Often during our most formative years, the indeterminate period between coming to terms with our sexuality and sharing our identity with the world, young gay men learn the importance of artifice. Whether it’s because we’re uncomfortable in our own skin or that we’re in an environment that doesn’t appear to be welcoming of our sexual identity, we learn to construct and present a persona to the rest of society, including to family and friends, in order to mask the secret we are hiding. In doing so, we also grasp the importance of control, avoiding situations where the mask could slip and the secret be revealed.
These themes of artifice, personality construction, and control are key to understanding why YouTubing—the act of vlogging (video-blogging) about one’s life on YouTube in a way that appears natural, unscripted, and entirely relatable—has become an important creative outlet for young gay men. More than that, in videos that last a few minutes uploaded weekly over the course of many months or years, many of these YouTubers—including Troye Sivan, Connor Franta, and Joey Graceffa, who today constitute a core community of vloggers with millions of followers and numerous lucrative side projects from books to music to coffee—come out in the process of vlogging and choose to invite viewers into that process.
While YouTubers may record their videos alone in front a camera in their bedrooms or living rooms, it would be wrong to assume that they are spontaneous, confessional, or even honest. YouTubing, in fact, can be rather deceptive, for vlogging is a presentational form where the star is also the editor, allowing them absolute control over the finished product and the image they choose to share with the people who watch their videos. They can carefully curate and calibrate not only what they say, but also how they say it, what they wear, and how they act.
Vlogging also allows people to construct a narrative of their lives, a narrative that can go largely unchallenged—except in the comments section, of course—and, therefore, have only a loose grounding in reality. Strangers who, say, watch a YouTube vignette in which a young man talks about his perfect girl have no reason to doubt nor any reason to question the content of the video or the authority upon which the vlogger speaks. In other words, for someone who doesn’t want to give the game away about his sexual identity, YouTubing is perfect. YouTubing becomes an extension of closeting.
Franta, 22, provides perhaps the best example of YouTubing as closeting. Franta—who’s from a small town so deep into southeastern Minnesota that it’s basically in Wisconsin—began vlogging in August 2010. In June 2011, in response to what he has said were rude comments about his sexuality, he posted a video titled “I’m Not Gay.” In it, you can clearly hear him artificially deepening and flattening his voice and see him restricting his mannerisms. The insincerity is quite painful to watch. Later videos on his channel, like “How To Know If A Guy Likes You” or “Things Girls Should Know About Guys,” talk about heterosexual relationships in the first person; “I know that anytime I’ve liked a girl …” and so on.
After years of masking, December 2014 saw Franta share “Coming Out” with the world, a video that has now been viewed almost 9 million times. Its success might have to do with the way it was made, just Franta alone in his apartment, performing a monologue to camera, seemingly without a plan or script and absent the usual cutaways, gags, and silly little edits that interrupt most of his videos. “I kid you not, as soon as I turned on the camera, my heart just immediately started beating really hard,” Franta says, before going onto to tell his audience, with an obvious nervousness but as if he were speaking to one person rather than many, “I just want to be open and honest and tell you that I’m gay.”
For young gay male YouTubers like Franta, the coming out video has become a rite of passage. Indeed, it has established itself as something of a YouTube sub-genre. Graceffa, 24, shared “YES I’M GAY” in May 2015 (it now has 4.5 million views and, like Franta, Graceffa has published a memoir), and Sivan, 20, published “Coming Out” in August 2013. (To date, it has 5.5 million views.)
The enormous reach of these videos undoubtedly increases LGBTQ visibility, but beyond that, the usefulness of these young gay voices for the LGBTQ community and our causes is hard to discern. This is because their main audience is not other gay men—for whom their stories of coming out might serve some purpose—but, rather, teenage girls, whose own struggles, with issues such as bullying or body dysmorphia, while very real aren’t exactly comparable to those of a young gay man wrestling with his sexuality within a heteronormative environment.
Through the process of translation into the language of teenage girls, YouTubers’ coming-out narratives often have their essential queerness stripped from them. In Franta’s memoir A Work in Progress (which is a brazen act of manipulation, obfuscation, and presentation of a concocted and affected image), there is a tendency to either minimize the fact that he is gay—stories about dating girls in high school dance around his sexuality irritatingly—or turn coming out into something universal, with appropriately bromidic language: “Your potential is endless,” “Start living today, not tomorrow,” and so on. It’s like reading a bad fortune cookie.
The other problem is the solipsism that comes from vlogging. Through click-based attention, it breeds within these YouTube personalities the idea that what they say about just about anything has fundamental value. More concerning, their Internet fame having turned them into celebrities (“social trailblazers,” if you will), they are compelled to spout something—anything—about the coming out experience while they’re still living it. These young men are required to offer an instant response to a period in their life—closeted adolescence and, then, coming out—that takes months and even years to process and understand.
Certainly, the vagueness and cliché surrounding the language of coming out on YouTube, as exhibited in Franta’s memoir, goes back to the issues of artifice and control, but it is also a product of YouTubing itself. Living a version of your life on the internet in over-edited 10-minute bursts that more often than not rely largely on memes and mimicry doesn’t exactly allow for original or meaningful thought—on coming out or any other topic.
YouTube, then, has became a forum for young gay men to share a version of their lives and their stories with the world, but it isn’t clear that anyone has benefited from this development other than the people who produce the videos.