Rowan Ellis is a writer, LGBTQ+ advocate and popular YouTuber who creates video essays around queer history, pop culture and activism. With more than 200,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, Ellis now adds published author to her credits with the release of Here and Queer: A Gay Girl’s Guide to Life in May 2022.
We recently spoke with Ellis about her upcoming book, which aims to help young queer kids embrace their identities and spark more open communication with the adults in their lives, as well as how she uses her YouTube channel as a way to empower and educate queer youth.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
How Rowan Ellis became a successful YouTuber
Ellis gravitated toward YouTube because it was a platform where she could share video essays on topics that she is passionate about. “I didn’t watch a lot of YouTube when I was younger, but I came out of my master’s degree, and really missed writing essays and doing research,” Ellis shared.
“I asked myself, ‘What is something that’s going to allow me to do this research and talk about stuff that I care about?’ I’m a big talker. Speaking and chatting with people is very natural, so I thought, ‘Let’s give YouTube a go.’ Originally, I didn’t know what I was doing or what I wanted to focus on, but I realized how much information I had gathered from my years running LGBT campaigns. I was the president of my LGBT society at university, doing workshops and digging into history. There was a lot of information that I’d researched independently and wasn’t being taught in schools. Museums and libraries weren’t talking about it, either. So I thought I could combine these into something that feels useful, especially for younger audiences on YouTube who still didn’t have — and still don’t have — this taught to them in schools.”
Her obsession with research paid off, and the long-form videos she produces for her YouTube channel have racked up millions of views since its launch. “The personality and connection that you can get across on YouTube have an immediacy and an energy that connects with younger folks,” she told us.
While many of her video essays tackle queer topics, Ellis was clear that anything she is passionate about is a possible subject. “The channel covers many different topics that tend to be queer-slanted, but some videos break out of that. Although many people in my audience are here for the queer stuff, they also like explorations of other things like internet trend analysis, or wider-reaching ethical questions.” She continued, “I’m working on one at the moment about the death of journalism and the effects of people not willing to pay for news anymore. It’s interesting to look at topics that technically have nothing to do with queer topics, but you can always input queer analysis into any topic.”
The impact of being openly and proudly queer online
Ellis’ videos resonate with her viewers, and she told us about some of the feedback she’s received over the years. “I get many interesting comments on my channel. They say, ‘I’ve never thought about this before’, — which I love — from queer people, and sometimes from people outside of queer communities but still interested to learn. It’s exciting to create content that allows people to see things outside of their particular worldview. I also get longer comments and messages from viewers in difficult situations who have found something that I’ve talked about useful. Being someone who’s openly and proudly queer online can have a huge impact.”
Her impact isn’t limited to her YouTube audience, either. “I’ve done quite a few in-person events in the past as well as some online. Recently, I did a workshop with a queer youth group and then went into a school to do another workshop about LGBT History Month. It’s wonderful to see that reaction and positive reception by young people — their energy, excitement, passion and interest — but also see the gaps in knowledge that are still there,” she explained. “It was an issue when I was in school and unfortunately, students still feel like they’re not learning anything about this in school. They don’t know how to find information online that’s reliable, and it’s difficult for them to get sex education. For example, if you search ‘lesbian sex’ online, the results are a lot of inaccurate porn. As a young person, it can be quite horrifying and damaging. I’ve had good feedback on being a reliable source of information.”
Related: Sex myths everyone thinks are true.
From video essayist to book author
Now that Ellis has conquered YouTube, books are her next frontier, tapping into her academic side.
“I’ve written articles and LGBT content for various publications, and in 2019, I was approached by my publisher about a totally different book. That pitch meeting was meant to happen in March of 2020, but obviously, things went quiet and that project didn’t go anywhere,” Ellis alluded to the beginning of the pandemic.
“Later in 2020, they contacted me again with an idea for a growing-up guide for queer girls. They’d previously published a book by another YouTuber, Riyadh K, that was a guide for queer boys. When that book was released, they got a lot of feedback that it was amazing, and readers wished there was something similar for girls. I had to prove that I was the right person to write that book, that I knew what I was doing and had a lot of ideas. I wrote the proposal, they liked it and we went ahead,” Ellis said.
That book is, of course, Here and Queer: A Gay Girl’s Guide to Life, coming May 3, 2022. “My primary focus when thinking about the reader of this book was queer girls growing up. The book begins with the idea of identity and coming out, so there are sections for people who are asking, ‘What am I?’ It’s also for people who are out and confident in their identity, but want to know more about the history and the communities.” She added, “But I would be lying if I wasn’t also into the idea of this being a non-cringe version of the books you were given when you started your period or any of those milestones. It would fill me with happiness to have a supportive sibling or parent – or an aunt, uncle or friend – gift this book as a joyous response to someone either coming out to them or saying that they’re trying to figure out their identity.”
While the illustrated book was written with queer girls as the target audience, Ellis hopes other people pick it up, too. “There’s information that’s useful for people who are not queer girls or women themselves, but might have friends or family that fit into that space. You should be learning about all different kinds of people’s cultures, histories and terminologies. Hopefully, the book will give queer girls a better sense of the types of questions that they might be asking themselves and the struggles they might be going through, as well as some of the really exciting parts of the community that should be celebrated by all people.”
See also: Ways to be a respectful LGBTQ2S+ ally.
Opening a dialogue between queer kids and their parents
One of Ellis’ greatest hopes for this book is that it will open a dialogue between queer children and their parents, and that parents will use it as a launching point for learning more.
“My general feeling is that nobody comes out of the womb as a perfect angel who knows everything about everything. So I can absolutely understand that for parents, especially those who have never known any queer people, it can be very scary. When your child comes to you and says, ‘Hey, this is how I identify,’ the child has had a long process of discovery themself, learning and figuring stuff out, and then it’s like ‘Kabaam!’ when they come out to their parents. Whatever confusion, reservations or lack of knowledge or ignorance that a parent has should come second to ensuring that their child knows they are loved, appreciated and respected,” Ellis said.
Ellis even sees the value in having a parent who is supportive, even if they don’t have any knowledge of LGBTQ+ issues yet. “There’s no shame in not knowing something. Being interested, curious and open is as valuable as someone who already knows everything. The willingness to be supportive and open is just as important. There are websites, support groups and books where parents can learn more, the same way that you would learn about anything regarding your child, like their hobbies or interests. Children are learning about themselves as they grow up, and everything will be new at one point or another. Thinking about their gender and sexuality in the same way you would with other aspects of their lives makes it less daunting.”
See also: Signs you might be pansexual.
Why Ellis insisted that the book reflect voices other than her own
She may be the author of Here and Queer, but Ellis also wanted to ensure that her voice wasn’t the only one represented in this book. “When I was first contacted by the publisher, I said that this topic should not only have one voice. We need to have other people involved in some way or I won’t do it. And bless them, they said yes. So we have four guest essays: two of them are pieces of writing from writers that I know, and the other two are people who I interviewed over Zoom, and then transcribed what they said into the book. Specifically, I wanted to talk to my friend Annie Segarra, who identifies as non-binary. Although the book is explicitly for queer girls, I knew there would be people who would buy or receive the book, and not fully vibe with the idea of ‘girl,’ or might be figuring out that maybe ‘girl’ is a label that fits them. There’s so much nuance and complexity to ideas of gender and sexuality. In the introduction, I basically say you might have been given this book and you’re not a girl, but it might be useful to learn about the history of a different community from yours. Or you can give it to a queer friend who’s a girl. But that is a process that people go through”.
Ellis went on to say this about the team who helped bring the book to life: “Since we’ve written it, some people who contributed to the book have gone from identifying as women to identifying as non-binary, have changed their pronouns, or the way that they think about their sexuality has changed. These are adults, people who are out of that teen experience of sexuality and gender, but they’re still discovering new things about themselves and ways they want to live their lives authentically. It was cool for me that we had this amazing group of people who are still on that exciting journey as well.”
Book cover and images © 2022 by Jacky Sheridan from HERE AND QUEER by Rowan Ellis. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, an imprint of The Quarto Group, Beverly, MA.