Essay, LGBTQ, Life, pop culture, Pride 2017

COMING OUT IN THE AGE OF YOUTUBE

My first laptop was a thick black Dell that required a near-constant source of power and hummed louder than a barbershop quartet.

It took minutes to load up and froze frequently, which I’m sure is entirely unrelated to the buckets of shady porn websites I was searching. Also unrelated to my search history was the Dell’s untimely and unseemly demise at the hands of a Trojan virus.

On that laptop I wrote my stories, a thousand beginnings to stories where beautiful (sometimes mythic) girls fell in love with hot guys and I wrote a 200-page novel that languishes on my bookshelf. If I ever published it, I would get slammed with copyright infringement because it is essentially a patchwork of every book I read as a tween. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and honey, I must’ve been really sincere. It’s the laptop I created my Facebook account on and took photos of me wearing two polos layered over each other and a dog-tag with my camp girlfriend’s name on it. This laptop was PG (pre-gay).

After the Dell died—a fitful, restless death—I got a Macbook Pro, lightyears faster and sleeker. That was the laptop I came out on, in a few lines typed out over Skype because I was terrified to say it out loud. It’s bizarre to think that, technically if I could remember that username and password, I could access it again because those first moments of truth are forever immortalized in the ether.

But before I came out (at 15, around Easter) I knew I was gay for months. Well, technically years because I don’t know many straight five-year-olds who wrap a blanket around their waist to pretend to be Ariel from The Little Mermaid and claim that they’d love to marry Prince Eric. I know even fewer straight people who, at eight years old, would put on Radio Disney in the dead of night and pretend to be in a school hallway talking to my boyfriend Aaron Carter.

But in my sophomore year of high school, my feelings for a Certain Boy, a crush of mine which is also forever immortalized on my teenage blog, shifted from “buddy” to “booty.” I could no longer pretend I was admiring his gym techniques during track practice as I traced my eyes over his abs (fourteen years old!) when he lifted his shirt to wipe off sweat in rest moments.

In fact, much of my coming out process was centered on running track. In the endless empty hours while we ran, I thought. I thought about the way that Boy’s hair shifted from caramelly-brown to golden blonde, how his eyes shifted from blue to green under thick dark brows and framed by thick dark lashes. His vocal fry. I thought about how I wish I could talk about him to my friends, but I couldn’t because of the Big Reason. Because in the cloister of my heavily religious, heavily regimented life—private, all-boys prep school; small, chatty town—I knew that this Big Reason was a Big No-No.

So when I couldn’t turn to any people in my real life, I buried myself in online friends—YouTube. In 2010, YouTube was only five years old and the content was still very unpolished. But, in the nascence of it grew this weird phenomenon of collaboration channels, particularly gay collabs. One of the firsts, from what I could find, was “5AwesomeGays” which was slightly before my viewing time but introduced me to people like Joseph Birdsong, Korey Kuhl and Tyler Oakley. While I never watched 5AwesomeGays, they inspired an entire new genre of YouTube, and I became hooked on one of the copycats, “AGayADay.”

Five days a week, Monday through Friday, one of the collab members would upload a video. The video was based on a theme decided for the week, and they talked about everything from fashion to music to dating to politics. It was my first introduction to actual gay people, not caricatures or stereotypes or negatives. Just gay teens and twentysomethings living their lives on the Internet.

I devoured this content and began unsteadily tracing out my own gay identity. Much of early queer life—at least my early queer life—was like that. For better or for worse, they taught me about what it meant to be gay, in the slightly un-PC way that only existed for that brief window in the late ‘00s. I based my own identity in resistance or attraction to these gay men. They were everything I wanted to be in some ways—out, open gay guys who dated boys and wore skinny jeans and cooked and were sassy and sharp and clever.

YouTube also wasn’t anything like it is today. You didn’t talk about what YouTubers you liked; it was, for most people, exclusively viral cat videos and hair tutorials. So the experience of watching—to an obsessive nth degree—these young men was entirely solitary and intimate. No one knew who these guys were—at least in my world—and they were mine.

“AGayADay” gifted me with my first gay crush. One of the boys (Thursday?) was named Brandon, probably a year or two older than I was. He had spiked hair, a turned up nose and deep, dark eyes. It was my first experience with having a crush on someone who, hypothetically, would have a crush on me back. He lived in Pennsylvania and his videos were always more tentative than the others; he was the youngest, he was in the closet, and this was early enough in YouTube’s formation that there wasn’t “Internet fame.” He could be out on the Internet and closeted in real life and no one would know. Later, it seems, people did find out and he was the first of the collab to drop out—his videos disappeared like the snap of a closed book—after he went to college.

His awkwardness and vulnerability and cuteness made me so deeply attracted to him in a way that can only exist when you’re fifteen and closeted and angsty. I hated his boyfriend, Alec, (who I later unwittingly matched with on Tinder and had to unmatch because how weird is that?) for loving him and when he left the group, I left too. The phenomenon of gay collabs petered out eventually as members splintered into individual channels. There was, it seemed, more power and marketability, as we entered the 2010s, in the individual brand.

It’s probably a direct result of watching so much YouTube that I started a blog a year after coming out. The idea of creating content online was so bizarre and fresh and new to me that I wanted to emulate my “idols.” It only occurs to me later as a young adult the absolute chutzpah I had to write about all the boys I had crushes on while being in class with them in my very small, very straight, very religious all-boys prep school. My generation of queer people were the first ones to be able to look to the Internet for advice and guidance, and the first ones to not really know what to do with it. I in particular really didn’t know what to do with it.

It was also Brandon and the other members of AGAD that spurred me to come out. The perception that they were living their lives out made me worry (here it makes sense to realize I was struggling with undiagnosed anxiety and depression) that, at fifteen, I had somehow missed the boat and was too old. Only years later did I understand that Brandon was closeted, that half of the guys were in their twenties when they came out, and some were estranged from their families. But that nuance was lost to me then, and so I came out at fifteen to my parents.

I’m now almost a decade older than when I first realized I was gay (14 to nearly 22, that’s like, what 7.8 years?) and the world has changed so much. Everyone has an online presence—a blog, or a well-curated Instagram or a LinkedIn—and the market is so saturated with people wanting to cultivate their “brand” that it’s easy to forget the beginning.

I don’t miss being fifteen—who the fuck does—but in some ways I miss the intimacy and blindness of the Internet. When I could log on and watch a seven-minute video of someone filming on a grainy laptop camera, my Skype chat minimized until the “boop-BOOp-boop” started ringing. I missed having a crush on someone so intensely and singularly that I thought I would literally die if I didn’t see them. Slowly shifting my library seat until we were sitting next to each other, or watching through videos and memorizing the lines on someone’s face.

There’s such an intense innocence to being gay and closeted and fifteen and in a small town. I’m not yearning for that again, but it’s nice to remember that before the world was cracked wide open, it was just me with the volume low and the door shut, watching five gays on the Internet.

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