Senior’s Social Networking Site Connects Those In the Process of Coming Out
“I am gay.”
For Brooks Gabel ’14, being able to say those three words out loud was a long, lonely process.
He was 19 before he came out, but remembers being attracted to a boy when he was just 6 years old. In eighth grade, he started exploring what it meant to be gay by turning to the Internet, where anonymity gave him comfort. But too many of the sites and apps were about sex and hooking up, rather than getting to know people.
Hoping to connect others with the same questions and uncertainty, the marketing major started justlikeyou.org, a social networking site for people going through the coming-out process.
“There’s a lot of resources for people who identify [as LGBT],” he says. “But people aren’t ready to show up for them… We wanted to meet people where they are.”
Justlikeyou.org launched April 13, after a year in development and testing, and it has about 175 users so far.
Users of the site can keep their anonymity. Signing up requires only that they provide basic information about their location, age and sexual orientation. Then, they answer a series of questions, including how comfortable they feel at home, school and work. This helps the site connect them with users in similar situations to share their stories.
Gabel insisted on safeguards: Though teens ages 13 to 17 can sign up, they can only message with vetted volunteers, who also act as moderators on the site. Users 18 and older can message with other adult members, but all interaction is one-to-one, to avoid the distortion and other problems created on anonymous message boards.
He hopes people will be comfortable sharing much like he did on his blog, justBrooks, a predecessor of sorts to justlikeyou.org.
He wrote about his struggles in middle and high school, going from “ladies’ man” in sixth grade, dating girl after girl, to texting risqué questions to guy friends he suspected were gay to see how they’d react. Throughout high school, he experimented, but was never able to admit, even to himself, that he was gay. He evaded questions and battled shame until after his freshman year at Maryland, when he finally came out.
His family and many friends were supportive, but he quit competitive swimming, a lifelong passion, because he didn’t feel comfortable coming out to his teammates at Maryland.
With that big chunk of his life gone, he couldn’t figure out where he belonged with his new identity. It wasn’t until he went to Rome the spring of his sophomore year—far from his established community and expectations—that he finally felt free to immerse himself in LGBT activism and nightlife.
“Living on my own, making my own decisions, it allowed me a space to be free to associate with whoever I wanted,” Gabel says.
At the end of every justBrooks blog post, he included his email and encouraged people to reach out. Soon, hundreds of people from all over the world were writing to him about how his story resonated with them and helped them with their struggles. That’s when he knew he had to expand beyond just the blog.
Gabel started justlikeyou.org on his own, but eventually assembled a team of 21 people he’d met all over the world, including Rome, Los Angeles and New York, to work together and bring a variety of perspectives to the project.
In April, the site was one of two winners of the Do Good Challenge, UMD’s annual social entrepreneurship competition. Between that and an Indiegogo campaign, the justlikeyou.orgteam raised more than $16,000 this spring, which will help improve and expand the site.
Gabel is about to graduate and start a full-time job at Lululemon Athletica in Washington, D.C., but his priority is to grow justlikeyou.org. He plans to create local chapters and hopes it will one day be a resource at every K-12 school and college campus across the country.
“It’s about coming out to yourself,” he says. “Once you find the confidence there, everything else comes into play.”
Watch Gabel compete in the Do Good Challenge in this TerpVision segment:
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