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Through The Internet, Gay Teens Connected To Larger Community

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 Sulphur, La., in the 1980s. She says her exposure to people who were gay then was limited to stereotypes.
/ Courtesy of Stephanie Sandifer
Courtesy of Stephanie Sandifer
Stephanie Sandifer grew up in Sulphur, La., in the 1980s. She says her exposure to people who were gay then was limited to stereotypes.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.