But we also have similarities: We’re both nerdy millennial women who were raised in religious households, and we’re both willing to hear opposing views. During our conversation over coffee, it became clear that we shared a common desire for community, purpose, and goodness—yet somehow we ended up on divergent paths.
Green grew up in a devout Mormon family in Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif. Her father, an immigrant from Iran, was a Muslim before he converted to Mormonism and married the Mormon woman who became Green’s mother. Some of Green’s fondest childhood memories revolve around the Mormon religion: She remembers fun activities and Book of Mormon stories every Sunday and Wednesday night; arts, crafts, and archery classes at summer camp; and close friendships with other families in her ward.
Her views about Mormonism shifted once she turned 12: Suddenly, girls and boys weren’t allowed to be in the same classes anymore. While boys held leadership positions in the congregation and prepared for priesthood, girls learned to babysit, cook, and sew. Green also began doubting Mormon teachings, such as the stories about Joseph Smith and his golden plates and the angel Moroni. She couldn’t reconcile the supernatural elements with the science and history classes at school. She was also developing crushes on both boys and girls, which confused her, and she blamed her Mormon congregation’s emphasis on sexual purity for creating shame and hate toward her body and sexual desires. When her mother tried to talk to her about sex, Green felt so ashamed that she verbally lashed out and kicked her mother out of her room.
Of course, such internal conflict is common among many young adults, not just Mormons. I had my own struggles as a missionary’s kid who was expected at a young age to meet certain spiritual and moral standards. In my case, I turned inward to a prison of self-criticism. Green turned to YouTube.
Though she didn’t feel safe sharing her skepticism with her real-life community, Green felt comfortable turning on the webcam and rambling her thoughts and feelings to a virtual community. Her first video was about Westboro Baptist Church and its anti-gay protests: If God is all-loving, how can believers do such a hateful thing? To her surprise, people watched her videos and agreed with her.
“I finally found people who made me feel like I’m not crazy,” Green told me. “For a long time, I had wondered if there was something everyone was seeing that I wasn’t seeing.”
That was 2008, when Green was 18. People were still carrying Motorola flip phones and Blackberries without shame. YouTube wasn’t yet the huge, money-generating platform it is now, on which kids as young as 7 make millions of dollars creating endless video content. Green never intended to become an internet celebrity. She began video blogging simply because she desired a safe community where she could process her falling-out-of-faith journey.
2008 was also the year I discovered blogging as a 21-year-old college dropout recovering from anorexia. I first logged on desperately seeking a community that understood my personal demons. Like Green, I used the online platform to digest the faith I grew up swallowing: If God is all-loving, why does He allow me to suffer? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He heal me instantly? I knew what my parents taught me about God—but who was this God to me?
Both Green and I had intellectual and theological questions, but the emotions that drove us to those questions were deeply personal, tinged with loneliness and isolation. For whatever reason, we landed at opposite conclusions: She decided God didn’t exist and that organized religion is oppressive, judgmental, and hypocritical. I decided that though doctors could treat my body and therapists could treat my mind, I had no power even to desire treatment without the grace of God.
Laci Green had embraced left-wing activists thinking they were tolerant, open-minded folks. Instead, she witnessed the same qualities for which she had fled Mormonism: ‘I can’t help but see this as another religious zealotry.’
For better or worse, we found an audience willing to listen. Green began attracting up to 50,000 views per video. She used her burgeoning platform to champion issues such as transgender rights, abortion, and sexism, solidifying her identity as an atheist, feminist, social justice warrior (SJW). Sometimes she missed the close-knit Mormon community (“There was always a sense that you’ll be taken care of if things went off the rails”), but she enjoyed having a community of people who shared her worldview.
While a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Green shifted to vlogging about sex education. Rather than promoting abstinence, her idea was to make sex ed fun, approachable, and “sex positive.” At the time, nobody else online was talking seriously about topics such as body image, sexual identity, and female pleasures. Her videos drew intimate emails from young viewers: Is it normal that my body does this? How do I come out to my parents? Some emails alluded to abusive relationships: Is it normal for my boyfriend to treat me like this? Green says she always pointed the girls to professional resources.
My blog had its own loyal (but smaller) following. Unsurprisingly, the majority of my readers were fellow young women struggling with eating disorders. Some sent me essay-length emails, and one teenage girl began calling me unni—an endearing Korean term for “older sister.”
I found these interactions to be exhilarating at first. Suddenly, my meaningless suffering had a purpose: to encourage others in the same struggles. But over time, I felt more helpless than empowered. I was just another broken girl, leaning on God to pick up my pieces, and it made me uncomfortable that these young girls were looking to me as their savior.
Meanwhile, Green was at the peak of her YouTube career, making enough money to help pay her college tuition. She was also depressed and miserable. After graduation, she was on the road most days of the year, touring from school to school giving lectures, posting videos once a week, and dealing with constant criticism. The more popular she became, the more internet trolls she attracted—mostly angry men who called her sexually degrading names or sent her threats.
In 2012, with the online outrage culture in full bloom, people sent Green death threats and images of her home for using the word “tranny” in one of her older videos. During her speaking engagements, people occasionally threw objects at her or surrounded her to berate her. She was a favorite target of anti-SJW YouTubers who encouraged millions of followers to mock her, but oftentimes the outrage came from fellow liberal feminists. Gone were the days when she could semi-improvise her videos—now she was preparing a script and obsessing over every potentially offensive word. Gradually, Green retreated: She still posted videos but no longer was as vulnerable or open, and she dreaded logging on to YouTube. The internet was no longer her safe space.
Over time, Green says, she realized, “This is not what I signed up for. This is not fun anymore.” In 2017, as she considered quitting social media, Green decided she needed to do one last thing, something she hoped would allow her to forgive her detractors and move on: She contacted the right-wing critics who had made her life miserable and asked to meet up. They all said yes.