What It’s Like to ‘Come Out’ in the Instagram Era
By Heather Barmore
My girlfriend and I recently decided to make our relationship “Facebook official.” This was due to my cajoling and desire for validation, but we will get into that later. She agreed to confirm my request, but was reluctant, noting past experiences: a failed engagement, and the need to delink their inevitably intertwined Facebook presence. But we’re good! We’re going to make it!
She made the switch, and soon heard from a schoolmate from long ago. The note was full of question marks and exclamation points: “ARE YOU REALLY DATING THIS WOMAN!??” My girlfriend replied with skepticism, but affirmation. “Yes….?” (But with a question mark. Always with a question mark.)
On the other hand, I have approached my coming out online like a slow leak, with all the corresponding annoyance and wonder. I work in digital and social media, and have been blogging in some fashion for the better part of 15 years. I was able to pull from my wealth of knowledge and doctor my extensive online presence to drop hints about my sexuality before making it official for any friends, family, and longtime followers, most of whom were inevitably like, “duh.”
But my coming out never happened all at once. Gosh no! As I have learned over the past decade or so, as one’s social media presence has become synonymous with a personal brand, these things must be carefully curated.
So that’s what I did: before I posted, I carefully chose the audience, the platform, and the time of day to share. The first photo was of us in the warm lighting of a Westin, she with her blonde head and ever-present grin leaning on my shoulder as I made a goofy smirk. On New Year’s Eve, I, as the kids say, “did it for the ‘gram.” What it said was that I was with someone, and I was happy.
Now, here is where I will note the considerable obstacles that many same-sex couples face —that is, what is considered a long-held cultural norm and what isn’t. In my very slow coming out via social media, I was able to take ownership of my story, and any conceptions or misconceptions about myself and my sexuality. In my years of this slow drip, and of taking time to make things “online official,” I toyed with how to share my relationship(s) as content and, ultimately, how to find audiences who I knew to be friendly. I was able to find comfort in giving small glimpses of our date nights and trips together.
In the end, my coming out was defined by the online audience of my choosing, with each perfect image selected to convey my bliss — or, rather, our bliss. And it worked for me, as sneaky as some thought it to be. I found myself carefully curating an image. I needed to present us as two women in a loving, committed, ‘normal,’ Instagram-worthy relationship, with the opportunity to always hide that part of me from those who didn’t want to see it. I was fortunate enough to have carefully grown an audience who seemed happy for us.
I shared images of us in perfect daylight, sipping rosé and enjoying oysters. Or one of her head nestled on my shoulder while we each donned sparkling tiaras found in the Target dollar bin the evening before. In my years of working in the digital space, I’d figured out how to turn our relationship and my coming out into a veritable social media success. “How beautiful that you two have found each other,” wrote one acquaintance. “You are such a lovely couple,” posted another.
So, now you must be wondering if these images bore any resemblance to the real life version, right? I wanted to pick and choose, as I always had, and to present perfection. Of course it wasn’t perfect. Nothing really is. A person only posts, say, 20% of what they want you to see. I did that as well. But I had feared being ostracized for being gay. What I got in return was exactly what I needed: validation. For me, coming out in the digital age has meant showing that things are lovely, even if they aren’t. But that, my friends, is a different story.