Through The Internet, Gay Teens Connected To Larger Community

Feb 13, 2014
Originally published on February 13, 2014 8:08 am

In the past 20 years, the Internet has significantly changed what it means to grow up as a gay kid in this country.

Before the Web, many gay young people grew up in what seemed to be isolation, particularly those in small towns. But with the advent of online chat rooms and Websites dedicated to gay culture, communities formed, and that demographic began finding new support.

That change can be seen in the experiences of two women who grew up in the same town, two decades apart.

'The Only One'

Larry Gross of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication has been studying gay teens for decades.

"The experience that is so common for people growing up gay in the past is: 'I thought I was the only one,' " he says.

Growing up in Springfield, Ill., in the 1970s, Todd Bentsen never spoke to his high school classmates about being gay.

"Gay people — or people who were thought to be gay — in high school were ridiculed, or worse. So, you know, I kept quiet about it," he says. "I literally did not have contact with people my own age who were gay."

For decades, being a gay kid often meant holding tight to a secret you couldn't share, or having no one to talk to about feelings you might not fully understand. But the Internet, Gross says, allowed gay kids to find each other for the first time.

The Birth Of The Chat Room

Stephanie Sandifer grew up in the small town of Sulphur, La., in the 1980s. "The only exposure that we had to anyone that might be gay were more of what we perceived as the stereotypes of that," she says.

In her mind at the time, gay men were supposed to be hair dressers, and lesbians were supposed to be gym coaches. These stereotypes didn't fit her reality. She had feelings for girls, but there were almost no real images of gay people in popular culture. And she felt there was no one in Sulphur she could talk to about it.

She didn't come out until college and didn't talk to her parents about it until her mid-20s.

"I still remember the first time I saw those Internet chat rooms on AOL," she says. "I was like, this is really different! And then suddenly we were able to get on the Web and find websites dedicated to the culture."

Online Support

Mark Elderkin founded Gay.com in the mid-1990s. "We couldn't keep up with the demand," he says, "and we would hit traffic records day after day. So we knew we were on to something."

And it wasn't just adults on sites like his. For the first time, gay teens in small towns had a place they could come out, a place they could talk.

"They're in their 30s now, these people who came out back then," Elderkin says.

Even today, they find him and thank him. He says the stories he hears are often similar, about how Gay.com helped people come out and feel good about themselves. He also hears about parents who took away their kids' computers for visiting the site.

Before the Web, there was Usenet, listservs and chat rooms.

But the communication wasn't all positive. In the 1990s, there were scares about online predators and moves in Congress to censor the Internet. Some fears were legitimate. Elderkin says Gay.com had special rooms for teens and community monitors to keep kids safe.

Eventually, courts squashed censorship efforts, and slowly gay culture entered the mainstream online — and the world at large. Soon gay kids weren't just connecting on gay-centered sites: Friendster took over, then Facebook.

And today, many parents worry more about online bullying than the Internet corrupting their kids.

Finding The 'Courage'

Sixteen-year-old Emily Kitfield of Sulphur, La., is the kind of kid who uses "sir" by default. This year, the soft-spoken teen came out to her parents and her school.

"I don't think that I could have done it without being able to reach out to other kids and get advice from them," she says, "because it's really hard. I don't think I would have had the courage."

Emily lives in the same Lousiana town where Stephanie Sandifer grew up 25 years ago, but her experience there has been completely different.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For decades, growing up as a gay teen in America meant holding tight to a secret you could not share. Surely that is still true for many people but a lot has changed. And a big part of the change is the growth of the online world. NPR's Steve Henn has the latest report in our series Love in the Digital Age.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Meet Stephanie Sandifer.

STEPHANIE SANDIFER: I am 42 years old and I grew up in a small town in Louisiana - Sulfur, Louisiana.

HENN: And Todd Bentsen who grew up in Springfield, Illinois in the '70s.

TODD BENTSEN: I literally did not have contact with people my own age who were gay.

SANDIFER: The only exposure that we had to anyone that might be gay were more of what we perceived as the stereotypes of that.

HENN: When Stephanie Sandifer was a kid, gay men were supposed to be hair dressers. Lesbians were supposed to coach gym. There were almost no real images of gay people in popular culture. Sandifer had feelings for girls, but there was no one in Sulfur, Louisiana she could talk to about it.

LARRY GROSS: The experience that is so common for people growing gay in the past is: I thought I was the only one.

HENN: Larry Gross is at University of Southern California's Annenberg School. He has been studying gay teens for decades. And says, until recently, the gay teen experience was often defined by isolation.

BENTSEN: I certainly did not ever talk to high school classmates about it.

HENN: Todd Bentsen.

BENTSEN: Gay people or, you know, people perceived to be gay in high school were ridiculed or worse.

HENN: But the Internet, Gross says allowed gay kids to find each other.

BENTSEN: So that the sense of isolation, and in fact, the reality of isolation, could be overcome in a way that simply had not been possible before. Such a change.

SANDIFER: Being able to get online. And I still remember the first time I saw those Internet chat rooms on AOL.

HENN: Stephanie Sandifer.

SANDIFER: And I was like, this is really different. And then suddenly we were able to get on the Web and find websites dedicated to the culture.

HENN: Mark Elderkin founded Gay.com in the mid '90s.

MARK ELDERKIN: And we couldn't keep up with the demand and we would hit, you know, traffic records day after day. And so we knew we were on to something.

HENN: And it wasn't just adults on these sites. For the first time, gay teens in small towns had a place they could come out; a safe place they could talk.

ELDERKIN: They are in their 30's now...

(LAUGHTER)

ELDERKIN: ...these people who came out back then.

HENN: And even today they find him and say...

ELDERKIN: Thank you because Gay.com helped me come out and helped me feel good about myself. And, you know, my parents when they found out I was on the site, you know, they took away my computer.

HENN: Lots of stories are similar. There were lots of sites like this and quite a few parents freaked. There were online scares about predators, moves in Congress to censor the Internet, and some legitimate creeps. Gay.com had special rooms for teens and community monitors to keep kids safe. Eventually courts squashed censorship efforts. Slowly gay culture entered the mainstream online and the world at large. Soon gay kids weren't just connecting on gay sites. Friendster took over, then Facebook. And today, many parents worry more about online bullying than the Net corrupting their kids.

EMILY KITFIELD: I am Emily Kitfield and I am 16.

HENN: She lives in Sulphur, Louisiana.

KITFIELD: It's kind of a small town, but not to where everybody and their grandma know your business.

HENN: Emily Kitfield is the kind of kid who calls me sir on the telephone. She's soft spoken. And this year, she came out to her parents and her school.

KITFIELD: But I don't think I could have done it without being able to reach out to other kids and get advice from them, because it's really hard. I don't think I would have had the courage.

HENN: Emily lives in same Louisiana town were Stephanie Sandifer grew up 25 years ago, but her experience there has been completely different.

Steve Henn, NPR News.

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