Whether it’s TikTok or Instagram, social media can offer more intimate access to authentic queer stories.
As a preteen in 2008, I remember standing next to my mom at the grocery store checkout and eyeing the magazines that flooded the racks alongside the candy and lip balm. Over time I saw the covers go from discussing what celebrities got haircuts to publicizing what celebrities were gay. While it felt comforting to know some of the most famous people of the time were also queer, their coming out stories sprawled on the covers of magazines, were hardly relatable. Their quotes about their identities were pasted over stylized photoshoots and giant houses, conveying the sort of lavish lifestyles that most queer people didn’t, and still don’t, have access to. It felt important, but it also felt incredibly out of reach: a dream of what coming out could look like, when you’re rich and famous.
Over the past decade as culture and technology’s role within it shifted, social media has given us unprecedented access to the intimate lives of those we follow, in a way a magazine feature never could. Today, we can learn about coming out stories in blurry, low-quality YouTube videos or shaky Instagram Stories or TikToks as they sit next to their best friends or parents or partners.
In some ways, it’s an unsurprising shift. Despite all that we know and understand about the underlying falseness of social media, some influencers feel more authentic to most of us. “While we like to pretend celebrities are just like us, we know they aren't,” a 2017 Forbes piece states. “Influencers are often the polar opposite of celebrities … They are real, accessible, and credible.”
While these accounts are smaller than, say, the likes of Ruby Rose, or Megan Rapinoe, they offer a more intimate exploration of queerness and normalize it in the process. YouTube has played a massive role in giving a platform to queer influencers that allows them to bring followers into their lives in an intimate way from Ingrid Nilsen, who recorded her coming out for her nearly 4M followers to the former couple Domo and Crissy, who discussed their pregnancy journey. As YouTubers continued to build their social presences on other platforms, we felt closer to them, and learned more about their lives, and ourselves in the process.
Take, for example, white lesbian Shannon Beveridge, who has almost 700k subscribers and 630k Instagram followers on her main handle, and throughout the 2010s created space online to explore her coming out process with her followers. Her first official coming out video in 2014 feels deeply authentic: it’s grainy, she’s sitting amongst random throw pillows, and she’s palpably nervous. One comment from 2016 reads, “you're literally my favorite person on the internet. every time i feel weird/ashamed/scared of being bisexual i come here and your videos make me feel better about myself, so thank you.” Another follower commented, “Oh man I really needed this. I'm actually crying watching this. I hope one day I get to the point where I'm comfortable being who I am and not worried about what people will think of me.”
In the video, Beveridge shares that the support of her followers has been amazing, with them going as far as to use a coming out letter she wrote to her dad as a template they can use to reach out to their own parents. Comments span years, and the nearly 600k views are proof that there are queer people out there connecting with her not just as an influencer, but a role model, and someone helping them understand what queerness can look like for normal, everyday people.
Whether it’s on TikTok or Instagram, influencer coming outs feel tangible, and like something young people can replicate. While we may not have millions of followers, or even thousands, we can learn from the influencers that dominate places like Lesbian YouTube, or Gay TikTok (or Gay Tumblr, its predecessor). YouTubers like Black queer influencer Ari Fitz, with 262k on YouTube, and 137k on Instagram (a platform they recently left), offer deep dives into androgyny based on their own experiences. Influencers Virgo Martínez (80k on Instagram), a Miami-based influencer, YouTuber/Sleepy Eye Crew owner Sam Clark (75k on Instagram), and wives Jessi and Millie (50k on Instagram) integrate queer content organically, with engaged followings that clearly look up to and admire them. Additional accounts like Global Gay Girl Gang (65k on Instagram) are collaborative accounts that highlight “real gay girls around the world,” again adding to the story and archive of queer women’s lives.
As queer influencers continue to gain power, and especially with the queerness of Gen-Z, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see an impactful presence from queer influencers, as it’s a comfort to know that there are people, just like you, who are experiencing, and surviving, similar things—and to be welcomed into viewing these experiences, rather than creeping on them via paparrazi.