A coming out story can save a life. Jordan Reeves knows because a coming out story saved his.
Growing up in Alabama, Reeves didn’t know any other LGBTQ people. He felt trapped and alone in Hueytown, a conservative suburb on the outskirts of Birmingham whose major attraction is a outdoor water park. He didn’t admit to himself that he was gay until he was 18. It was another five years before he decided to share that information with anyone else.
Before coming out, Reeves lived a double life. He considered becoming a missionary, but knew deep down he was just playing the role of a good Christian — the person he thought everyone wanted him to be.
But that’s when he heard Cliff Simon, his professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discuss his experiences coming out during the post-Stonewall era of the 1970s. In a later retelling of the story, Simon remembered his mother asking him as a child, “Why can’t you be normal like all the other boys?”
“I sort of wanted to know that, too: Why couldn’t I?” he recalled.
But after spending years dating women and unsuccessfully trying to “change” through therapy, Simon came out to his mother in his early 20s. He said he was ready to “finally feel some sense of being OK.”
“I’ve learned so much about life and about myself, and it all started when I came out — and not just because of the gay stuff,” Simon explained. “It was a waterfall of everything, of me starting to see that life could be what I wanted it to be. … Normal is different for all people.”
By providing a model of how to begin his own journey, Reeves claimed Simon’s story showed him for the first time that he could be authentically himself.
“I really did not think that I was going to make it,” he said in a half hour phone conversation. “Coming out is the first step in sort of publicly announcing who you are, and for me, it literally meant life.”
Simon’s story is just one of about 250 stories featured on VideoOut, a digital platform Reeves founded two years ago. Since 2016, he has traveled the United States collecting diverse stories of LGBTQ people reflecting on their own experiences of coming out, whether it was about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or even their HIV status.
“We were the warriors,” said Sean McKenna, a long-term HIV survivor and advocate who lives in New York City, in a VideoOut interview. “We were on the front lines of medication.”
When he was first diagnosed, McKenna recalled that medical professionals weren’t allowed to disclose that information over the phone. If the results came back negative, that was OK to share, but everyone else had to come into the office. It was intended to prevent newly diagnosed individuals from taking their own lives.
The day his doctor told him they would need to meet in person to discuss his diagnosis, McKenna was at work. He described that phone call as a “whirl of emotions.”
“You hang up the phone and you have to wait a week to talk to the doctor,” he said.
“I turned to my coworker and I said, ‘I think I just tested positive for AIDS,'” McKenna continued. “And she started to cry. So the first thing I did when I tested positive was console one of my best friends who I worked with.”
All McKenna remembers from that day is the “black and white subway tile” from the work bathroom, where he went to cry as he processed the news.
He spent a few weeks washing down his grief before turning a corner.
“I just partied it up,” McKenna recalled. “I drank, I went to happy hours, and I thought, ‘What the heck—what do I have to lose at this point? But after about two weeks, I thought, ‘No, I could actually be helping people.’ So I went back to support groups and that sort of thing and became a little bit of an activist.”
McKenna was among the first HIV survivors to take experimental drugs intended to halt the virus’ spread. The side effects of early medications were harsh, including headaches, diarrhea, kidney problems, and soft bones.
These experiences illustrated to McKenna the power of support among long-term survivors of HIV. Years later, he lobbied the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GHMC) to resurrect its defunct Buddy Program, which pairs up dedicated volunteers with survivors in order to address the isolation and loneliness that people living with the virus may feel.
Many stories featured by VideoOut follow a similar pattern to McKenna’s: of LGBTQ people coming into their own after announcing themselves to the world.
“It’s really important to not just come out to the people around you, but to come out to yourself,” said Dana Kaye, who appears in a video with her mother, Susan Litoff. “You want to be true to who you are and your authentic self. It’s no fun living a lie and living in the closet.”
Litoff, a psychotherapist, said she came out later in life than her daughter did.
“I shared with a lot of my good friends and it felt really comfortable,” said Litoff, who was 41 when she came out. “I felt really comfortable about what was happening with me. It was more a sharing than a difficult process.”
When Litoff told her mother she was in love with another woman, her mother cautioned against telling her father, claiming he wouldn’t understand. She didn’t listen. When she did finally tell him, he clutched his chest in mock offense: “What’s the problem? I understand loving women!”
“That was the end of that story,” Litoff concluded.
These anecdotes — which range in tone from jubilant to mournful — have taken on added weight since Reeves first began collecting them. Shortly after the project commenced, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency and immediately began rolling back equality. Subsequently, 2017 was the deadliest year on record for LGBTQ Americans.
Reeves described the people he’s spoken with over the past two years as “nervous.” They’re scared “about what’s going to happen to them, their families, and the people that they love the most,” he claimed.
But a perhaps unintended side effect of the Trump presidency it has also instilled in LGBTQ people the importance of visibility.
“People are exceptionally proud of who they are in an unprecedented way — in a way that I don’t know has ever existed before,” Reeves claimed. “What I’ve seen in our community is that in the face of this administration and not knowing whether or not you’ll be able to get married next year, people are stepping up to the plate. They’re saying, ‘I am proud of who I am and I’m not apologizing.’”
His goal is to collect 1,000 more stories of people living their truths, whether they’re submitted online or in person. VideoOut frequently organizes what they call “Story Collection Day” in cities like New York, Chicago, or Birmingham. At these public events, people with a story to tell can sign up for a 30-minute slot on camera.
After winning a $50,000 grant from Marriott’s #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers Social Innovation Investment, Reeves hopes to use the funding to hold a Story Collection Day every month of next year.
To better reach out to local communities, VideoOut plans to partner with advocacy organizations in each location.
VideoOut is also in the process of building a new platform where people can record their stories themselves. The website will give users the option to edit their videos, tag them for searchability, and then submit them with one click of a button. By lowering the barrier to entry, it allows a much wider pool of voices to be reflected in the series.
“One thing that we say is one story is important, several stories are powerful, but all of our stories together are an unstoppable collective that demands equality,” Reeves said.
These stories can “change minds, break barriers, and eradicate hatred,” he added.
While VideoOut hopes their platform has the ability to reach individuals who may not know someone who is LGBTQ, these transformations often begin in our own communities.
Although Reeves’ parents have long struggled with his sexuality, VideoOut helped start important conversations in his own family. Reeves’ father called him after he started the project and said, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that if anybody tries to take your rights away, I’ll be the first person to stand up for you.”
At one of VideoOut’s public events, an elderly gentleman approached Reeves and said it inspired him to finally come out of the closet.
Reeves said moments like these are why VideoOut exists.
“I just feel like these stories have the ability to embolden people, to encourage people, to inspire people,” he said. “Even people that think that it’s too late.”
“So no matter where you are in your journey, no matter how old you are or young you are, no matter what position you have, where you work, if you work, it doesn’t matter,” Reeves continued. “Your story deserves to be heard.”