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.”

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>