This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
I discovered coming-out videos late in life—or at least, at 26, later than everyone else. They’d been there for years, these YouTube clips of LGBTQ vloggers opening up about their sexuality, but I’d dismissed them as irrelevant to me—too saccharine, too earnest. I had already gone through the emotionally fraught, complicated process of coming out. Why would I want to watch other people do it?
Still, I fell down the rabbit hole. I started with Rose and Rosie, a married couple who live in Hertfordshire, England, and make videos from their living room where they bicker, tease each other, phone up their exes, and make out on camera. This formula helped them to accumulate 155 million views* on Rose’s YouTube channel and more than 30 million on Rosie’s.
“These TWO FUCkerS are The REAson I REIlizaD I WAS gaY AND afTER WATCHING THIS I REMEBER WHY,” wrote one fan under a compilation video of Rose and Rosie kissing.
I told my girlfriend, Emily, about them as though I’d discovered some new, untrodden pocket of the internet. “Rose and Rosie, Emily and Amelia… We could have made a fortune by now,” she told me.
Rose and Rosie led me to the Rhodes Bros, two twinky angels whose coming-out video put a lump in my throat. Twenty-six million views and counting. Then, the lesbian couple Bria and Chrissy’s “10 Worst Ways To Come Out” video, which at one point features two young girls jumping out of literal closets in the most labored visual metaphor I’ve ever seen. Eighteen million views. Ingrid Nilsen’s teary coming-out video has 17 million views—16.4 million more than the video where she interviews Barack Obama.
Each vlogger had a look, a logo, an identity. Some gave me the feeling that if they weren’t vlogging about being queer, they’d be vlogging about free holidays or makeup—a few were doing that, too—but it felt somehow significant that they had chosen to talk about their sexuality, and that we, in our anonymous millions, had chosen to watch it.
My YouTube spiral made me think about my own adolescence—how coming out in front of so many people would have been a waking nightmare. I came of age in a time before same-sex marriage and YouTube and social media. My dad played George Michael in the car, and my mum taught me about the AIDS crisis, but they didn’t teach me what it meant to be gay. Because… how could they? They were straight.
All my first memories of homophobia involve me playing the homophobic one. At 13, I joined my classmates in calling my hockey teacher a “dyke” behind her back, and hiding when she came into the changing room. At 15, I was scandalized when two girls made out at a party. At 16, my friend told me she was gay. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing at all.
I first realized I had feelings for a girl at 17. From the minute I saw her, I knew. I didn’t tell anyone; no one in our 2,000-person college was out. If we became friends, maybe it would go away, I thought. So, like a double agent, I gained her trust. Every day, we would hang out, and every night I would look at her Facebook photos. I waited to get over my attraction, but when I realized that wasn’t happening quickly enough, I did the most homoerotic thing you can do: I fucked the guy she was sleeping with.
Years later, when I was 21 and out and living in a city, she came to visit me. I took her to my local gay bar, where we hung out with my friends and danced. I kissed someone else.
“Why did we become friends in college?” she asked, back at my house.
“I think I had a crush on you,” I admitted. She didn’t flinch, run out of the room, or do any of the things I imagined she’d do if I had told her years before.
“Do you still have a crush on me?” she asked.
We had sex. I can’t remember it now, but I do remember what it felt like: All my gay, teenage self-hate dissolved away in one perfect evening. Until the next day, when she told me she was straight and made me promise not to tell anyone.
This would happen repeatedly to varying degrees for the next three years: different girls but the same story. I learned that shame is contagious—just when you think you’re rid of it, someone passes it back to you. In the pub, I would joke that it was a compliment that girls were “only gay for me,” but in private, I would wonder why, if they had feelings for me, it would be such an awful thing to openly be with me. The hours spent crying behind closed doors were not as glamorous or tragic as the queer films I’d seen growing up.
I never mentioned these episodes to anyone because, even then, I knew I was intensely privileged that these were my only encounters with gay shame. I was being self-indulgent. No one had died. As a queer person, wasn’t this the best outcome you could hope for?
And then I got older. And I made friends in gay bars and in activist circles: friends who—through sharing their stories of overcoming experiences of shame far tougher than mine—taught me to respect myself the way they did. Eventually, I also started to love people who would love me back.
In a video titled “SUPERKISS!,” Rose and Rosie kiss for as long as they possibly can. Watching it recently, I wondered: If I had been able to access something as basic as a video of earnest vloggers opening up about their sexuality, would it have made a difference? Could it have spared me any of the pain or the shame? Would I have come out sooner?
The fact is, accepting ourselves and figuring out how to express our identities to the world are things we learn over time. These videos give me hope that teenagers now have a way to do some of that learning from the safety of their bedrooms, where perhaps there’s a little less of a chance of getting hurt. For me, they were too little too late—but I take comfort in knowing they’re out there to help someone else.