It was a few months into the coronavirus pandemic and actress Shannon Woodward, of Westworld and Raising Hope fame, found herself with an abundance of time on her hands. Productions were shut down indefinitely, and she was passing the time by playing a lot of video games and figuring out a new project to produce.
Then a meeting with a digital streaming platform changed everything. It was suggested to her during this chat that starting a channel on Twitch, the leading livestreaming platform for gamers, would be the perfect outlet for her to harness her video game love and produce something at the same time.
At first, Woodward was skeptical but quickly realized that playing games with other people in this way would be fun. “I think socializing online that way was actually totally in my nature,” she told The Daily Beast. She also just so happened to garner a massive video game fan base after portraying Dina in PlayStation’s The Last of Us Part II, one half of the prominently featured queer relationship in the groundbreaking game that also touts a lesbian lead character and a transgender character
So, Woodward dove into the deep end and launched her channel in August 2020, while buzz was still white hot for the game that launched in June 2020.
During her very first stream, Woodward used a tablecloth (which she still has, by the way) as the backdrop for her camera feed and gave viewers a glimpse at her Animal Crossing: New Horizons island. What happened next was unexpected to say the least.
“I did that first Animal Crossing stream and I did not expect it to be so heartwarming and sweet,” said Woodward. “It was this booming community of people that just showed up and they wanted to meet each other. It wasn’t just about me.”
It was that day that the OnlyShans were born—the self-named LGBTQ-friendly and wildly inclusive community of Woodward’s Twitch channel. Oh, and, yes, the name is 100 percent a play on OnlyFans.
Many of the members found themselves tuning into Woodward’s first stream out of love for The Last Of Us Part II and of Woodward’s character in the game. However, the community that the fans and Woodward found through the channel completely transcended the game.
“It’s something I want in my life that I’m actively continuing to choose, because it makes me happier,” said Woodward. “That’s not something that I expected.”
Since the humble beginnings of that very first August stream, the channel has grown exponentially, but the biggest addition to Woodward’s community came in the form of the OnlyShans’ Discord.
For those unfamiliar with Discord, it is a place where communities can talk over voice, video, and text on a secure server. It is prominent within the gaming community as a way to easily play games with other people all over the world.
At its origins, the Discord server was just two channels for community members to chat in—which, as many of the OnlyShans describe, was total chaos. In the best way, of course.
“We had two channels, it was just pure chaos,” says OnlyShan moderator yearinla, the nickname they asked to be referred to as in the story. “We just talked about anything and everything. I’ve been on the internet for a long time and been a part of a whole bunch of different communities, but this was really the fastest I’d ever seen it come together.”
Yearinla was not the only member to notice how quickly the community was flourishing. Chris McEwen, aka TheDataWizard, also noticed the vibrant evolution and offered to help Woodward build out her Discord, make it Twitch subscriber-only (to help keep out the trolls, of course) and recruit moderators to keep the community a positive and inclusive space.
“I can’t really take credit for how well structured it is. It was that the people showed up and TheDataWizard [McEwen] was like, ‘I can probably make this more fun for them,’” says Woodward. “We let the users create the space that they wanted. That’s been kind of my whole MO with doing this.”
McEwen says the whole process took about a month to come together, but as he and many of the OnlyShans can attest to, it was worth the effort. “It’s definitely one of the most positive spaces on the internet I’ve ever witnessed,” he says.
LGBTQIA+ representation in mainstream video games has started to gain steam of late, but it has taken a while to get to this point. According to The Advocate, the 1986 game Moonmist was the first video game to have a lesbian character. Since then, there have been several games with LGBTQIA+ side characters, but with The Last of Us Part II and a few other modern games (like Life Is Strange, Mass Effect, and Cyberpunk 2077), LGBTQIA+ characters have become playable or at least more featured.
In an industry that is so male-dominated this evolution has not been obstacle-free. Just seven years ago, progressive themes and women in gaming were savagely attacked during the Gamergate controversy and prominent women in gaming were harassed and threatened. While toxicity still persists in gaming, many companies and games are becoming more progressive.
One of the biggest things McEwen, who identifies as queer, did for the OnlyShans channel was give all members, many of whom are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, the opportunity to self-identify within the Discord. And as Cole, another moderator, points out there is also a “specific LGBTQ channel for community members to talk with people who understand what they're going through.”
“I think that's vital, especially for younger people in the community who may not have that support at home,” wrote Cole, who identifies as a bisexual transgender man, in a email.
For Cole in particular, the community has given him a safe space to voice chat with people and play games in a non-toxic environment.
“I’m transgender, so a lot of the time when I go on a voice call, I’m anxious of the fact that people are going to misgender me,” writes Cole. “It’s nice to be in a community where you can have that option of going on a voice call and not being afraid of people being abusive.”
One example of how inclusive the community is comes in the form of the OnlyShans prom that was thrown in October 2020. The event gave members that would not be able to attend their prom due to COVID or members that did not attend their prom in high school or had a bad experience at it a chance to have a fun night.
“We were in so many different parts of the world,” says moderator Carrot who helped organize the event. “We had people that were checking in to see what time it would end because they wanted to see if they should take a half an hour off the end of work and come join in.”
Carrot, a lesbian, says they were able to get Ian Alexander, who plays the transgender character Lev in The Last of Us Part II, to stop by the prom in voice chat. Woodward also joined in the festivities to chat and play games with the attendees.
Unlike many gaming communities which can be toxic places for LGBTQIA+ people and women, the OnlyShans is a safe haven. And it is so because Woodward, who also identifies as queer, and her moderators work hard to make it a safe place for people of all walks of life and all ages.
“There’s so much sweetness that I think that even if people had come with the intention of trolling, they’re kind of blinded by the light,” says Woodward.
The lack of trolls did surprise Woodward though, as following the release of The Last of Us Part II many cast and crew members on the project received hostile messages and even death threats.
“I went in being like, ‘are people gonna come in and try to dox me?’” said Woodward. “It was right when all that stuff had just happened when I started the channel. So, naturally I was prepared for it.”
But, the trolls never came. In fact, it was the game and its inclusivity that brought people together.
“There is so much inclusivity in the game and Ellie’s relationship with Dina is such a big part of something that so many people have felt like the mediums that they enjoy they weren’t represented in,” said Woodward. “There are a lot of trans and queer kids in our chat and in our community and I think that that’s because they were looking for each other.”
Gina Loukareas, who was the first moderator for the OnlyShans and has known Woodward for years after being introduced by Martha Plimpton (Woodward’s Raising Hope co-star), was quick to credit Woodward for the positive environment of the OnlyShans.
“So much of that is to Shannon’s credit in that she was just from day one wasn’t tolerating any kind of shit,” says Loukareas, who identifies as queer. “It really genuinely is to her credit that she’s fostered this incredible environment.”
And this safe space couldn’t have come at a better time as it gave so many people an outlet to communicate and meet new friends during a time of global quarantine.
“Towards the beginning of the server, my mom was dying of cancer and I've never been through anything like that with a sick relative,” said Yearinla. “And Gina had gone through similar things with her mom and she just became someone that I could talk to. Without her I probably would not have been able to emotionally [handle] what my mom's going through.”
Yearinla also says that when their mom was diagnosed with cancer they made a GoFundMe for her to help with the medical costs. She posted the link to Twitter and half of the $3,000 raised came from the OnlyShans. This was a month after knowing them. “It was absolutely incredible the kindness they showed,” they said.
Kindness and friendship runs deep within the OnlyShans. And there has even been a bit of romance. One moderator who asked to go by the nickname Yams met her girlfriend through the community.
“I hate using the word ‘life-changing,’ because that feels so severe and so huge,” said Yams, a lesbian. “But it’s definitely a life improvement. I would say I’m very much better off knowing these people than I was before.”
And the OnlyShans are just getting started. Despite being back to work, Woodward is adamant about keeping the channel and community going. She is even looking to do more streams where she interviews people she works with while playing video games.
“I would like to humanize people that people put on a pedestal,” said Woodward. “I think also it would be funny if I was like playing Fortnite with them and they were getting killed by people’s nephews while I was asking them very serious questions about their professional trajectory.”
Wherever Woodward takes the stream next, the OnlyShans are along for the ride and are always looking to welcome new members into the wholesome community.
But, Woodward would like to remind you, “if there are assholes reading, please don’t come.”