a few times a month, Anania Williams posts sponsored content on his TikTok account, sandwiched between memes, social commentary, and amateur videos. The sponsorship provides financial security and relieves “a lot of the pressure of coming from a poorer family” by helping him pay rent and school in Boston, Williams said. Last July, he was able to quit his summer job and make TikTok his main money-making gig.
But more and more Williams – like other creators from the LGBTQ community – is being asked by advertisers to reveal his identity in these sponsored posts, something he doesn’t feel comfortable doing. That puts these creators in a difficult position: they can either push back and risk a sponsorship, or get paid for something they often prefer not to commercialize.
“I struggled for a long time, but I’m really grateful for what I have now, where I can at least support myself,” Williams said.
Brand partnerships have become commonplace on TikTok, even for influencers with a much smaller reach than, say, the D’Amelio sisters. But smaller creators don’t always have the ability to be picky about which sponsorships they do and don’t accept, making it difficult for creators when advertisers push for an idea they don’t like.
This issue became especially acute for LGBTQ creators in June, when many brands sought to contract with influencers for Pride Month and TikTok users began to express massive skepticism about “corporate pride.” Five TikTok influencers who spoke to me, all members of the LGBTQ community, said they were highly ambivalent about how sponsored content can ultimately turn their own selves into a product.
Smaller LGBTQ influencers sometimes choose to be picky about how they choose to create sponsored content, even at the risk of their livelihood. Meiya Sparks Lin, which runs a 311,000-follower channel where they post a mix of makeup tutorials, jokes and political musings, have turned down a deal for pride content, they said, because “there has been a lot of discussion about the commercialization of pride, and I don’t know I don’t think this would go very well with me or my audience.” Automotive influencer Chaya Milchtein, who writes and makes videos about (among other things) her identity as a queer fat woman in the auto industry, says she turned down several brand deals because “they looked at me like I was some kind of zebra.”
Choosing the wrong sponsorship can also fall back on creators. TikTok comedian and podcaster Andrew Shawl for example, promoted a dating app that matches people based on astrological compatibility, which its audience viewed as unfair. “It felt a bit hypocritical,” he laughed, as all of his content is focused on encouraging gay men to stop using apps like Grindr and instead connect face-to-face with others.
On the other hand, there can be quite a bit of money in sponsorships on LGBTQ topics – if you get the right deal. For LGBTQ and Mental Health Educators Zoe Stoller, last June was the most profitable month of their career so far. She created content that promotes HBO Max’s series of shows featuring LGBTQ characters and works as a “TikTok educator” with the app itself.
“I love that brands have made it commonplace to dedicate their pages to celebrating Pride Month, or at least post a message or change their logos,” Stoller said. “The problem comes when it’s very unfair, and it’s often very obvious when that is. You know, when a company changes its logo to rainbow, but doesn’t have LGBTQ creators sharing things on their page.”
The other problem, Stoller says, is when companies don’t offer to pay LGBTQ creators for their work. “Unfortunately, many companies do that.”
Lin says there’s some hope: If someone with access to an audience that brands suddenly really want, they can make some of their own demands on how they’ll be displayed in a way that, say, actors in previous forms of ad campaigns wouldn’t. have been able to do. In Lin’s case, they were able to produce completely different types of content instead of being directly involved in proudly branded videos.
Contracts with brands often prohibit influencers from joining unions. So all the power creators that need to get organized — abstaining from sponsorship deals from brands that don’t support LGBTQ rights, for example — come through word of mouth, in Discord groups and Clubhouse chats.
“A lot of influencers, especially on TikTok because it’s such a new genre of work, will undersell themselves,” Lin said. Sciallo said creators should be wary of companies that “are not really there to share our stories, they are there to exploit us”.
However, for Williams and Lin, there is no easy answer to navigating sponsorship as they pay for their studies by posting themselves online.
“I don’t know if I can do anything to … turn the tide of gays equal to money,” Williams said. “But if I can do something, I’ll do my best to do it.” But for now, on TikTok, LGBTQ equates to a powerful consumer base, and brands are aware of that.
“I don’t think the liberation of gays or the liberation of marginalized peoples can ever really come through, you know, consumer power,” Lin said. “So I think as long as you don’t market Liberation as a brand, you can do whatever you want.”