becker, 1963, p.20)). Jeffree Star's online presence helps other people to be happy with themselves and also others to accept them.

This is one example of many showing that Jeffree Star has made a big impact on people. Star's online presence functions a role model. He shows his followers how to stand up for themselves and gives them courageto be their true self. Self-acceptance and -expression bring happiness. His online presence in combination with the affordances of social media construct online groups of followers. He provides his followers with an example: creating a new norm of self-acceptance and self-love. 

This social group is deeply embedded in the social media that Star is using, which becomes visible in the comments. Star has a big group of followers on Twitter. Interestingly, the group is shaped by the interface and affordances of that medium. The affordances of Twitter seem to enable the construction of a niched group of 'converted', in-group followers. Consequently, the nature of the comments on Star's profile reflects a norm in the LGBTQ community: supporting and being open to the group. We witness here the creation of a "niched culture", where group members are most comfortable among themselves, where being gay, androgynous, and wearing make-up as a male is normal.

Even though Star's identity performance is potentially controversial, this is not visible in the comments on his Twitter. You will always find some haters among the people leaving comments, but I could not find many hate comments. The filter bubble plays a big role here: people who don't like this culture, will most propably not find it, and people who do, are accepting or members of this culture. But even when haters do find the group, Jeffree Star could enforce the rules within the group by technical affordances (e.g. deleting hate-comments). Becker (p.121, 1963) asks: "When are rules being made and enforced?" That question is easy to answer. The rules were made when Star made his account and people started following him and enforced when haters find this niched culture and go against its rules and norms. The affordances of Twitter allow Star to enforce the rules.

“You know, to be honest, the best part of this whole thing is getting e-mails from people who say I inspire them and help them in some way.” (Jeffree Star, 2007) 

These digital media thus function as social places where people come together, interact, and build their identities. In short, they function as infrastructures of identity. People like Jeffree Star control part of the borders of the group, but in the end, the company-controlled interface and algorithms determine a) who finds this group and who doesn't, b) which groups are allowed to exist and which don't (i.e. if channels or posts are shown to other users or not), and c) what can be posted and what can't. The algorithmic codes YouTube, Facebook, and other media platforms apply are becoming more and more personalized. On the basis of data they collect about you - e.g. your likes and sexual orientation - Moreover, on the same basis, these social media create a certain algorithmic identity for you. Based on that identity, you will only get to see items in your newsfeed, search queries, and suggestions that the algorithm predicts you will prefer. It is this personalization that leads to the filter bubble (Maly, 2017). Thus, when your algorithmic identity fits the identity of this group or culture you will find it and might find comfort in it.

The social group is thus as much constructed by people as by algorithms. However, these social media algorithms are not neutral, but reflect the norms of the companies. When Facebook deleted certain accounts based on the use of terms like "gay" and "dyke" (a slang noun for lesbian) (Nico Lang, 2017), it showed how vulnerable these groups are, and how much the environment that enables them is controlled by companies advocating certain ideas about what is normal and not in this context. Censorship like this makes LGBTQ sexuality seem unnatural: it constructs the LGBTQ community as 'deviant' and not normal. 

Star's Active Involvement in the LGBTQ Community 

Not only did Jeffree Star help the community by being famous and being himself, he also raised money for the LGBTQ+ community center in Los Angeles, a charity that describes itself as "an unstoppable force in the fight against bigotry and the struggle to build a better world, a world in which LGBTQ+ people can be healthy, equal, and complete members of society." (Los Angeles LGBT Center website). He mentioned on social media that it's his favorite charity. To support it, Star teamed up with brand "Jouer Cosmetics" and donated sale profits from the collaboration instead of keeping them. You can collaborate with many companies for financial gains, but you can also make the world a bit better. He commented, "To be able to spread love and help others through the love of makeup... it's something I've always dreamed of doing!" (Jeffree Star, 2017). With this active involvement, he raised $20,000 to donate to the charity, also urging others to support the community. 

Social Media Power

With social media fame comes power and you gain a larger voice with an audience. You can use it for your own financial good, but you can also make yourself heard as a representative of a 'deviant' community, like Jeffree Star. By helping the LGBTQ community passively and actively, he can and has helped numerous fans and non-fans. He has helped them being themselves without hating themselves. He has tried to gain more acceptance and is succeeding by reaching a large audience on YouTube. Due to the numeric power he has, he was able to make a donation for the LGBTQ+ Center in Los Angeles . 

Thus, the community has come a long way in 2019, but there is always room for improvement. It is important to keep in mind that social media are powerful, and show us what is 'normal' and what is not. If social media censor the output of the LGBTQ community, it cannot fight its battle. Social media and their algorithms 'allow' people to grow into a Jeffree Star or not. The corporations behind the media platforms can make the biggest difference. Although Jeffree Star also raises money offline because of his online success, fans still buy the products online and this again adds to the corporations' power. But even a single individual can make a change: try to step out of your filter bubble and behold other colorful niched cultures!

References

Becker, H. (1963). "Outsiders, studies in the sociology of deviance". New York, New York: The Free Press. 

Hatzenbuehler. L. M. (May 2011). The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth.

Immediato, L. (May 9, 2007). Jeffree Star.

Johnson, Brian C., Faill, Daniel K. (2015). "Glee and New Directions for Social Change". Sense Publishers. 

Lang, N. (November 6, 2017). How Social Media Is Silencing LGBT Voices.

Los Angeles LGBT Center. (n.d.). About The Center.

Maly, I. (2017). Knowledge in the digital world: Class 6: Identity and social groups in the digital world. (PowerPoint Presentation).

Simmons, S. (June 5, 2017). Jeffree Star’s Affiliate Code Earnings Will Go Towards The LGBTQ Center in LA.

Taylor. C., Peter. T. (2011). We are not aliens, we're people, and we have rights." Canadian human rights discourse and high school climate for LGBTQ students. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie.