LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As LGBT+ charities advise young people to stay in the closet during coronavirus lockdowns, Sebastian Wood and Monty Keates say they recognise the importance of being a visible young gay couple in Britain’s first TikTok house.
“It’s good that we represent the LGBTQ community,” Keates, 17, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.
“We’re a really diverse group (in the house) and we’re good to look up to, especially for younger members of the LGBTQ community who are maybe closeted and don’t want to come out yet.”
Earlier this month, Britain’s Albert Kennedy Trust said young people might want to “press pause” on plans to come out, as being cooped up with families under lockdown might exacerbate negative reactions.
“We do make sure that we get the representation that’s needed out there, we do make videos about our relationship,” added Keates, who has 440,000 followers on the short-video media platform, with almost 16m likes for his posts.
“We’re in a healthy gay relationship and that’s a good thing to be seen, especially today.”
The couple are stars on TikTok, the short-video social media platform that has become a digital phenomenon with almost 2 billion downloads since it launched in 2016 in China, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.
Popular user content ranges from ubiquitous cat videos to Oscar-winning actor Judi Dench dancing with her grandson.
Keates and Wood, 20, entered the house in London in mid-March, a week before Britain entered lockdown, with four other flatmates and their manager for an online reality TV show known as Bytehouse.
Both have taken part recently in the Rise Above campaign, aimed at 11- to 16-year-olds, to create content for their fans – both LGBT+ and heterosexual – who might be struggling during the coronavirus crisis.
“(It’s) content about things to do inside and keep you occupied and mentally healthy while self-isolating,” said Keates.
For both, making a living out of social media has been a long-held dream.
“I’ve wanted to do something like this for so long, and the fact I can do it with my friends is just insane,” said Wood, who has 2 million TikTok followers and grew up on the Isle of Wight, just off the southern coast of England.
“It was such a big thing, but I wasn’t scared,” added Keates, who grew up in London. “I was going to move out to (university) anyway, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I get to live with my boyfriend.”
Coronavirus lockdowns have proved a boon for TikTok, with Sensor Tower recording a 23% increase in viewing time between January and March.
In the first quarter of 2020, there were about 315 million downloads of TikTok globally, the most of any app ever in a quarter, Sensor Tower told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Bytehouse recorded 15 million views in its first week, mixing dance routines with housemate “pranks” as Keates described them. A video posted by Wood disclosing their relationship months earlier garnered almost 300,000 likes.
Keates has deferred his interior design course at Portsmouth University for a year to join the house, while Wood formerly studied performing arts at college, but had not planned on university.
Both joined the TikTok platform in December 2018 and say thanks to the app’s vetting algorithms they have experienced little homophobia or trolling, though they are aware of the stresses that come with being in the spotlight.
With Britain under lockdown, and many LGBT+ people opting to keep their sexuality or gender identity under wraps at present, both Wood and Keates say they recognise the part they have to play as the coronavirus crisis unfolds.
“Because people out there aren’t making content as much as they would, we definitely want to play our part,” Keates said.
“We’re under a microscope right now and we can show everyone what a healthy gay relationship is like.”
Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenahlgh; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org