Coming out of the closet, 2015 style: YouTube stars open up about sexuality

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By Terri Peters

At least 300 hours of video is uploaded every minute to YouTube, making the channel a real reflection of our rapidly changing culture. And while you can find everything from cat videos to concerts to cooking shows, you can also find very personal and inspiring videos. 

For many teens and even some stars, the site has become an outlet to share a personal message to the world about their sexuality. 

Shane Dawson, a YouTube star with nearly 7 million subscribers, revealed he was bisexual in an emotional video. Hannah Hart, host of "My Drunk Kitchen," came out online as well and YouTuber Joey Graceffa announced his sexuality to the world with a music video.

"There are haters and trolls out there," Katie Couric, Yahoo Global News Anchor, reported on TODAY Thursday. "But for the most part these YouTube stars have found that being honest with their fans, that makes them even more popular."

"Coming out" videos have become something of a genre on YouTube. Sharing personal videos like these online have a long-lasting impact and can inspire others to do the same. They can help those in similar situations and make them feel less alone.

That was exactly the case for Ryan Ward. In 2013, the 22-year-old turned to YouTube to tell his mom, Patt Ward, that he was gay.

Sobbing into his bewildered mother's arms, he whispers that he has to tell her something big.

Ryan got the idea to record his "coming out" talk with his mom after viewing other coming out stories on YouTube, and wanting to empower younger gay people to tell their parents. While in past generations, the coming out speech has been a traumatic moment for many youths, a growing genre of YouTube videos shows a new script: Families react to the news with love, hugs, and even some yawns. 

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After an emotional build-up, Ryan Ward tearfully tells his mom that he's gay...Today

“It might sound silly, but it’s almost like someone who doesn’t know how to ride a bike searching on YouTube for videos about ‘how to ride a bike,’" Ryan says about the YouTube videos. “It was so encouraging to actually see how people came out and, and perhaps more importantly, examples of how to even start the conversation with your parents.”

While Ryan said he knew his mom would love him unconditionally, because that's just the way she is, he was worried that she would be disappointed or sad to hear than he is gay. "I wasn't expecting such a nonchalant response to the words 'I’m gay — she responded so quickly and with such confidence in her voice that at that moment I knew it would be OK," he said.

... and Ryan's mom, Patt Ward, reacts with relief.Today

Patt tells TODAY Moms that at the moment Ryan was coming out to her, he seemed so upset that she worried he'd done something awful like hit someone with his car. "It was a huge relief that all he was telling me was that he was gay," she says. "I cannot even imagine rejecting a child for being gay."

Of course, some parents do. While the coming out conversation has changed over the years, it can still be packed with tension. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens and young adults are frequently shunned by their families: 40 percent of homeless teens are LGBT, and have been kicked out of their home by parents who reacted poorly to their child either being outed or coming out themselves.

Dan Savage, a father, author, sex advice columnist and speaker, says that while parents these days are generally less phased by their kids coming out, the fact remains that gay kids are often abused, subjected to violence and kicked out of their homes by parents who are unable to handle their child’s sexual orientation. Savage says that, while videoing mom and dad’s reaction and posting it online may seem sneaky or manipulative, the trend shows that gay kids are being smart in a situation where they are extremely vulnerable.

“Is it creepy or manipulative? Maybe, but I think the impulse of these kids is to leverage better behavior from their parents. If the parents react badly, there are witnesses and social consequences for their reaction. In this situation, I think being strategic is smart and necessary.”

“A positive benefit of this,” Savage continues, “is that these parents who have reacted so well are modeling for other parents whose kids have not yet come out to them how you do it. If you want to react beautifully and look like a good guy online – this is how.”

Ryan’s video, which has gone viral and has nearly 600,000 views on YouTube, is a prime example of a parent reacting, as Savage says, “beautifully.” The video shows an emotional Ryan laboring over the right words to say before finally revealing to mom, Patt, that he is gay. Patt’s response? Relief that Ryan hadn’t run over a pedestrian with his car, and reassurance that she loves and accepts her son exactly as he is.

“I was relieved that he hadn’t done something bad, and that all he was telling me was that he is gay,” says Patt. “ I was much more concerned with him being upset and crying than I was with what he wanted to tell me.”

Patt says that, for her, her main priority in the moment was to make sure that her son knew that his sexual orientation was a non-issue to her. Because of homosexuality is much more accepted these days than it was 20 years ago, she says she felt comfortable enough with the idea to stand supportively beside her child, rather than ask questions like, “Are you sure?” or “Is this maybe just a phase?”

In today's social-media-obsessed culture, it's normal for teens to turn to Facebook or YouTube as a transitional object to comfort them during the coming out process, says Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a teen, adolescent and family psychologist who works with families dealing with the coming out process. Whether caught on camera or not, she says, parents of gay teens should be aware of their child’s immense fear of disappointing them.

Greenberg's advice to parents hearing, “Mom, I’m gay,” for the first time? Take a step back and process your feelings before reacting to your child.

“The bottom line is, you’ve got to love them. What they need more than anything is not a judgment, but they need your love. It’s not a child’s job to please their parents, but it is a parent’s job to always love their kid and to always support them.”

Keanu Parker, 16, also made a coming out video that went viral, in which he presents his parents and siblings with a cake decorated to read, “I (heart) penis.” Keanu says he knew his family would be understanding and accepting, and that he filmed the video as a way to proclaim his sexual orientation and to encourage other LGBT teens to do the same.

“I saw it more as letting my parents know something rather than it being a life-changing event,” says Keanu, “But other people have it hard and aren’t in an accepting and easygoing environment. I don’t think anyone should hide themselves for a long time, and I hope that my video encourages other young people to be truthful about who they are.”

Keanu’s mom, Angela Parker, says she learned from her own upbringing to show unconditional love to her family. Her advice to other parents in the same situation? Allow children to be themselves and be happy.

“Parents have to remember what’s important to them,” says Angela, “Would you prefer your child remain in your life? If so, you have to have courage to allow their individuality to succeed because, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing in life – to be happy.”

Editor's note: This story was first published in 2014, and updated on July 30, 2015.