“Am I _______?” — The Digital Journey to Coming Out

It’s 11:30 at night. Your parents went to bed an hour ago and you are double checking that everyone in the house is asleep. You log onto the computer in your living room and start to type into Google, “Am I _______?”

There came a time in our childhood or teenage years when we started to debate if we were different. We would consider if it was strange that we were attracted to different people than our friends, or if it was wrong that we did not identify with the people who shared the same sex assigned at birth. No matter how many times we tried to suppress these thoughts over a number of months, years, or decades, it eventually came to a point where we needed an answer. Not knowing what to do, most of us turned to an infinite fount of knowledge — the internet.

I remember the first time I typed “Am I gay?” into a Google search and took some ridiculous quiz that was supposed to determine “how gay” I actually was. I lied, filled in the answers I thought were more “straight,” and convinced myself that the thoughts in my head were wrong. However, deep down, I knew this was not true. Countless times during my adolescence, I continued searching the same phrase, “Am I gay?” I read testimonies of others; about how they struggled with their identity, what they went through, and how things were now better (or, in some cases, much, much worse). I read about drag queens and conversion therapy, and I learned that something called “Playgirl” existed. At the time, these late night internet searches and ludicrous “Am I gay?” quizzes seemed to be nothing more than adolescent curiosity. But little did I know, they would come to define the ultimate acceptance of myself and my homosexuality. The blogs, quizzes, articles, and self-help posts led me down a path of self-discovery that I would not have found anywhere else. Sadly, millions of children without internet across the country will never be able to explore the same path I did.

365 days a year, I spend my time reading, writing, and learning about the ways that internet access affects economic development or education. But today, for just 5 minutes, I want to share some thoughts with you that go beyond economic development and into the hearts of queer youth across the country. More than likely, you, reading this article, grew up with decent internet. You probably had Google searches of your own, took ridiculous quizzes, and dove head first into online queer culture. However, children and teens without internet do not have that same privilege.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, tens of millions of Americans still lack access to a reliable broadband connection. They are living cut off from the world — and for some, cut off from the queer world — because of something called the “digital divide.” Over the last two decades, internet access has penetrated the vast majority of communities in our country and we continue to work towards faster internet. However, internet companies also left behind countless communities in the process. Through a combination of corporate decisions and shareholder interests, urban centers and wealthy communities were selected over low income and rural communities for new, innovative technology. The effects of these decisions continued to compound and now communities have been left behind in every state and Washington, DC. Over the same timeline, queer culture continued to boom with more queer-focused publications, blogs, television shows, and movies being published online. This expansion of our digital presence drives a greater connection where we can learn more about the great diversity that is the LGBTQ+ world. However, struggling teens in Small Town, USA and in the big city without a reliable internet connection do not know we are here.

Since I came out in my first year of college (in 2016), and now as a graduate student, I actively share my story to others. I’ve heard countless stories about LGBTQ+ people who grew up thinking they were the only queer person in the world surrounded by a community of hate. Without internet, these individuals never had the chance to escape that destructive environment and were delayed by an entire childhood to start finding themselves.

Today, LGBTQ+ leaders talk about ways to continue making the world a more accepting place to come out. Twitter pundits and opinion writers talk about the importance of proper physical healthcare, mental health resources, and supportive communities. But I challenge you all to also think about internet access. In a perfect world, there would be a queer community center in every town, a place where questioning youth could to turn to a respected adult to learn about our community. In the real world, though, religion and politics inhibit that possibility. That does not mean we should give up, though. Instead, we must continue to work towards innovative solutions where every child and teenager, no matter their stage in the discovery process, can turn to the LGBTQ+ community as soon as they need it.

Today, and everyday going forward as we determine which issues will be part of our national conversation and which will fall to the wayside, we must make internet access a priority for our communities. Political candidates from both parties tout that internet deployment is a priority for them in 2020, and we should join the fight. The next time you check Twitter, think about the 25 million Americans who still can’t. Think about the millions of queer children and teens who can’t access those crucial resources online (or even Playgirl), and therefore don’t have a space to feel comfortable in their own skin. Our role in this fight is simple: we should work tirelessly to not only create an online community that supports people in their journey to coming out, but we must continue to pressure our local, state, and federal leaders to connect every home in America. We know that queer youth are many times more likely to struggle with depression and contemplate suicide. If we can introduce young, questioning people to a thriving queer community full of love, diversity, and acceptance, we can change their lives in more ways than we could ever imagine. That change starts with an internet connection.

When I was a teen, my first “Am I gay?” search changed my life without me even knowing. Though I lied on the quizzes — a lot — the internet gave me a judgement-free space to explore and understand what it meant to be gay. Now, as I look back on three years of being “out,” I still turn to the internet to learn more. It is a place where we can see an increasing number of gay characters on television and in movies, and it is a place where I can connect with the personal stories of others in the queer community. Never forget the first time you searched, “Am I _____?” Let’s now work to make sure everyone can get that moment.

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Lukas Pietrzak

Lukas Pietrzak

I am a graduate student and advocate for the 25 million Americans who still lack access to reliable high speed Internet, and the tens of millions more who do no