Saying the words

Miss Communication

josh-perkins_online

I know from a small handful of experiences that when you meet someone famous in person, they’re usually shorter than you expect. Raymond Braun is only sort of famous and only sort of tall, but he stood a couple of inches above me, so his height surprised me.

I interviewed Braun in an office on East 28th Street in Manhattan. It was a typical New York summer day. I had underestimated both the heat and the subway delays and showed up in a rushed, sweaty panic. But I played it off, and thankfully, he hadn’t arrived yet. His publicist sat in the corner of a conference room, scrolling through her phone, while I asked him questions about growing up in Ohio (not the best) and social media (OK) and his brief appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race (fantastic).

I wrote that he wore a gray turtleneck and black jeans because I thought the small details mattered when writing celebrity profiles. He went to Stanford. I remember saying, “I won’t hold it against you,” because I was taught it’s good to make your interviewee comfortable through verbal banter.

I don’t mention Raymond Braun because of his education or his appearances on popular television shows. I mention him because, in 2013, fresh off an undergraduate degree and working at YouTube, he started the #ProudToLove campaign. The campaign was an initiative that celebrated coming out and the LGBTQ+ community. When I had the courage, I would lie in bed late at night, while my parents were asleep, and watch those videos on repeat. The cold, blue LED light of my iPod touch illuminated my face in a dark room.

I grew up in a Mormon family. It’s difficult to explain the peculiarities of that experience to outsiders. But I’ll try. I’m a writer after all. The Mormon community is strident and insular. The secular world was demonized in my family, so my siblings and I weren’t allowed to watch much TV or certain movies. Hip-hop was out of the question, magazines were devil’s fodder. Which is to say, I had no way of knowing what being gay even meant.

That is, until 2008, when a ballot measure in California sought to ban same-sex marriage in the state. Proposition 8 passed by a shockingly healthy margin, thanks in small part to my parents, who took the whole family out to picket on the street. I remember standing on one of Encinitas’ main thoroughfares, holding a sign that said: “Restore Marriage,” which was a nice way of saying, “Fuck gay rights.” I was only 11. I knew that something was wrong with that picture, but I couldn’t quite pin it down.

Prop. 8 allowed Mormon homophobia to rear its ugly head, but subtly, hidden behind a veil of artificial compassion. I overheard a lot growing up, whispers between adults, rumors from other kids. It was what you’d expect — that being gay is unnatural, that’s it dirty, sinful, that it’s a conspiracy, that it’s a moral failure, emblematic of a broken America. Most of the people I grew up with probably still believe that. As for me, I had internalized that homophobia so deeply, it’s difficult to comprehend the self-hatred.

The hardest thing was saying “I’m gay.” I couldn’t even admit it in my head. The internet was the only thing I had, like WebMD for queerness. My parents couldn’t monitor it all the time. Content blocks didn’t work on YouTube. So, I watched other people come out and repeated those words to myself. “I’m gay,” I’d say in soft whispers while no one was around.

That was what the internet was made for — it let anyone speak, it let anyone watch, it celebrated diversity and laughed at traditional institutional barriers. It gave me access to things I otherwise never would have found positive representations of queer people.

I can be such an unrelenting bitch, such a chronic cynic, that I often dwell on the absolute worst of the internet. But sometimes, it’s good to remind myself that it’s not all bad, that when I needed it, the internet was there for me. So, when YouTube started to restrict and demonetize LGBTQ+ creators and allowed anti-LGBTQ+ ads to be played ahead of its videos, it took on an almost sinister quality.

Over the summer, while I leaned back in my chair and recorded on my phone, I interrupted the interview with Raymond Braun to thank him for everything. I wanted to cry a little at that moment, but I am a professional, and there was a squat, red-haired publicist in the corner, so I moved on with my questions.

Being who I am (a pessimist) and being who he is (a social media influencer), I asked if he ever got discouraged by the state of our online politics. He said no with ease and flashed a smile. I remember his teeth being a frighteningly bright white. After the piece was published, his publicist informed me that he doesn’t like to be called a social media influencer. He prefers media entrepreneur. We changed the article, but I rolled my eyes. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all so carefully control how we’re referred to. I definitely wouldn’t have picked “faggot” for myself.

That’s not the point, though — this is actually a tribute to the internet, to the influencers, to the creators, to social media and its potential. Because about four years ago, the internet helped me finally say those words.

“I’m gay.”

 

Josh Perkins writes the Friday column on the absurd realities of modern communication. Contact him at [email protected] .