If I told you that I spent five or eight or sometimes fourteen hours a day for four or five years wearing that mask online, it would sound as though I spent thousands of hours creating elaborate lies. But I didn't. The mundane details of my life were real, were mine, Ellen's. Those details were the centers of the conversations I had as Travis with my online friends - school or parental problems, the music I listened to, the celebrities I had crushes on, the vacations I went on, the things I saw each day. Those were the facts of his life, and mine, Ellen's. What was made up was only the shroud, the veil, the cloak I covered myself in; the very basic facts of my life like my sex, my name, and my place of birth.
Why did covering myself in that cloak work so well? Why did simply putting that mask on but continuing to own the real details of my life turn me into someone so different? So free, funny, loose, easy, popular, sought after? Why did it turn me into a leader, a mentor?
I am not now nor was I then confused about my gender identity. Wearing the shroud of a gay boy wasn't a way for me to try on the gender that I felt was really me; rather, the shroud itself looked so different from who I really was that it allowed me to escape from the terrible awkwardness and agony of being the teenaged self I was forced to live in between logging on.
The first time I signed into a chatroom I felt literal, physical euphoria. Even now I can't explain why, fully. Was it an immediate understanding that I, an adolescent overwhelmingly defined by social awkwardness and fear, could suddenly escape into a world where touching minds with other human beings was possible? I don't know, but the addiction to whatever high it gave me was instant and gripping.
I felt intensely guilty about what I did, of course. I was conflicted between knowing I should stop, and being desperately sad about giving up the incredible relief I found in my online freedom and friendships, as they pulled me through my high school years.
I was part of, and in some ways the center of, a cohort of early-adapter chat addicts associated with a particular teen website and I had many lovely friends, almost all girls. I was especially close with one in particular. We talked very often and I remember our chats as being almost constantly fun and funny, light hearted, silly, supportive and effortlessly open. I knew she would be the one who caught me one day because she was bright and brilliant and missed nothing. Finally she did; my first semester in college, I sloppily used the same server to host images that both my real and fake personas used on a message board, something nobody else would have noticed, but that she did, and she confronted me, and heart pounding and tears streaming I told her the truth.
Yes, there was some confusion on her part, a sense of betrayal I'm sure. And yet... she was only, how old then? 17? 18? Still so young herself. But without my needing to explain, she almost instantly understood that the shroud I'd worn had only been a shroud, and that the same person lived beneath it. She understood without my having to tell her the urge to escape from the agony of growing up. She forgave me, with merciful compassion. And so did many of the other girls to whom I soon "came out" as my real self.
What I did was perhaps more common than we'd all like to think, but (even though I wasn't profiting from it, or receiving media attention, or purporting to represent a nation!) what I did was still wrong, was deception and a betrayal of people I'd truly come to care about. Yet, it was something that helped pull me through years full of almost unbearable private suffering and isolation. So how should I feel about what I did?
Partly, I know, my virtual socializing was only a facade that allowed me to ignore the fact that I wasn't socializing "IRL." But partly it gave me real human interaction. I know this because it eased a real ache in my heart. I know this because every name on the internet with whom I connected had a real human being behind it. I know it because last year when for the first time I finally put my arms around the girl with whom I have spoken, as Ellen, more days than not for the decade+ since Travis faded away, she was flesh and blood and laughter and wisdom.
Our friendship never quite re-captured the carefree lightheartedness that it had back then; partly because of lingering shame on my part, but mostly, I think, because back in my own skin I still struggle every day to push off the weights of awkwardness. Yet, she remains one of my best friends; one of the people whose lives I love to follow and whom I respect most; whose ear and voice I'd most miss if it were gone. She is inextricably a part of my life, as are several of the other girls who re-embraced me as me and with whom I still keep in touch. And it was Travis who led me to them, just as he helped lead me across the churning, confusing waters that try to drown us as we swim towards adulthood. And for that I will always be thankful to him. Or... is it to me?