In the shaky handheld video clip, Jacob Rudolph takes to the podium to accept his high school's Class Actor award. "I've been acting every single day of my life," he says. "You see me acting the part of straight Jacob, when I'm in fact an LGBT teen."
The 1:52 minute clip, which was uploaded to YouTube in early 2013 by Jacob's dad, Jonathan, quickly amassed thousands of views, becoming one of the site's first viral coming out videos. Today, the search term throws up around 50 million results. Some of the most popular are from major vloggers and celebrities sexualities—Troye Sivan's coming out message has 7.4 million views, while Tom Daley's is on 12 million.
"The popularity of these videos is due to audiences looking for information and support that they can't find elsewhere," says Professor Ed Rosenberg, director of sociology at Appalachian State University. "People who come out can be role models for those who are agonizing over it. YouTube provides a far safer environment for LGBT discourse than many young people can find at school or in their residential areas."
Rudolph tells me that his dad posted the video as a statement about how parents should support their LGBTQ children. "When it went viral, he was even more excited than I was," he laughs. "I also believed that if struggling LGBTQ kids saw the video, they might find the courage to embrace their authentic selves. The hundreds of messages we both received after the video's release confirmed our suspicions." The video is now on 2.1 million views.
Many of the earliest coming out videos consist of individuals talking into the camera, in a basic single take, about how they opened up to family or friends. Shereen Jenkins, 21, made one such video back when she was 15. "It was the first of my videos to get a lot of attention," she recalls. "I had quite a big Tumblr following at the time, and one person asked me, anonymously, how I had come out to my family.
"I'd never seen anyone else make a similar video, but I figured it could be helpful—both for the person who asked me, and other people out there—to film myself talking about it." It wasn't long before the video amassed close to 100,000 views, compared to the usual few thousand hits of her previous uploads. "I almost became this therapist for people who were struggling," she says. "Lots of people came to me for advice, and still do. It made me realise that anything you say online can potentially help someone."
The quick spread of the videos is testament to how many people search for coming out advice, unable to access it through their immediate environment or most media outlets. As the genre grew, YouTube users began setting up cameras while they came out to family members, either in person or over the phone. One of most-viewed videos feature the Rhodes Bros vloggers coming out to their dad together over speaker phone. The emotional video has over 23 million views, and has inspired a whole range of reaction videos, where people film themselves watching it.
"Every gay guy who's struggling to come out will watch these videos to see examples of it and build up courage," says Adam Monastero, 23, whose 2014 video showing him and his twin brother, Luke, coming out to their parents has 3.5 million views. "I've watched every single one possible. They're just so honest and raw. You're making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself out there, and being proud of who you are."
The twins' first video, when they started their channel two years ago, showed them talking about how they came out to each other. "We got a lot of comments asking 'What do your parents think about having two gay twins?'" recalls Luke. "We hadn't actually told them at the time—we were just out to our circle of friends. We decided we should tell them before they found out online somehow."
After setting up a hidden camera in their family kitchen, the twins waited for their parents to return from a shopping trip before telling them about their sexuality. "We were so nervous, there's a good ten minutes of us stalling that we had to cut from the start," said Adam. "But they reacted so positively. We told them afterwards we wanted to put it online, and they told us to go for it and that they were proud of us."
The video went viral after being picked up by some LGBTQ websites, and the twins' followers jumped from 1,000 to around 20,000 in a month. "We were receiving loads of comments from other gay guys saying they were inspired by it," remembers Luke. "We even had people from high school—people that I'd never even really spoken to—messaging us saying how brave they thought we were."
We feel we have to constantly prove who we are and show our identities are valid.
Less widespread are videos of people coming out as transgender or non-binary. "I'd seen a lot of videos of people coming out as gay and lesbian, but not really trans," says Chandler Wilson, 18, whose 2015 video of them coming out to their mother as agender has 1.8 million views. "[Trans beauty vlogger] Gigi Gorgeous's coming out video was the only one that really resonated with me."
Like both Shereen and the Monastero twins, Wilson (who uses they/them pronouns) was spurred on to make their own video by other users of the site. "I made a video called 'What is agender?' and lots of people starting asking me how I came out, but I hadn't actually come out," they explain. "My sister had come out as trans when she was 16 and I was 12, and my parents had not reacted well at all. So after I first came out to myself as agender, I was certain I would never tell my parents because I figured it would go just as poorly for me.
"But speaking to all these people online who supported my identity—and were looking to come out to their own families—made me decide I could try be a voice for them and give them an example of how a non-binary person comes out. My mom was gradually being more open-minded and accepting of my sister, and using she/her pronouns, so I decided to tell her while my dad was away."
In the video, a visibly nervous Wilson tells their mother about a nightmare they had involving their dad killing them for being trans. "It was very scary to share that because I hadn't been a YouTuber very long, and didn't have that personal a relationship with my viewers. But I didn't want to cut any footage because I wanted it to be an authentic representation of what I was going through."
Chandler says that the positive reaction from both their mother and the online community has helped them feel more validated in their identity. "I struggled for the longest time that no one would take me seriously," they say. "It's something I notice in my own video, and in other coming out videos generally—we feel we have to constantly prove who we are and show our identities are valid. We add in all these extra stories and explanations instead of just saying, 'Hey I'm trans' and that being it."
Ultimately, the videos provide so much more to LGBTQ young people than simply showing them ways to come out. Amongst the pirated music, beauty hauls, and cat videos, YouTube has become a safe and supportive space for those who are exploring or questioning their sexuality or gender identity. "Being LGBTQ isn't normalized in the media as much as it should be," concludes Wilson. "But having this space and these prominent YouTubers is helping our identities become more accepted."