The coming-out story that gripped the world

Randy Phillips' YouTube webisodes remind everyone how hard coming out can be -- and of the importance of listening

Topics: LGBT, Don't Ask Don't Tell,

The coming-out story that gripped the world

Randy Phillips is a 21-year-old American soldier stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Areyousuprised is the Twitter and YouTube personality who, since last April, has been anonymously posting updates on his life as “Just an average GI, who happens to be gay.” Phillips has a “conservative, more traditional… hard to talk to” mom back home in Alabama. Areyousuprised shares his “It gets better” story, answers questions from subscribers, and tosses off wry observations like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell training was this morning. It was a great presentation that nobody listened to” and “It has been kinda awkward since I told my boss, but he has only called me faggot about twice since.” Earlier this month, Phillips used the repeal of DADT to reveal that he and Areyousuprised are one and the same. He did it by coming out to his parents. On YouTube.

“He has no clue,” he says, dialing his father’s phone number, half a world a way. “Nor do any members of my family.” The video, uploaded two weeks ago and currently galloping toward five million views, is a nail-biting experience in suspense. “Hey, can I tell you something?” he asks nervously. “Will you love me, period?” And then, after extracting from his father a promise of devotion, he tells him that he’s gay. There’s an excruciating pause — likely a combination of Dad registering the information and a spotty international connection — and then a reply. From the tiny phone in Phillips’ hand come the words “I still love you, son…. It doesn’t change our relationship, you hear me?”

It’s a powerful moment of unscripted, unhesitant acceptance – one that has rapidly made Phillips an inspiration all over the world. The beauty of the clip isn’t just Phillips’ poised candor; it’s just as present in his father’s rapid, unconditional response. As one typical commenter noted, “Your dad gives me hope.” This being YouTube, of course, there’s also plenty of stomach-churning homophobia in the mix as well, but the positive impact of the video is undeniable. As they end their conversation, in a moment every parent should tuck away for future reference, Dad lays it out plainly. “You’re my son and I’m very proud of you.”

Yet life doesn’t always offer clear-cut hugs and happy endings. Phillips’s next video, recorded about an hour after he spoke to his dad but posted 10 days later, shows his considerably more strained conversation with his mother. After admitting before the call that “I think it’s going to be a little bit harder,” he goes through a similar drill. “Do you love me mom? Will you always love me?” Obtaining her assurance of “Always have, always will,” he tells her, “I’m gay.” There’s a pained silence followed by a stunned, “Okay. Yes, I still love you.”

But the news is obviously hard for her. Mom adds: “You know what it says in the Bible about that? A man should be with a woman, and a woman should be with a man, not a man with a man or a woman with a woman… I don’t know exactly what verse that is…. That’s why God created Adam and Eve.”

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In all of his videos, both anonymous and full-faced, Phillips presents himself as a thoughtful, grounded young man. He’s frank without being timid or confrontational, asking a colleague, “Are you cool with it?” after he comes out to him. That’s why, though his clips are moving and eloquent, there’s an “ambush” aspect to them as well. Speaking of not asking and not telling, Phillips does neither when he’s videoing his conversations with his parents. To be fair, he may have obtained permission off-camera later, but the drama of his family’s spontaneous reactions is mitigated by the implied intrusiveness of sharing them with the world.

Yet in their rawness, Phillips’s videos show that coming out is an experience that affects not just the person talking, but the one listening as well. When his mother admits, “I’m just in shock” and “I’m worried about your spiritual well being… you better be, too,” it’s not exactly ideal, but it’s truthful. Not everyone can be like Phillips’s fellow solider, who shrugs a casual “It’s all good” when he comes out to him.

In that regard, Phillips’ message is vital to both gays and straights — it’s a shining example of how different people will react in different ways to the same information, and how expectations on both sides can be challenged. What’s no big deal to your buddy may cause a whole lot of soul searching for your mom. And the best gift we can all ever give each other is the space to let whatever love and acceptance already exists crowd out doubts, confusion and fear. Sometimes, a person just needs a little time to gain perspective, as Phillips clearly seems to intuit when he tells his mother, “I didn’t want you to find out after I was married to a woman for 10 years, and have everything fall apart. I wanted to tell you when I was still young, Mom.”

It’s fitting that Phillips chose as his alter ego a character called Areyousuprised. Because sometimes, when a person comes out, you are. Honesty and acceptance might not always come easily, but it’s only when the former exists that the latter possible. Phillips tells his mother, “You said you always wanted me to be happy. I’m happier now than I ever have been.… because everybody knows and I don’t have to hide anything… I don’t care if everybody knows. I’m proud of myself.” And in the space of just a few minutes, a Bible-clutching conservative, a woman who frets over the souls of the “Adam and Steves” of the world, lays it out plainly. Her “shock” aside, there’s still one thing she knows for sure. “There’s nothing,” she tells her child, “that will stop my love for you.” And though Phillips looks exhausted and wrung out, he doesn’t seem surprised by that at all.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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