Coming out of the digital closet isn't easy

OPINION

October 10, 2012|By Zach Stafford, @zachstafford | For RedEye

Before I came out, I used to peer out through a window—a chat window on my computer.

From the comfort of my digital closet, AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace and numerous other sites were where I learned what it meant to be gay in my teen years.

The people I met online, the conversations I had, the information I absorbed through hours upon hours surfing the Internet—it all helped me eventually become comfortable with myself and find my community.

Like most gay people these days, I was gay online before I was out in a physical sense. That important development in the LGBT community—and the bullying that inevitably followed—is particularly poignant with Thursday's arrival of National Coming Out Day as we fight for equality on every level.

I grew up in Tennessee, a place notorious for its conservative beliefs. Due to this social setting, I had great fear about coming out. Being openly gay was not really an option for most of us, and many—myself included—waited until they could move somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line before fully owning their whole selves.

Through the Internet, I got to meet kids like me in nearby towns. We'd talk about what life would be like if we came out, and how we looked forward to getting out of our hell-hole towns. My online friends supported me in ways my school friends couldn't, because I didn't feel they could understand at the time.

Of course, the Internet isn't always a gay utopia.

When I was 15, someone from school waited until late at night to post "ZACH IS A FAG" 50 times on my MySpace wall for everyone to read. I didn't find out until morning, and by then the posts had been seen by many of my classmates. I was emotionally devastated and immediately deleted my page.

My story is far from unique. Internet bullying and LGBT lives continue to intersect every day.

Perhaps most famously in 2010, the world learned the name of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate watched him with another man via webcam and posted demeaning tweets.

Clementi, like so many others, had used the Internet to meet people he felt he could connect with, and had been posting in online forums since he was 14, according to The New Yorker. And while we'll never know exactly what Clementi was thinking in his final days, we do know his life tragically ended during his freshman year of college, a time when he should have felt more empowered than ever to be himself.

It is important to not blame technology or the Internet for these incidents. That's too easy. The Internet, at the end of the day, is a tool used by people, made by people. And people need to own up to their actions, not blame their laptops.

I am so grateful I was born on this side of technology, because I honestly could not imagine being a gay teenager in Tennessee without some shining light—even if it was a desktop light—giving me hope that the world was different outside my town.

The Internet is making it better. It allows us to explore, to learn and to grow in hopes that one day we can walk away from the glow of a computer screen and into some real light.

Zach Stafford is a RedEye special contributor.

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