Daniel Spencer said that when he came out as gay on Instagram, he lost 50 followers within 20 minutes.
BYU student, Provo’s Most Eligible cast member and comedian behind the popular Provo meme account @provohoelife Spencer said the rapidly dropping number of followers confirmed all the anxieties he had before posting his coming out video — that people would react negatively to his identity. Spencer said he had to put his phone down all day to avoid looking at the account.
When he finally checked it again, he gained 200 new followers.
Coming out on social media has been a growing trend in the LGBTQ community in recent years. BYU family life professor Sarah Coyne said this might be in part because positive interactions through social media can provide support and help with identity development.
“There has been a number of studies showing that social media is actually really important for LGBTQ individuals because they can really find a sense of community,” Coyne said.
She said social media can also act as a buffer from potentially negative in-person reactions.
For Spencer, coming out on social media was about showing the Provo community that gay people are just people. He said he felt his time on Provo’s Most Eligible and his popularity on his meme account put him in a unique position to make a difference.
Spencer said his sister told him, “You have a platform now where you can do something like that and you can help people see a better side of what gay people are in the community.”
Spencer said he was thrilled by the overwhelmingly positive reactions he received from his family, friends and followers.
“The world is changing and it’s progressing,” he said. “It’s really cool to see that happening, especially at BYU.”
Spencer acknowledged that he was lucky to have had such a positive response, as he knows not all LGBTQ individuals get the same treatment when they come out. Coyne noted that despite the positive effects of social media for the LGBTQ community, it isn’t always a safe space.
“One line of research suggests that social media can really be used as a platform for cyberbullying, particularly toward the LGBTQ population,” Coyne said, adding that LGBTQ individuals are bullied at “much, much higher levels.”
A stopbullying.gov survey from 2017 showed 27.1% of lesbian, gay and bisexual U.S. high school students reported being cyberbullied within the past year, compared to 13.3% of heterosexual students.
Fear of potential backlash is a reason LGBTQ individuals might not post publicly about their sexual orientation, according to BYU junior and rugby player Christina Miller, who identifies as lesbian. She said she doesn’t try to hide her sexual orientation but doesn’t make an effort to show it either — and has not posted about it on social media.
“I should just be able to exist as I am,” Miller said. “I wish it wasn’t necessary. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain myself.”
On the other hand, Miller said she’s thought about coming out on social media so that other LGBTQ students at BYU can see her as a resource for help and support.
She said she feels a sense of pride when she sees others coming out on social media and appreciates the sense of community it creates.
“If you’re coming out on social media, you’ve gotten to a point where maybe you’re more accepting of this part of yourself,” Miller said. “I like seeing people love themselves. I want people to be happy.”
Coyne encouraged people to be loving and supportive when others in their circle come out to them, whether on social media or otherwise.
“(Coming out) is a really brave and vulnerable thing,” she said. “They don’t need to be told that they’re wrong, they don’t need to be told that they’re not following the gospel or whatever. You need love and support in that situation.”