Whether it's particularly couth to admit or not, it's a solid truth that we all love to get stuff for our birthday. However, when you find out what acclaimed Internet sensation Tyler Oakley requested for his special day, it's going to make that iPod on your list seem awfully greedy.
Oakley, a veritable YouTube phenomenon and self-described "fan girl," has won a legion of online fans for his acerbic and entertaining take on pop culture and gay life. A typical installment of Oakley's video blog will see him geeking out over celebrities or professing his plans to be in a long-term relationship with Doritos (Cool Ranch, if you must know).
In short, Tyler Oakley lives for fun, and it's what keeps fans, including me, coming back for more.
Indeed, whimsy is so much a part of Oakley's online persona that his Tumblr profile instructs his followers, "Don't take me seriously."
Yet for Tyler Oakley's birthday, he's actually being very serious, and because of it, he is doing something seriously awesome.
For the past few years, anyone familiar with Oakley's online presence knows of his outspoken support for The Trevor Project, the leading organization for crisis and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. In the past he's participated in fundraisers and hosted red carpet galas for the organization, but for his birthday he decided to take it one step further. Oakley has asked family, friends and fans to donate to The Trevor Project's latest undertaking, a plan to institute a program for "text messaging to save lives," in lieu of the typical gifts or drinks.
With $20,000 already donated, I caught up with Tyler to talk a little bit about his amazing and heartwarming birthday celebration and just what this could mean for LGBTQ youth in need.
Michael Varrati: This is certainly a unique way of celebrating your birthday. Could you tell me when the idea first occurred to you to ask for donations in lieu of the usual gifts and drinks?
Tyler Oakley: I had seen a few YouTubers raising money for projects of their own, but I always felt a little skeptical of doing it myself, because I didn't want people to misinterpret my intentions. But I had also seen several YouTubers do birthday fundraisers, and I've always been a big supporter of The Trevor Project, so I thought I might as well try. I figured even if I didn't meet my goal, I would still be able to raise money for them. I never really knew how my audience would mobilize behind a money goal. I feel very fortunate that people have really opened up to the idea. It was kind of scary at first, because I had no idea how people would react.
Varrati: And how has the reaction been so far?
Oakley: It's been overwhelmingly positive. Seeing newcomers and my old viewers alike coming together has been amazing. The thing is it doesn't matter how much you donate; it's just getting that involvement out of people. A lot of them are really young and don't have a credit card or a means of doing it on their own, but that may start a conversation at home. They may ask their parents, "Hey, can I use your credit card?" And the parents may ask, "What's this all about?" And it may inspire a whole conversation that would have never happened. It's been a really social experience, and I've seen people get involved in a hundred different ways. It's really crazy, and it's heartwarming.
Varrati: Tell me how The Trevor Project plans to utilize texting to aid youth in crisis. Is this for those who may be too afraid to speak to someone in person?
Oakley: I try to put myself into the situation, and I imagine a hostile environment at home can be really limiting in how you reach out for help. Sometimes you can't make a call, sometimes your parents are listening, or they've taken the door off your room, and you have no privacy whatsoever. The Trevor Project is opening up this resource of texting to save lives. Anytime you donate, it's funding not only the research but the training of the volunteers that are going to be on the other end. That way, when you do text, they can provide the resources and right answers that are maybe going to take you off the ledge and make you understand that this isn't the end of the world. There is a brighter future.
Varrati: How can people who are a little low on funds help?
Oakley: Obviously, it's a little intimidating to donate money, because your name's attached to it, or even if it's anonymous, maybe you think that your $5 does nothing. But I did a Livestream the other day to support the project where I called and spoke with viewers live. I had emails from people pouring in $5 donations, and before I knew it, we had raised $7,000 in just one night. That's because these people came together to become something bigger than just themselves. It doesn't matter how much you're donating. True, the more the better, but every little bit helps. If you're donating or just spreading the word, that's helpful in its own right, because you never know who is watching or listening that may be swayed to help themselves.
Another reward, to me, in doing this fundraiser is that maybe there's a 12-year-old kid at home who hasn't told anyone they're gay yet, and they saw this video. In just seeing that 900-plus people have donated to my campaign, they can see that they're not alone. That shows them that there are 900 or more people out there who are supportive of who they are and want a resource for them so if they're down and out, they can call and have somewhere to go. Even the awareness factor of doing the fundraiser can save lives within itself.
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As of this writing, Tyler is $4,000 shy of his $24,000 goal. With his birthday mere days away, it's not too late to help him celebrate.
"It doesn't have to end with my birthday," Tyler tells me before we hang up the phone, "and it doesn't have to end just because we meet the goal. Any money that helps someone feel like they're not alone and have a better future, that's always welcome."
So although the money that Tyler Oakley is raising is his birthday gift, the truth remains that his selflessness and kindness is a gift to us as an LGBTQ community.