In 2009, Ingrid Nilsen created a YouTube channel where she posted lifestyle video tutorials of styling hacks and beauty tricks. She developed a loyal following of people who loved her for her bubbly, cheerful personality as much as they enjoyed seeing her drugstore makeup hauls. But it wasn't until June 2015 that Nilsen became more well-known after her coming out video went viral, receiving almost 16 million views.
In the year since, Nilsen has taken to a more public arena. In January, she helped call attention to efforts to repeal the tampon tax when she asked President Obama about it in an interview. This month, she's one of the voices behind a We The Voters short film, educating people about U.S. government in ways that feel more approachable and entertaining than what you sat through in high school AP history.
In honor of Spirit Day, Nilsen shared why she came out online and what life has been like since. — As told to Madeline Buxton
There’s a point of friction that happens when the life you’re living doesn’t align with the truth. I was definitely worried that people who watched my channel might feel betrayed. But I also felt like I had been betraying myself for so long.
Leading up to filming the video, I did a lot of thinking. I spent time by myself deciding if this was definitely how I wanted to come out in terms of what I wanted to say and how I was going to say it. I ultimately decided that I would tell my viewers the way that I had told people that I knew personally. I just stuck with that.
I sat down and talked to the screen like a human being, from person-to-person. The only cuts that I made in that video were when I was sitting there, hysterically crying. I hadn’t written out a script. I was able to articulate what was going on inside of me because I had been journaling and documenting my experience. Writing has always been a way for me to reflect, and it helped me gather my thoughts and feelings a little more. It just helped everything become more cohesive and tangible.
It was something that was no longer just mine anymore.
In the seconds before the video went live, my heart was racing — I felt like it was going to explode. I don’t even remember the moment I clicked "public" because I think I blacked out. I remember having clammy hands, and I must have clicked "public" because it definitely went live. Immediately afterwards, I stepped away from it. I needed that moment of letting it go and letting it be. It was something that was no longer just mine anymore.
Having that pause before checking in to see what people were saying and how they were responding to what I said was a vital element of the whole process, and really helped ground me. I didn’t want to be living online at that moment. I wanted to soak in everything that had happened. I went on a road trip with friends to Maine. That's where I had originally made the decision to come out, and where I came to terms with coming out to myself. To go back to that same place and watch the sunrise again when I was on the other side of things, was an experience I don't think I can sum up with words.
One of my best friends was on the trip with me, and she updated me on what was happening online. I had never had a video go viral before, and for it be this one — the most meaningful thing that I have ever posted online — was a lot to try to wrap my head around. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't getting lost in the numbers and the abstract nature of the internet. You see these numbers of viewers, but it's hard to put into context how many people that really is.
I think that what I said resonated with people because I was shattering multiple stereotypes that people had become accustomed to when they would think about what a gay person and what a gay woman looks like. I think that it made some people uncomfortable, and that’s probably for the better. I was very open about the fact that I had been in relationships with men, and I don’t think that there had been many stories that blatantly laid it out for people.
But this is my story. This is what happened. I have dated men before, and this is who I am. I am a gay woman. And that doesn’t take away from my identity — it’s a part of it.
In the year since the video went up, there's been an overwhelmingly positive response, which has been amazing to experience both on the level of the internet and within my personal friend group. It doesn't mean that it's a perfect experience. But it's a whole experience, which means that it comes with the really wonderful moments and the painful ones, where I had people who didn't step up when I needed them to.
It made me realise that with something as big as coming out, patience is absolutely key to navigating it. I wanted everyone to immediately be on the same page with me. Some people were, but some people weren’t. My identity was shifting in their eyes, and while my coming out was not about them necessarily, it does still affect other people. I think it’s important to be aware of that. I don’t think it should stop you from pursuing your truth, but I think it’s important to understand that it takes patience and understanding on both ends.
This is something that I had been sitting with for a while. It took my entire life up to that point to come to terms with my identity, so I think that allowing people time and space to also come to terms with it is totally fair and okay.
The upside to coming out on a larger scale is that, even though I still have to come out again and again to people, I don't have to do it at the level that other people who come out on a more personal, private level do. The negative part of coming out on such a large scale is that I deal almost constantly with challenges to my identity. There's not a day that goes by that I don't get called a liar online, or have someone say that I'm doing this for attention. It's pretty much every awful thing you can imagine hitting you in your most vulnerable place.
But even though the words I read can be exceptionally hurtful some days, I've learned how to navigate things. And that's forced me to learn a lot about myself and made me more confident in my identity.
Coming out was the stepping-stone to everything else that is meaningful and important to me. It gave me the courage to explore, live, and learn about myself in a more fractured light. The more I let myself sink into that self-discovery, the more I realised how much I wanted to share my experiences and try to make a change for future generations. I say this pretty often in life, but I strive to plant the seeds in a garden that I may never see.
When you go through these really pivotal transition periods in your life, you think that the world is going to end and that life has stopped. Then you realise that life is moving forward. The biggest difference for me is that now I'm actually awake and participating fully in my life. I'm not in the passenger seat anymore, watching life play out in front of me. I have the keys to the car that is my life, and I'm in the driver's seat.