By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah

(MCT)

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.

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

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."

"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."

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."

"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.

"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.

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

"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."

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