Russell Keller is a 17-year-old redhead with bright eyes flashing behind bookish glasses. Today he has a day off from his job at McDonald’s and he sits in the heart of the gay village, training his eyes on our handsome waiter while ordering a Pepsi.
When he first came out, however, those eyes were glued to a computer screen, as were the eyes of the person he came out to.
Keller came out over the internet. “I figured it’d be a test case,” he says now.
He was partway through Grade 8 at the time, and had returned from a Christian Summer Camp where he’d met Corbin, the boy he came out to.
The internet would soon become Keller’s greatest ally in reaching out and building community.
He was just 13 years old when he penned a story called Secret Lives about a young man in the suburbs coming to terms with his sexuality who, in the bumbling way that most of us go about it, reaches out to his friends and abashedly seeks some physical contact.
The story remained a secret itself until the computer game Sims 2 was released a couple of years later. Sims 2 allows players to create movies using various characters they build themselves, in a virtual world. An electronic puppet show, essentially.
Keller saw his chance. Chapter by chapter, he transformed the text of Secret Lives into episodes in an online movie.
In it, Keller’s main character Brad struggles with his sexuality as foxy dudes play mind games with him, leaving him guessing at the motives of those around him and worrying over his own stilted forays into romance.
Voices, recorded by Keller and his friends, add distinctive personalities to the sometimes-robotic movements of his computer-generated characters.
By Sims terms, Secret Lives has now become a minor phenomenon. In just the past few months, the first episode of his queer series has received 5,000 hits. Keller is currently working on the ninth installment.
The Secret Lives project does not shy away from the banality of whitewashed, straight suburbs. Just as the award-winning Office series succeeded in skewering office politics by revelling in the everyday tortures of cubicle-life, so does Secret Lives find its edge by remaining frank about the tediousness of suburban life.
There is an underlying anxiety present as Brad navigates computer-generated streets of perfect little homes and manicured yards. At 17, Keller already has a finely honed sense that difference is what makes a character interesting.
The community-building that Keller’s protagonist only dreams about recently became a reality for Keller himself. In fact, Keller has become an activist of sorts.
The offline episode unfolded when his friend Kate came out to him, shortly after hearing he was gay. In a uniquely adolescent moment of anxiety, “she thought I’d think she was copying me,” says Keller.
Sexual copyright infringements aside, the queer duo soon founded their high school’s first gay-straight alliance. “Our principal gave us the go-ahead before the school district approved it.”
Which is encouraging, considering Keller’s hometown-Surrey. He doesn’t find Surrey an oppressive environment, all told, but he adds the caveat that “a lot of teachers are iffy on that stuff.”
Still, Keller says the dangers that his protagonist faces online are more reflective of the fears he grew up with than his lived experience.
Surprisingly, it is the internet, and not the streets of Surrey, that pose the strongest threat to Keller’s self-esteem.
Even as chatrooms and online film work have brought him closer to communities he normally could not access, the internet has also brought him closer to bigots.
“People aren’t as scared to express themselves on the internet,” he points out. “Every now and then someone will sign my guest book [a log for visitors to his website] with homophobic comments.”
For queerlings and bigots alike, the internet allows for an ever-widening circle of acquaintance.
One teenager, known only as “Zach,” made headlines this year when he posted the unpublished rules to a Tennessee-based religious camp his parents were sending him to on his MySpace blog. Zach had discovered that the camp was meant to convert him from his gay ways.
Queer-friendly internet sites (and thousands of visitors to Zach’s own blog) rallied to his cause after Zach posted a message reading: “What is with these people…? Honestly, how could you support a program like this? If I do come out straight I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won’t matter. I’ll be back in therapy again. This is not good.”
The internet site Janus Online responded by posting an outraged attack on the notion of gay conversion: “This program is administered to minors against their will. It is forced indoctrination, including dehumanizing, degrading treatment.”
Blogs and other democratic, easy-access forms of internet-based communication have been rapidly gaining credence in popular culture and so have the young writers who dominate that geography. (Zach’s story warranted a piece in the New York Times, and the gay blog Towleroad commands major sponsorship deals from advertisers, due to its large readership).
For Keller, who hopes to study graphic design at the Art Institute of Vancouver after high school, the connections he makes online are important but ultimately don’t circumvent the bonds of the real world.
The boys he’s dated (in a particularly ungay twist) were not people he met online. Keller searches for romance that begins in a live connection-and the startling intimacy that the internet just can’t dish out: “I was caught off guard the first time a guy hugged me,” he confides.
And does he have a boyfriend now? “Technically, no.”
After our interview, Keller walks back through the gay village and winds his way home to Surrey. Two blocks from his house, a pair of boys on the sidewalk stop him.
“Gay!” yells one. “Homo!” shouts the other. Keller keeps on walking, reaches his house, and emails me these lines at 5:30 pm:
“As sad and pathetic as it is that people would do that, I’m happy that someone finally has had the guts to actually confront me… kinda. I suppose I’m just crazy for thinking that.”
He closes his e-mail with a winking emoticon-one of those simple emotional signifiers, adrift on the ether of cyberspace: 😉