In a 45-minute masterpiece, Daniel Howell has kickstarted the journey towards a brighter future for young, LGBTQ+ people with an honest discussion about sexuality, gender, homophobia, and what it’s like to grow up in the midst of the confusion.
Since his emergence as a YouTuber in 2009, Daniel Howell (formerly known as danisnotonfire), has been the subject of intense speculation over his sexuality, specifically relating to his best friend and YouTube partner Phil Lester (AmazingPhil). When I use the phrase ‘intense speculation’, this is not an exaggeration. People that refer to themselves as supporters of ‘phan’ (Phil/Dan) are not the same casual ‘shippers’ that certain characters on TV shows attract (e.g. Dean and Castiel from TV show Supernatural). These ‘phannies’ as they are sometimes known, are avid fans of both men, often having been subscribed to them right from the very first video (which in Phil’s case was way back in 2006).
The difference between achieving celebrity as an online influencer, and gaining a fanbase through more conventional means such as acting in a popular film or being a musician, is audience interaction. A pop-star might come out of their concert venue and have to wade through a clamour of super-fans that want endless photos and autographs, but once they are sealed in their limousine or hotel room, they no longer have to deal with that extreme, overwhelming audience response. In contrast, for an online celebrity, their entire platform is internet-based, including their relationship to their fans. As there is no separation between ‘stage’ and ‘stage-door’, the attention is constant; audience response is as immediate as the applause. Whilst instant audience response could be viewed as advantageous in some respects, we all know, ‘trolling’, bullying, and heavy criticism is popular amongst many internet users. It is for this reason that so many online creators are unable to prevent negativity from filtering through the majority of appreciative fan-responses, and end up becoming incredibly damaged by the effects, often in regards to their mental wellbeing. This is particularly true for younger creators, who have neither the experience nor the self-restraint to stop themselves wading through the minefields of social media response.
Dan Howell was just eighteen when the rumours of ‘phan’ began spreading. As he details in the first half of his video, during his early-adulthood, he was barely able to pick apart his own feelings towards his sexuality, and suddenly here were thousands of strangers dissecting it daily, without his input.
“…there was a point where the relationship with my audience shifted from what felt like direct communication between me and individuals that just saw me as a comedy creator, to communities of people that formed to talk about me when I wasn’t there. Which is fine, but for some people it was about getting generally invested in me and my real life. Inevitably, some people really started to dig into my private life to find out information about me that I really wasn’t ready to share.” [Dan Howell, 25:22]
It is for this reason, Dan explains, quite understandably, that in the past he has publicly denied a romantic connection to Phil Lester, and has before stated outright that he ‘likes vagina’, and is straight. Howell now admits that this behaviour was sending his fans ‘mixed messages’, however in light of the new video, looking back on Howell’s past denials of his sexuality are harrowing reminders of the fear and insecurity brought about by ‘closeting’ oneself. That Howell at one time felt so backed into a corner by frenzied speculation and homophobic fear-mongering that that he lashed out at teenage fans, is horrifying. It calls into question what we as a society do to the minds of young, queer people, that they harbour such repressed shame within themselves.
As is evident in this video, Daniel Howell has battled for a lifetime with both self-imposed and externally influenced anxiety and depression over his sexuality; on June 13th, two days after his twenty-eighth birthday, he has finally won the war. For this reason alone, it is imperative that the LGBTQ+ community do not dismiss Daniel Howell’s video ‘Basically I’m Gay’ as just another ‘coming out stunt’.
For the group of fans that will watch this video and see it as nothing more than a climax of their fantasy of some kind of romance between two internet personalities, the importance of Dan’s message will not truly resonate. As he rightly states, ‘Basically I’m Gay’ is not intended as a confirmation of ‘phan’, and nor is it truly a way for him to finally confront rumours about his own ambiguous preferences.
“What me and Phil had was ours and personal, and yet some people were trying to get access to it for their own satisfaction.” [26:27]
Aside from being a cathartic release from a prison of what Dan himself calls ‘internalised oppression’, the video is, as put by one fan, a ‘fully candid deconstruction of internalised homophobia’. Howell is an ambassador for charity ‘Young Minds’, and actively spreads awareness of mental health in young people. In ‘Basically I’m Gay’, Howell furthers his mission for the charity through sharing his moving, personal story of the hardships surrounding developing sexuality as a young, queer person. With this carefully constructed, emotive (and thoroughly entertaining!) piece, Howell has bravely sent out a glittering life raft into the dark, uncertain void of the internet, just so that anyone floundering through it can grab hold. At one point, Dan mentions that a large motivating factor for coming forward with the video was so that he could try to help anyone struggling to cope with the same experiences he went through. By opening up about an attempted suicide in his teen years, Dan has given millions of his followers, suffering with the same feelings of hopelessness that he felt back then, the motivation to push through.
“If anything motivated me, it’s the idea that I can help someone else… I have a platform, and a following of millions of people, many of whom I know have been through exactly what I have. And if I tell my story… I know it will mean something to someone. Every time someone speaks openly about sexuality, it saves lives.” [29:12]
“I want everyone that’s ever felt [suicidal] to realise that you are never trapped. There is always hope. You just need to believe in yourself and get to the other side.” [20:38]
As well as utilising his typical YouTube format of relatable storytelling for which he is best known (see: Internet Support Group), in the 45-minute video ‘Basically I’m Gay’, Dan explores some wider problems. Armed with his own expertise as a queer, philosophical public influencer, he tackles issues such as society’s changing attitude towards sexuality and gender, as well as the semantics and impact behind different LGBTQ+ terminology. During one particularly impressive tangent, Dan speculates on whether it is necessary for LGBTQ+ people to adopt a label, and the pressure that choosing how to identify oneself puts on young people to conform when they are still learning who they are. Dan then goes on to explain that this is why he has chosen to reclaim the Queer slur as an umbrella term to use when describing his own sexuality.
“The [queer] definition makes sense because until society is equal with all sexual and gender identities it is literally strange from a conventional viewpoint. Plus, it’s better than a super-long acronym, and it’s inclusive of everyone.” [37:48]
What is clear from this intimate account of his own struggle is that it has taken Howell twenty-eight years to get to a point where he can be confident in his own opinion, and to then share this opinion openly with the world. For anyone in the public eye, coming out is a choice that does not have to be taken, and should be acknowledged as particularly brave. There is little benefit for someone famous to disclose something so intimate and (sadly) controversial, as the slew of hatred and bigotry that usually follows is not something to be coveted; for Dan, as with many others in his position, it is evident that – aside from needing to get this off his chest – he has suffered enormously in his struggle to become the inspirational queer creator he is today, and wants more than anything else for his story to be an inspirational message to those who desperately need it. One thing is for certain – it is because of the courage he has shown by sharing this video, along with the continued inspirational presence he maintains as a public persona, that those people are going to stick around.
“Queer people exist. Choosing not to accept them is not an option. To anyone watching this that isn’t out, it’s okay. You’re okay. You were born this way, it’s right, and anyone that has a problem with it is wrong. Based on your circumstance, you might not feel ready to tell people yet or, that it’s safe, and that’s fine too, just know that living your truth with pride is the way to be happy. You are valid, it gets so much better, and the future is clear. It’s pretty queer.”