In 2007, Tyler Oakley uploaded his first YouTube video as a way to keep in touch with high school friends who'd moved away to various colleges throughout the country. Now five years, 600,000 subscribers and 44 million video views later and Tyler is an Internet royal, with Cher, Ricky Martin and Taco Bell counted among his loyal fans.
My first glimpse of Tyler came in August of 2010 when a friend linked me to a video of him lip-syncing "Bad Bitch" by rapper Nicki Minaj. After that, it wasn't long before I'd viewed most of his other vlogs (video web logs), a great many of them dealing with the ups and downs of being openly gay in the Midwest. In the years since, I've subscribed to Tyler's YouTube channel, followed him on Twitter and become a frequent visitor of his Tumblr page, all of which celebrate his uncanny ability to be always wholly and apologetically himself.
Because a great deal of Tyler's content, aimed at a teenage fanbase, focuses on his sexual orientation, I reached out to him with a few questions about his ever-growing influence on the young members of the LGBTQ community, which he answered recently via Skype.
CL: What are you up to these days?
TO: I actually just moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles pretty recently. I've been making videos about my life on YouTube for the past five years and last June I made it my full-time job. I decided that 2013 was the year I was going to focus fully on making it more than just a job, but a career, and since L.A. is the home of all of the YouTube networks, YouTube partner support and many YouTubers, I decided to take the plunge and make the move to make it happen.
CL: How is what you're doing making a difference in the LGBTQ community?
TO: I make a video every week about things that are happening in my life or opinions that I have. The best part of what I do is that it relies on me being myself and experiencing life. To kids around the country who may be closeted and only see gays in the media, it may be hard to relate to a gay person who is just normal and real. I hope to connect with them and show them that you can be you and still have an amazingly fulfilling life no matter who you are.
CL: What LGBTQ issue are you most passionate about?
TO: I think the most important thing, although there are many important issues throughout the world for LGBTQ people, is human safety. The fact that in some parts of the world you can be imprisoned or killed for being openly gay is something that shocks and disgusts me and a lot of people don't even know it happens. Awareness is key. If people know this is happening, more people can work toward tangible change.
In terms of a specific organization, The Trevor Project is important to me because it's the leading national organization for crisis and suicide prevention. I interned there a few summers ago and have been involved in several campaigns and charity galas since, and it's the most inspiring group of people I've ever been around. The fact that they can take calls from all over the country 24/7 and make them completely free and confidential gives me hope that LGBTQ kids can make it through their rough patches to discover that it really does get better and not just hear about how it does from adults.
Another important cause to me is educating people on the MSM blood ban. It's one of those things that when you tell people it exists, they're totally shocked. There are a lot of stigmas out there and it's really important to educate people on them.
CL: Can you name one person whose contribution to the LGBTQ community has inspired you most?
TO: My friend Ryan James Yezak inspires me immensely. He's a filmmaker who's always pushing the boundaries in how he educates about gay rights through viral video. His innovation with video and editing inspires me to use my own gifts to the fullest to better help the LGBTQ movement. Right now he's working on a documentary about discrimination against the LGBT community called Second Class Citizens, which is going to be amazing.
CL: If you could recommend one book, movie or song with an LGBTQ bent, what would your recommendation be?
TO: My favorite book of all time is I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. You'll laugh, you'll cry and you literally won't be able to put it down. It's the true love story of a drag queen and a cracked out male escort. It's perfect.
Reading Josh's book was really important for me because prior to that, I never really found a quality writer showing how love is the same no matter what gender or sexuality. Seeing what he could accomplish was eye-opening to what I could someday aspire to do, and how many people I could someday aspire to reach and impact.
Previous interviewees in this series have included LGBTQ athletes, authors, businesspeople, entertainers and politicians. For a complete list, click here.