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WASHINGTON — On August 1st a newly famous teenager reached out to the nation and the world — once again — with an emotional appeal on his personal Web page.

"This isn't going to become my life," wrote Zach, 16, from Bartlett, Tenn. "I won't let it. There's more to me than this."

The world met Zach on May 29, when his blog entry on MySpace.com that stirred up international attention and landed two weeks later in the Sunday New York Times.

Pictured on the Web site in dark sunglasses below a mop of shaggy hair, Zach wrote that he had told his parents he was gay, and that it "didn't go over very well." In response, they packed up his things and sent him to Refuge, a Christian youth camp run by Love In Action International, where mentors would attempt to help Zach "overcome" homosexuality.

In addition to bringing camps like Refuge to the forefront of the national media, Zach's blog also highlighted lesser-known trend: Web logging, or "blogging," as a means of personal expression in the LGBT community.

Young people have been using the Internet as a safe mode of communication for years. But the standard format has evolved from connecting through private chat room to letting the world in through blogs, the latest incarnation of the Doogie Howser-style electronic diary.

"Blogging is essentially a live journal," said Josh Lamont of the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network. "It's really symbolic of how things used to be when I was a young person with a journal by my bed. It's a positive outlet for young people to talk about the challenges of their daily lives."

That outlet is particularly important for gay teens, said Craig Bowman of the National Youth Advocacy Center, because they may not feel like they can be themselves around their friends and relatives.

"Young people are using it to find people whom they can talk to without a mask," Bowman said. "They can talk to people who are having experiences similar to theirs, at least in one aspect of their life."

But bloggers do face potential unintended consequences when they decide to type out their lives in cyberspace. The New York Times and dozens of other worldwide news outlets were able to use Zach's words - because he put them in the public sphere. In his most recent entry, Zach said he "feels annoyed towards a lot of things."

"Many, many people have sent friend requests to me because of the recent events that have placed Love In Action, my parents and I in the center of controversial events," Zach wrote on August 1st, referring to the deluge of messages he received from other members of MySpace.com. "I don't want my blog to become that."

But with so many eyes on your writing, there is always a risk that your message can be used in ways you cannot control, said blogger Pamela Spaulding, who established Pam's House Blend last summer to focus on LGBT issues in the months leading up to the presidential election.

"There's certainly a risk, because it's public," Spaulding said. "You're not writing in a personal journal that you can tuck back in your dresser drawer. You can share with people that you don't know, because you feel that you like them. But you're also sharing with everybody else."

Pam's House Blend has taken off in popularity and has received over 200,000 hits since its inception. BlogActive.com, listed as the most popular LGBT-focused progressive blog by the New Politics Institute, receives more than 13,000 weekly hits.

Nonetheless, Spaulding, Bowman and Lamont agree that the benefits of blogging far outweigh the risks — and the chances that personal entries will attract the kind of attention that Zach's did are slim.

"I think that it can help bolster the confidence of the person involved," Spaulding said. "If you're sharing stories about coming out to your parents, people who have already gone through that can give you advice, maybe even predict the possible reaction of your parents. I think it's more helpful than not."

Despite his objections to the propagation of this original entry, Zach remains active on MySpace.com and wrote that he is trying to respond to positive messages from other site members.

Lamont and Bowman said both adult and student members of their organizations also use blogs for organizational purposes. GLSEN encourages the development of gay and straight alliances at schools around the country, and Lamont said leaders of the groups are using blogs to make announcements and to advertise to their peers. Bowman said he took a trip to Serbia and Montenegro last month and used a blog to keep in touch with young members of the NYAC.

And blogging is a vital mode of communication for all young people, Lamont said, not just gays.

"Students sharing their personal experiences and just knowing that they're not alone — that's not gay-specific at all," Lamont said. "That's the Christian athlete who's really into rugby and can't find a team in his area. That's the young person who's thinking about asking somebody out for the first time and just wants some advice."

And with the popularity of the Drudge Report, Dailykos and other blogs oriented toward politics, humor and entertainment, adults are beginning to catch up.

"This is another example of something that adults can really learn from young people," Bowman said. "Young people are using technology to build communities. That's a little scary to adults at first, but it's time for them to embrace the good uses of technology. As adults, we're not quite getting it yet."

— Megan Doughty Medill News Service




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