The week of June 21, 2015

YouTube’s biggest stars aren’t afraid to come out

By Rae Votta

Ingrid Nilsen walks into frame, sits, and immediately looks away from the camera, fiddling with her hair and taking a deep breath.

“OK, I’m doing this,” she starts.

“This is probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life,” begins Troye Sivan.

“As soon as I turned on the camera, my heart just immediately started beating really hard,” says Connor Franta.

“I’m actually kind of nervous sitting here right now,” Gigi Gorgeous opens.

“So ‘holy crap’ is the first thing I can think to say,” sighs Joey Graceffa.

These are the first words of some of the most popular YouTube celebrities as they prepare to reveal their sexual and gender identities to the world—in a format that’s recognizable and popular enough to be called a “coming-out video.” Franta, seated in his living room, exhales loudly before rattling into his regular, “Hey, what’s up?” Graceffa glows, perhaps more a trick of his ring lighting than his emotions, but he also fidgets and drops eye contact, unable to hold back nervous laughter. Gorgeous sit on her floor and puffs out a quiet “OK.” Sivan, who’s also sitting on the ground, emphasizes that he shares everything with the Internet; why should this be any different?

“I’m making this video for anyone who needs it,” says Franta. “It’s OK. It may not seem like it right now, but you are going to be fine. I know it’s scary, but don’t be afraid.”

• • •

The coming-out video has become an LGBTQ+ YouTuber rite of passage. It’s a growing playlist for a changing culture, one where some of the most influential celebrities are out and proud—and found on the video-sharing platform. After all, YouTubers now outrank traditional celebrities in the minds of teens and tweens.

While many YouTubers lived openly from their first video—one of the most recognizable LGBTQ+ vloggers, Tyler Oakley, joked that he’s never posted a coming-out clip—many did not. They spent years sharing their lives with fans, connecting to an audience (and yes, building a brand based on authenticity), only to publicly come out on video. Collectively they’ve amassed tens of millions of subscribers, and coming-out videos from Sivan, Franta, and Graceffa have been watched more than 5 million times each. Fans have responded supportively, and today a search for the phrase “coming out” yields 600,000 videos.

“Coming-out videos for me, on YouTube, were a big part of how I accepted myself and how I found a community to make myself feel better about it.” —Connor Franta

“When I was coming out, you couldn’t go on Google and search coming-out videos,” said Oakley. “Now you can find that, and find somebody you relate to. Before you could find maybe a story about Rosie coming out, or Ellen. The ones that you found were so far removed from what a normal, everyday human from middle America might experience.”

Franta is a 22-year-old YouTuber who is not only a solo star on the platform but was a part of Our2ndLife, the boyband-like vlogging collective. He embodies that typical middle America coming out, right down to turning to YouTube to help inspire his own openness.

“Coming-out videos for me, on YouTube, were a big part of how I accepted myself and how I found a community to make myself feel better about it,” Franta said. “I wanted to tell my audience and feel the best I could ever feel and most open I could ever feel. I wanted to say what I wanted in public or be what I wanted in public and not think that someone could snap a photo and then I’d have to explain it.”

Commenters questioned his sexuality for years, and in 2011, he publishing a video titled “I’m Not Gay.” In July 2014, he left O2L and came out to his 2.9 million subscribers in December. In the time between, he jokingly (and privately) referred to the video as “Project X”

“Don’t feel like you have to follow someone else’s recipe.” —Ingrid Nilsen

“At one point, I just picked a date,” Franta recalled. “I don’t know if that’s normal, but I picked a date and said, ‘A month from now, I’m going to make this video.’ I sat down, and I recorded it a couple times. During the video, I cut it all out, [but] there were leaf blowers outside my house. I was so frustrated; I was so angry. I was like, ‘I’m being very emotional in this house!’”

Franta felt vulnerable for weeks after releasing the video, despite overwhelming positive responses. For him, the pressure was more that everyone would know—not just everyone he’d talked to personally but everyone and anyone with an Internet connection. Ordering coffee the next day, Franta was shocked to hear the barista congratulate him on coming out. “He was just a random barista, and he was the first person I saw after it. I was like, ‘Everyone knows, even this barista!’”

“I think as a lot of people who’ve come out can tell you it feels very freeing,” noted Raymond Braun, a YouTube social marketing manager who works with the LGBTQ+ community. “It allows you to be yourself more, which is so important with YouTube because the relationship between creators and fans is built on authenticity.”

Braun said YouTube doesn’t reach out to creators about their coming-out process—there’s obviously no way to identify a user as LGBTQ+—but creators thinking about coming out are often referred to him. He encourages them to be honest and share their motivations. “It’s all about the story and really speaking to their community in the same way you’d speak to a friend or family member when coming out,” he said.

“YouTube is a platform where a lot of disenfranchised voices have an opportunity to come and find a platform that the media will not give them.” —Tyler Oakley

For Graceffa, 24, who’s been active on YouTube for eight years, that meant coming out to his 4.8 million followers through a music video that featured him kissing another guy.

“Growing up outside Boston, being gay was not OK,” he said. “Even my dad was homophobic, or growing up it seemed like that. I was always terrified of telling him. Also on YouTube people used that as an insult, and I felt like if I worked online, I’d get a lot of hate. It took me a while to really feel confident and to see how other people received this.” Seeing a number of well-known, out and proud YouTubers helped him feel he’d made the right decision.

Graceffa originally planned to come out in his memoir, in a chapter cheekily titled, “Surprise!” He initially thought coming out online was scarier than doing it in writing, but after the book went to press, he decided to produce a music video, followed by a more traditional coming-out video addressing his fans.

Graceffa admits he had difficult times between coming out to himself (and to his close friends) and coming out publicly. “I was pretty open [on YouTube] with everything but my sexuality,” Graceffa said. He used plural pronouns to obscure genders when he discussed his relationships. “My biggest fear,” he said, “was a picture being taken. Anyone could say they saw him, but until the words come out of my mouth, that’s the only proof that there is, unless there’s a picture.”

Franta agrees. In the year between coming out personally and coming out on YouTube, he felt constantly stressed. “This shouldn’t be something I have to think about every second, or stressing over, what I could do in public and what I could say to someone,” he said.

Both said they often turned to other YouTubers for guidance and trusted them before they were ready to trust the whole world. Many people knew Graceffa’s orientation but never outed him. “I’m so thankful for that, because I wanted to do it on my own terms and on my own time,” he said.

“I’d venture to say a lot of these kids, even if they don’t know a LGBT person in real life, they feel they do because they watch Tyler Oakley every day.” —Raymond Braun

Graceffa turned to Franta as he considered his own coming out, as well; they’d known each other and talked about coming out. “I talked him through what I went through, but at the end of the day I was like, ‘The first day may be weird, but you’re going to feel so great,’” Franta said.

Nilsen, the beauty vlogger and the latest high-profile YouTuber to come out, shares the same circle of friends who have helped hold her hand through the process and shared an outpouring of support. She even guest-starred on My Drunk Kitchen, a YouTube cooking show hosted by Hannah Hart, who’s also a lesbian. The episode was taped before her coming-out video but released in conjunction. In the clip, they joke throughout about her big announcement as they bake Game of Thrones-themed snacks, only to get serious at the end of their drunken afternoon with a “message to the closeted gaybies of the world.”

“Don’t feel like you have to follow someone else’s recipe,” Nilsen said.

The real story of these coming outs isn’t the videos themselves, though, but the reactions of the legions of fans who comment, share, and support each newly public LGBTQ+ creator.

“Honestly, I’m so proud of him,” said Anthony, a 14-year-old flower-crown-wearing fan who lined up for hours to meet Graceffa during a book tour stop in New York City. “He waited all this time, and he finally gets to release that part of him. And I can totally relate because I’m gay too, so I didn’t feel alone as well.”

“I think people really connect with someone who’s being exactly who they are and sharing their life,” Braun said. “They consider themselves part of the same community, instead of a fan and a star. I’d venture to say a lot of these kids, even if they don’t know a LGBT person in real life, they feel they do because they watch Tyler Oakley every day.”

Newly out creators are finding openness is opening business doors, not closing them.

“YouTube is a platform where a lot of disenfranchised voices have an opportunity to come and find a platform that the media will not give them,” Oakley explained. “Whereas in TV or movies or whatever, a lot of minorities—not just sexual orientation minorities, but all minorities—stick to a character or the plot of who they are is a stereotype. On YouTube, they can share their own voice, whether it’s a gender minority or a racial minority. You’re in charge of your own plot. There are a lot of people in the world thirsty for that, and media hasn’t given it to them. So they go out and search for it on their own.”

Still, while a coming out can be a national mainstream media moment, as Caitlyn Jenner’s groundbreaking primetime television interview proved, those same moments are happening on a different scale on YouTube. Gorgeous, one of the site’s most influential beauty vloggers, began her life on YouTube as Gregory. Fans followed Gorgeous’ transition from male to female every step of the way, from introspective vlogs and updates on plastic surgery and hormones to her dating life. She now has 1.5 million fans.

Those audiences can translate into advertising dollars, and for these YouTubers, their channels are not just an outlet for self expression; they’re also businesses. Like their straight counterparts, LGBTQ+ YouTubers are bringing in brand deals, from Oakley’s work as a spokesperson for Taco Bell’s education partnerships to Gorgeous’s partnership with Crest Canada.

With money and fame in the air, business considerations might give digital creators pause about coming out. After all, being open about sexual orientation can have unfortunate consequences, including alienating part of your audience. But newly out creators are finding openness is opening business doors, not closing them.

“If anything, Connor’s coming out has only accelerated business opportunities,” noted Andrew Graham, Franta’s manager. He sees YouTube helping to shape the national discussion around LGBTQ+ issues; advertisers want to reach the younger demographic, he says, so they “are taking direction from that increasingly progressive audience.”

Franta said the biggest shock for him is meeting the youngest generation of fans who open up to him about their own coming-out stories.

“I get people so young, like a 13-year-old who came out to their family,” he said. “That’s amazing, to think they won’t have to go through nine more years of internal torture. It’s really pushing to a brighter future that I couldn’t be happier about. Imagine a future where no one has to ever go through that. It’s so great. You’re just born and you be yourself.”

Illustration by J. Longo