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For decades, growing up as a gay teen in America meant holding tight to a secret you could not share. Surely that is still true for many people but a lot has changed. And a big part of the change is the growth of the online world. NPR's Steve Henn has the latest report in our series Love in the Digital Age.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Meet Stephanie Sandifer.

STEPHANIE SANDIFER: I am 42 years old and I grew up in a small town in Louisiana - Sulfur, Louisiana.

HENN: And Todd Bentsen who grew up in Springfield, Illinois in the '70s.

TODD BENTSEN: I literally did not have contact with people my own age who were gay.

SANDIFER: The only exposure that we had to anyone that might be gay were more of what we perceived as the stereotypes of that.

HENN: When Stephanie Sandifer was a kid, gay men were supposed to be hair dressers. Lesbians were supposed to coach gym. There were almost no real images of gay people in popular culture. Sandifer had feelings for girls, but there was no one in Sulfur, Louisiana she could talk to about it.

LARRY GROSS: The experience that is so common for people growing gay in the past is: I thought I was the only one.

HENN: Larry Gross is at University of Southern California's Annenberg School. He has been studying gay teens for decades. And says, until recently, the gay teen experience was often defined by isolation.

BENTSEN: I certainly did not ever talk to high school classmates about it.

HENN: Todd Bentsen.

BENTSEN: Gay people or, you know, people perceived to be gay in high school were ridiculed or worse.

HENN: But the Internet, Gross says allowed gay kids to find each other.

BENTSEN: So that the sense of isolation, and in fact, the reality of isolation, could be overcome in a way that simply had not been possible before. Such a change.

SANDIFER: Being able to get online. And I still remember the first time I saw those Internet chat rooms on AOL.

HENN: Stephanie Sandifer.

SANDIFER: And I was like, this is really different. And then suddenly we were able to get on the Web and find websites dedicated to the culture.

HENN: Mark Elderkin founded Gay.com in the mid '90s.

MARK ELDERKIN: And we couldn't keep up with the demand and we would hit, you know, traffic records day after day. And so we knew we were on to something.

HENN: And it wasn't just adults on these sites. For the first time, gay teens in small towns had a place they could come out; a safe place they could talk.

ELDERKIN: They are in their 30's now...

(LAUGHTER)

ELDERKIN: ...these people who came out back then.

HENN: And even today they find him and say...

ELDERKIN: Thank you because Gay.com helped me come out and helped me feel good about myself. And, you know, my parents when they found out I was on the site, you know, they took away my computer.

HENN: Lots of stories are similar. There were lots of sites like this and quite a few parents freaked. There were online scares about predators, moves in Congress to censor the Internet, and some legitimate creeps. Gay.com had special rooms for teens and community monitors to keep kids safe. Eventually courts squashed censorship efforts. Slowly gay culture entered the mainstream online and the world at large. Soon gay kids weren't just connecting on gay sites. Friendster took over, then Facebook. And today, many parents worry more about online bullying than the Net corrupting their kids.

EMILY KITFIELD: I am Emily Kitfield and I am 16.

HENN: She lives in Sulphur, Louisiana.

KITFIELD: It's kind of a small town, but not to where everybody and their grandma know your business.

HENN: Emily Kitfield is the kind of kid who calls me sir on the telephone. She's soft spoken. And this year, she came out to her parents and her school.

KITFIELD: But I don't think I could have done it without being able to reach out to other kids and get advice from them, because it's really hard. I don't think I would have had the courage.

HENN: Emily lives in same Louisiana town were Stephanie Sandifer grew up 25 years ago, but her experience there has been completely different.

Steve Henn, NPR News.

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