YouTube videos are just one way LGBT people are utilizing the Internet as an integral part of the coming-out process.
A girl with close-cropped brown hair is lying on her bed, staring into the video camera on her laptop. She’s talking to no one in particular (and yet, hypothetically, to anyone with a solid Internet connection) about how great college has been for her. As a second-semester freshman, she’s seen great opportunities for intellectual stimulation, but she’s also seen how uniquely essential the college lifestyle is for personal growth and development.
Videos like this one, recorded in February 2008 by Samantha Burns, now a senior at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, have attracted quite a following. Samantha’s video has over 12,000 views, and hundreds of other similar videos have seen even larger audiences.
The videos are just one way that LGBT people are utilizing the Internet as an integral part of the coming-out process. These virtual interactions with the online community are now just as important as real-world, face-to-face conversations, and they’re often the person’s first real attempt at accepting their sexuality or exploring their complex struggles with identity.
Testing the Waters
For some people, coming out online—whether via a YouTube video or on a forum or in a chat room—is a way to test the waters. It’s a non-committal, low-stakes way to communicate their identity as anything other than heterosexual.
Justin Lee is the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, an online support network for Christians who are also LGBT. He believes the anonymity that the Internet affords LGBT people newly coming to terms with their sexuality is extremely important.
“The ability to connect with people in a way that is anonymous and safe is really key,” he said. “In the past, if somebody realized that they were gay and they wanted to connect with other gay people about those experiences, then there weren’t a lot of places to do that. Nowadays, if somebody has a question about their sexuality and wants to talk to other gay people, they can do that from home. They can be anonymous, they don’t have to say what their real name is, they don’t have to put their picture online, they don’t have to tell people where they live, and they can have that conversation and work through a lot of the questions they have.”
That’s especially important for LGBT people in small towns or conservative parts of the country, where they may not know any other openly gay person. Interacting online with other LGBT people demonstrates that it’s not abnormal or exceedingly rare to be gay or bisexual or transgender.
“Having the intimate kind of connection that you have from the YouTube videos is important,” Samantha said of her experiences cultivating friendships with other YouTube posters. “The Internet kind of allowed me to have that immediate, close connection because these people were sharing something that was very intimate and very personal, inviting me into that conversation and letting me know that in this realm, it was OK.”
For Joe Desiderio, a sophomore at Le Moyne College in New York, the Internet played an even larger role in his coming-out process. In ninth grade, Joe befriended a guy named Sam on a fan page for Kingdom Hearts, a strategy-based videogame. Sam, two years older than Joe, was from New Zealand, and the two bonded by talking over AOL Instant Message about the videogame and, as time went on, their personal lives. After five months of online acquaintance, they came out to each other. Despite never having met each other in person, Sam was the first person who Joe told about his sexuality.
“For some reason it was just so easy to talk about it with him because I didn’t have to hear his voice, I didn’t have to look at him or anything,” Joe said. “It was so easy because it was online, and it was impersonal—but it was personal at the same time.”
Stepping Into the “Real World”
After finding some reassurance in the online community that it’s OK to be gay, many LGBT people take the next step with their cyber confessions by coming out offline to their friends and family.
“A lot of kids go to our website at a time where they’re still struggling and not ready to talk to people in person,” Justin said about the Gay Christian Network. “But online, they get to talk to people who give them some confidence in who they are. That often is what gives them the strength to come out to their parents and their friends and their churches and tell people what is going on in their lives—things that they might have kept inside for many more years.”
Samantha viewed her virtual coming-out as a way to work out her own feelings. When she made her video, she had only come out to her roommate and a small group of friends. “It was kind of a great way to practice,” she said. “I had never had the actual conversation—with my roommate, it was like, ‘I have these feelings, I’m pretty sure I’m not straight, I’m not really sure what I am at this point,’ and it was a real beating-around-the-bush sort of conversation. Whereas with my video, it was much more direct, and I was able to talk about how I was identifying at the time [and] questions or concerns that I had.
“The Internet was kind of my easier way to come out on a larger scale,” she continued. “It was still something I was trying to figure out how to tell my family, but it was definitely something that I could let all of my friends know or anyone else who knew about my YouTube account, all at one time.” In that respect, the video was a “next step” for Samantha, rather than a first step—a way to take her openness beyond her small circle of friends.
Passing On the Confidence
Some people have so much success earning support from the Web community that they try to help others cope online, sharing their stories or giving advice on how to deal with their sexuality.
That’s what prompted Joe to make his own YouTube coming-out video. After his friendship with Sam blossomed, he struggled with coming out to his parents and with balancing his sexuality and his deeply Christian faith. These dual identities were so challenging that Joe said he considered suicide.
This period pushed Joe into action. “Just the fact that I got out of that dark section of my life kind of made me think, ‘What if I’m not the only person who is going through something like that?’ What if someone else is thinking of killing himself?” he said. “And then, if he sees me telling this story, what if that makes him not kill himself? I wanted to help people, and I knew that if I wanted to reach a lot of people, the Internet was the place to go for that.”
Joe’s support came in the form of a 16-part video, uploaded in 10-minute sections that totaled two and a half hours, where he shared his comprehensive coming-out story. Joe’s audience was loyal—each of the clips garnered at least 6,000 views, and he received dozens of messages thanking him for the detail in his story. His video served a dual purpose. In addition to helping other young people experiencing similar feelings, it allowed Joe to reflect on his own identity. “It was totally therapeutic,” he said. “It helped me to sit there and sort it all out and just talk about it. It was like an online diary.”
In a generation where our “real world” lives are so intertwined with our online lives, it only makes sense that coming out moves to a virtual stage—we do everything else online, so why would we not share our secrets online?
Still, there’s no denying the significant impact that the Internet has on assuaging people’s anxiety about coming out and truly working toward a reality where it really can get better. “Technology is really opening a lot of doors,” Samantha said. “In a small town in South Carolina, you may not be able to talk to somebody, but you can get on a networking site or YouTube and be able to make connections and feel like there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s like getting the idea that there are people like you and knowing that it’s OK. I’m just really glad there is this arena for that kind of conversation to take place.”
About the photo: Few people have likely seen as many “coming out” YouTube videos as Doug Smithenry, an artist who lives in Chicago, Illinois. Last year, he created a “Coming Out Online” art exhibit featuring oil painting “screen captures” of 48 different YouTube videos where people (including Joe Desiderio and Samantha Burns) came out in cyberspace as a member of the LGBT community. His work, shown here, is an exploration of how people turn to the very public nature of the Internet in order to reveal very private secrets, including their sexuality. Having seen so many, he’s an expert of sorts about what’s normal for these videos. “I think it’s like a confessional in some ways,” he said. “A lot of the ones I watched feel like they’re taking a step,” Doug said. “Obviously, it’s not the first time that they’re coming out. Most of them are just sharing their coming out stories. This is, for them, it seems, another way of coming out. Like—OK, I told Grandma, and I told my cousin, and now I’m going to tell the Internet.” Check out all of Doug’s work at dougsmithenry.blogspot.com.