The first time I admitted I was gay, I burrowed into my bedroom blankets and typed out a Gchat message to a girl I hadn’t met. My parents were asleep, and I was alone, but I still tilted the laptop screen forward like someone would see. “This might sound weird,” Laura had asked, “but are you gay?” She didn’t know I’d never told anyone.
I thought about saying, “No.” I could shove it down, bury it, and then maybe my fascination with boys would wilt away in some forgotten fringe of my memory. But by that point my tally of male crushes approached four or five, and a part of me understood I couldn’t change. My fingers shook as I answered Laura: “Yeah I am, why do you ask?”
If I had known Laura in real life, I don’t think I would have said it. But I lived in Connecticut and she lived in California, and there was safety in the distance, in knowing I wouldn’t have to face her—or this—the next day, or week, or month. I could tell her, close my laptop, and nothing would happen.
Laura and I had started talking through our WordPress blogs a year and a half earlier, when I was 14 and she was 16. She commented on my blog post about teen authors, and I commented back on hers about mental health in the fantasy genre. At the time, we had different names. I knew her as Olivia and she knew me as John—pseudonyms we invented to make our online lives invisible. We were both high school–aged writers, and the pen names meant we could share our work without classmates finding it.
After I told her I was gay, Laura said something like, “I had a feeling,” and then she asked her question: She was writing a book with a queer character, and she wanted to know if I had any advice. And then we started talking about writing again, like it was nothing. Like I hadn’t just admitted—to her and to myself—the secret I’d spent half of my life trying to bury.
Before it happened, I never pictured my coming out. I think I should have—cycled through every possible locked throat, every stutter, every contorted frown. But coming out never seemed like a possibility, because queerness as an identity felt alien. That “cute guys” Tumblr blog I visited multiple times each week? I was just researching characters for my novels. And those long moments staring at shirtless boys on the beach, studying the arc of their chests and the curve of their waists? I was watching them only because I wanted to look like them.
When I was 13, I joined Twitter because, as I told my parents, I wanted to meet other writers. But that wasn’t entirely true. I think I knew something about me wasn’t right, that maybe there was truth to that word certain classmates hurled at me, queer, and the internet felt like the only place to make sense of it.
In the year before Laura asked about my sexuality, I began making friends online, friends who took pride in who they loved and how they expressed their gender. I started talking to boys who experimented with makeup, girls who rocked suits, nonbinary people who used a word like queer as a banner of pride. But Laura listened to me with a special kind of attentiveness.
Back then, she and I never explicitly mentioned queerness, but we talked about other things. We commiserated over writing and revising, how we each accumulated infinitely more book ideas than we had the time to draft. I told her that I related more to the female point of view in books, or that I “appreciated”—hint hint—certain male love interests, and I remember we once had a long conversation about the very gay YA novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
It was the kind of asymptotic coming out that never quite totaled to a full proclamation, and I’m not sure who I really meant it for—myself, or her.
A few months after Laura finally asked me to label those intimations, I started telling more people that I was queer. A different group of online writer friends, with whom I discussed books and World War I and The Legend of Korra, reacted with an onslaught of support—and a couple of them came out back to me.
I tweeted GIFs of rainbows and Kermit the Frog clutching pride flags, made unoriginal jokes about the “gay apparel” line in “Deck the Halls,” and even—when I was feeling brave—posted about celebrities I found attractive. Because I used a pseudonym, I could explore my sexuality without anyone in my real life knowing.
But Laura heard me even without the GIFs. I didn’t tell her she was the first person I came out to, because I liked how normal it felt—how I could transition to telling her about crushes and parents and the increasingly queer stories I was writing, and it didn’t have to be momentous. Before, I didn’t think that kind of normalcy could be attainable: expressing queerness as an inextricable, but not shameful, part of myself.
We kept messaging. She applied to college and started abandoning her pen name for her real one, and then, a couple of years later, so did I. Though we still haven’t met in person, we check in about school and writing, and now that I go to college in Los Angeles, the distance between us has shrunk from thousands of miles to only a couple hundred.
The thing that panicked headlines over catfish and deteriorating social skills misunderstand about internet friendships is how freeing they can be. So many people become active in online communities because they want to share a side of themselves that they can’t in their normal lives, whether they’re queer, mentally ill, a person of color in white-dominated spaces, or any of those intersections. The internet lets us test the limits of who we are. I don’t know what I would have done without that little corner of the internet, populated by people like Laura who became the first to see, and love, all of me—even at a distance.