By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah

(MCT)

CHICAGO — Moments before Isaiah Freeman-Schub left three years ago to study abroad in Paris, he picked up his laptop computer and wrote a life-changing blog entry.

"I must disclose that I am a Martha Stewart -watching, fashion-abiding, flower-arranging, boxer-brief-wearing, hair-styling ... Rachel Ray recipe-cooking, vodka-drinking, nail-filing, exfoliated, pec-toning, pocket square-sporting, football-abhorring, Queer-as-Folk-viewing, Kelly-Clarkson-listening, accessory-coordinating, fitness-obsessed, Boystown-going, candlelighting, fruit fly-leading, necktie-tying, pinky-extending, mirror-looking, GQ-reading, Jake Gyllenhaallusting, blow-drying, man-loving FAIRY."

He clicked the submit button, walked out the door and didn't bother checking his messages for days.

Freeman-Schub, 23, is one of a growing number of gays who are outing themselves online. Experts say that while an older generation of gays and lesbians struggled with making public their sexual orientation — often remaining in the closet well into their adult lives — the Internet has made it easier for a younger generation to take that step.

The phenomenon is the subject of a Chicago exhibit called "Coming Out Online" by artist Doug Smithenry , who painted images from online video testimonials for the show, which is at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St.

Whether they use Twitter, change their profile on Facebook or post YouTube videos, coming out online offers a sense of safety, said Ritch Savin-Williams , a Cornell University development psychologist.

"They don't have to face any repercussions or see how the person will react," said Savin-Williams, author of "The New Gay Teenager."

Lucas Colon said he lost friends when he declared he was gay on his MySpace page. Some of his friends from Kelvyn Park High School said they always knew, but others just stopped talking to him and deleted him as a friend, he said.

Still, he doesn't regret how he did it.

"I'm a shy person and I didn't have to be there to tell them," said Colon, 24, who is homeless and living with friends. "I didn't have to see their emotion. If they would have cried, I would have cried. If they had gotten mad, I would have gotten mad."

Freeman-Schub, who lives in Lincoln Park and is a stylist and writer for Modern Luxury magazines, said he wasn't ashamed to tell people he was gay, he just didn't want it to become an all-consuming topic.

"I wanted subsequent discussions to be minimized to e-mail and (to) have better control of that," he said. "My fear was not that they would not accept it, but rather they would be overaccepting. I didn't want them to feel that they had to put all of this reinforcement on me because I came out. It would be suffocating."

Freeman-Schub's former boyfriend, Bill Pritchard , was 31 when he came out to loved ones eight years ago. He did it in person, telling his mom he was gay, then his dad while on family vacation.

Pritchard, senior vice president of community affairs at ChicagoPride.com, said online was not an option for him then but now he has his own blog, he tweets and he understands why the Internet is preferred by so many.

"It's a new paradigm," Pritchard said. "For a younger generation, they interact online. Social networking has taken the place of gay bookstores, coffee shops and places for them to interact with each other."

Having your sexual orientation posted online has its perils, as Jim Verraros, 26, of East Dundee, Ill., discovered when he was a finalist on the first season of "American Idol." He came out on a blog he started while at Columbia College, and it was discovered by executives at Fox and others.

"I got hate mail," he said. "People were threatening my life, saying they would kill me, ... that I should burn in hell. I was ninth in the country and the further I got, the more people did research. Fox was telling me to take it down. They didn't want me to be too open with it on the show."

At a recent afterschool youth group meeting at the Center on Halsted, which provides myriad services for the lesbian-gaybisexual-transgender community, online experiences were discussed. Many youths said cyberspace gave them a degree of anonymity as they explored who they were in chat rooms and on gay sites. Some said they initially came out to friends they met online, and that acceptance helped them come out to people in their lives.

Joy Lowery , 18, of Evergreen Park, Ill., said she forgot to shut off the computer one day and her family discovered she was interested in women because she had been visiting a gay chat room. But unlike many in her generation, she thinks it's preferable to tell people in person.

"You're right next to that person. You can see their facial expressions and see what they're thinking. Online, there may be pauses, and you don't know what they're thinking or if they're freaking out," Lowery said.

Candice "Cat" Doumel, 22, who lives with friends in Chicago, announced on a half-dozen social networking sites that she likes women. Her aunt found out and stopped talking to her.

"I'm not changing who I am to make everyone else comfortable," Doumel said.

Dan Heagney , 21, a senior in college in northeastern Missouri, posted a seven-minute video on YouTube three years ago on which he outed himself and asked for other young gay men and women to respond with their own coming-out stories.

He got video responses from 87 people across America, Europe and Australia ranging in age from 15 to 28.

"If they're coming out for the first time on the archives, it's mostly for themselves, rather than to friends and family," Heagney said. "The videos also add a personal touch. They can see my face, hear my story and have an actual connection with me."

Smithenry said some of the art in his exhibit is from Heagney's video archives. He sees how the Internet can help isolated gay youths looking for answers, acceptance or a community. But he sees pitfalls too.

"In some ways, having the Internet is refreshing. It's also characteristic of this generation that they are much more out and less concerned about their privacy," Smithenry said. "But I don't know if they fully understand the consequences around (declaring online that they're gay). And I know for me, direct contact is always the best for coming out to those who you care about."

He said he knew he was gay at 9 but didn't come out to his parents, who lived in a rural Illinois town, until he was in his mid-20s.

"I was a dumb barn kid who was seeking information, and for me it took awhile to find it," said Smithenry, 41, who now lives in Chicago's Highland Park with his partner and their 3-year-old daughter.

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The exhibit opened Friday and runs through July 5. It then will be on display at the Packer Schopf Gallery, 942 W. Lake St., from July 10 through Aug. 15