Sep. 20, 2011 at 4:31 PM ET
For five months, Randy Phillips, 21-year-old soldier stationed at Ramstein Air Base Germany, and "100 percent closeted," anonymously chronicled his coming-out experience on YouTube.
For his first 16 videos, Phillips — aka AreYouSuprised, the pseudonym he used to launch for increasingly popular YouTube videos and Twitter feed — counted down the last days of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the 17-year-old policy that did not permit gays to serve openly in the U.S. military. A natural storyteller sharing his journey, Phillips' story has attracted more than 98,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, and more than 2 million video views.
The videos are filmed in a variety of settings — sometimes in front of a map, sometimes standing around what appears to be enormous military equipment — the camera is always focused from the neck down or just out of range of the young man's face. But in the 17th video — all that changes.
Posted on Tuesday — when DADT's repeal went into full effect — Phillips appears in the video sitting in an office chair in front of the now-familiar map, a good-looking kid with sandy blond hair pleasantly uncombed, looking straight at the camera and holding a cellphone. At this point everyone he serves with knows he's gay — just one more notification to make.There, live on tape, Phillips calls his dad in Alabama and tells him that he's gay.
Seconds drag as the young man waits for the connection to cross the globe, for his father to answer the phone, and finally for his father to respond to what the son, who he hasn't seen in a year, just told him.
"I don’t know when’s the next time I would be able to see you. I didn’t want to do it over the phone. I wanted to tell you in person, but uh … I didn't want you to find out in any other way," Phillips nervously rambles.
(In what feels like) three hours later, his Dad says: "OK."
It's compelling drama so painfully stretched out, the dad on speakerphone frustratingly muffled in static, it certainly feels real — but the Internet providing a rare insight on what it is to come out of the closet to the people you count on most. It's history. And with a huge sigh of relief to viewers, this coming-out story also has a happy ending, and as such, is currently featured on the homepage of the It Gets Better Project, the Internet video site where adults share hope with LGBT teens, a minority likely to be bullied by even the adults in their lives and suffer a disproportionately high suicide rate.
It's hard to hear exactly what Phillips' dad is saying, but certain words make it through the static —"doesn't change our relationship," "I will always be proud of you" and "I will always love you."
It's also a far more emotional coming-out conversation than another one Phillips posted a few months earlier, in which, while driving a Jeep, he tells his military passenger he's gay. And yet, this too is compelling and important, especially to those who still take issue with gays serving in the military.
After joking about his driving, Phillips almost blurts out, "I'm gay."
"It's all good," comes the unseen passenger's immediate, bland response.
"Is it? Are you cool with it?" asks Phillips (himself, surprised.)
"I could give a rat's ass," confirms his friend. "Hey, love is love ..."
It's not the end of this story, not for Phillips, now gaining international attention and his identity revealed, and not for Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Just as civilian gay couples aren't allowed marriage in every state, and those that are don't have the tax or insurance benfits enjoyed by straight couples, gays in the military don't have their complete civil rights either. Military benefits for same-sex couples is still undecided. What's more, while Phillips' friend "couldn't give a rat's ass," how other out-of-the-closet gays will be treated by their units remains to be seen.
Phillips tells his dad on the phone that he's accepted by his fellow soldiers, but it's worth remembering the frustration and oppression Pvt. Bradley Manning chronicled on his Facebook Profile long before he was accused of leaking the bulk of secret documents to WikiLeaks.
As subscribers to Phillips' AreYouSurprised's video channel and Twitter account grow, stay tuned to see if the story continues. Meanwhile, it's worth reviewing the AreYouSuprised video archives of all that occurred before he came out to his family. YouTube is lousy with real-life people video-blogging their lives, but this is one of the stories worth following.
Phillips talks civil rights and DADT, shares another unnamed closeted soldier's fear of repercussions, his own chickening-out in telling a friend, and even posts a contribution to It Gets Better.
Changes are coming, he tells the kids. As Phillips'/AreYouSurprised's story gains national attention, his YouTube odyssey will doubtlessly make things better for kids who come out to their parents, and help in how those parents react.