About halfway through the nearly 5-minute-long YouTube video, the camera cuts between shots of Elle Mills' friends, each of them sitting at a table with a pad of paper and some colored pencils in front of them. “I’m gonna explain to you my crush, and you have to draw out what you think they look like,” Mills says from behind the camera. “So here are the attributes: nice hazel eyes, has tattoos, kind heart, enjoys roller coasters, good taste in music, talented, and charming.”
They comment as they draw—“I know exactly who this is”; “What color is hazel?”—and after a few moments, each of the friends shows their own sketch to the camera.
“Now I’m gonna show you what my crush actually looks like,” Mills says. You can hear the anticipation in her voice. She pauses. “I’m nervous.”
“Is it me?” one friend asks sarcastically.
From behind the camera, Mills shows her friends a photograph. Her crush is a woman—and they all react, well, exactly how you’d hope. Shrieks of excitement, tears, smiles, hugs. “You can’t be gay!" one teen boy exclaims. "I’m gay.”
Mills has well over a million subscribers on YouTube, where she talks about high-school life and indulges in stunts like swapping her phone with her teacher's. But her coming-out extravaganza, which she posted eight months ago, is the most-viewed ever: 3.6 million people have watched the heartwarming video. Some of those, undoubtedly, were among the more than 17 million who watched makeup vlogger Ingrid Nilsen's own coming-out video on the platform.
While a number of athletes, politicians, and entertainers had made public announcements about their sexuality in the past, it was comedian Ellen DeGeneres—who came out in a series of hugely public interviews and whose character came out in a sitcom episode in 1997—who turned coming out into a cultural moment. At the time, many speculated that DeGeneres was jeopardizing her career, but 20 years later, it’s clear that her forthrightness fundamentally changed what coming out could look like for LGBTQ people.
So, too, has social media. Whether it’s through a Facebook post or blog entry, countless people are using the internet as their vehicle to come out to loved ones—either as a substitute to coming out in person, or to precede a sometimes-difficult conversation. But YouTube has turned what used to be a private moment into one that is unabashedly, self-awarely public.
Search “coming out” on YouTube and you’ll come across videos like Mills’ that have been seen by millions, alongside videos that have barely broken 1,000 views. New ones are posted every single day. And as the coming-out video continues to evolve, it has shifted from simple, personal testimonials to also produced videos that are created for the consumption of an online audience.
These days, coming-out videos can take a variety of forms. There are the classics: a person talking directly to the camera; coming out to a family member either in person or on the phone; or coming out by recounting times one came out offline. There are musical angles, whether using the music video to reveal your sexual orientation or more generic songs that were created for LGBTQ people to use to come out to their own loved ones. Some of these videos are incredibly touching, while others are painful to watch—most often those involving people coming out to loved ones on camera—but all of them tug at the heartstrings in a very particular way.
Even in this vast landscape, Mills’ video is in a category entirely of its own. It’s not just her sharing something personal with her audience, it’s also her packaging her story: there's a soundtrack, interviews, her own commentary. Yet, that acts in concert with something else. In the midst of the supportive words and soundtrack of classic romantic songs, the video includes a clip of Mills sitting on the floor, talking to the camera and crying. “I’m scared that my relationships with the people in my life right now are going to be different," she says, "that people are going to look at me differently.”
When many LGBTQ people come out online, they’re not just coming out to their audience of strangers, they’re also coming out to at least some of their family and friends, and that comes with its own set of fears and concerns. For Marina Watanabe, a 25-year-old feminist YouTuber and social media associate at the online magazine Everyday Feminism, making a coming-out video provided an alternative to sitting down with friends and family to have an unnatural-feeling conversation about something that, to her, wasn’t really a big deal. “The reality of coming out does not match the reality of being a queer person," she says in her video. "One is so much more daunting and scary than the other one when the other is just like ‘Eh, just how I am.’”
Naturally, for Mills and Watanabe, an awareness of their audiences figured not only into their decisions to come out, but their decisions about what that coming out should look like. “Those months in the closet were really hard," Mills says now, "and during that time it was really helpful to me to watch videos of others talking about their experiences of being in the closet.”
So what about the people who choose to come out on their Twitter account that only has 200 followers, or on their anonymous Tumblr blog? What compels people to take this deeply intimate moment and put it out there for anyone and everyone to see? It’s simple: Many people create these videos because they want the LGBTQ people watching them to feel even a tiny bit less alone. “If I had seen myself reflected in any of the media I consumed growing up, it would’ve helped me understand myself really sooner, or given me the validation I never really got from catholic school or in the world more generally,” Watanabe says.
Watanabe also wanted to make a video that would resonate with the specific segment of the LGBTQ community that she is a part of. “Where I was for most of my life is where so many young bi people are right now," she says. "I felt a responsibility to make that video, because bi visibility is so important.”
By focusing so much on “coming out” as a single moment, most cultural conversations misrepresent the reality of being LGBTQ. For many LGBTQ people, coming out is a never-ending experience. Regardless of how long they’ve been out, or how many people in their lives they’re out to, most will never stop having to say “Actually, I’m—” or “Yes, I’m—” or “No, my pronouns are—.” It’s not something they do just once, twice, or even ten times; it’s a lifelong reality. There is always a first time you come out, but there is not a last time.
But go on YouTube, and you’ll see thousands of LGBTQ people sharing their stories, speaking their truth—whether it be for the first time, the fifthteenth time, or the hundredth time. They're coming out for themselves, but they’re also coming out for the countless others who can’t, who don’t want to, who haven’t figured out how to. It would be dishonest to pretend that coming out will ever be easy. But perhaps, for some terrified kid out there, watching coming out videos like these can make it even the tiniest bit easier.