These Social Media Stars Are Using Their Platform to Help Build an Inclusive LGBTQIA+ Community Around the World
“We get to meet people from all over the world, from different walks of life, and from completely different backgrounds, who all have different stories.”
If you haven't heard of Taylor Phillips and Jeff O'Donnell, the heartthrob couple sharing their adventurous lives and relationship on YouTube and social media, you've probably seen them. Phillips, originally from Indiana, works as a model, and has been featured in various print and ad campaigns. O'Donnell, born in New Jersey, is an actor with credits in hit shows like Girls and Orange Is the New Black. But to many of the couple's fans, their most important work is simply being themselves, serving as outspoken advocates to uplift and inspire the LGBTQIA+ community.
"The reason I've stayed kind of making social media a job is not so much about the brand deals and things like that, but I really see the influence [in] sharing my story, our story, being a representation of a healthy gay relationship," Phillips, who has over 300,000 Instagram followers, told Travel + Leisure. "When I decided to pursue social media full time, I really had the conversation with myself, like let's just do this and share everything because I spent so many years of my life not knowing who to look up to, or who to look to for guidance or advice or anything."
For O'Donnell, who started booking major gigs at 16, opening up to the world was an easy decision. "When we were growing up, there was really no one to look up to, you know. If there was a gay character on TV or [in] movies, it was the same stereotype, like the over flamboyant gay friend or something. So we try and be someone that we needed or would have liked to see growing up [to show] that you can live a very traditional lifestyle being gay."
The beauty in the couple's story is that the two actually first connected on Instagram. According to Phillips, he found a picture of O'Donnell on the app and decided to shoot his shot. "I was like, this guy's cute. You know, I'm not doing anything and so I DM'd him. I just [sent] him two waving hand emojis and then the rest is history." O'Donnell didn't respond "right away," but agrees it was all history after he did respond the next day.
Now, the couple is engaged, recently purchased their first home together, and are working harder than ever to build a community that supports and uplifts one another beyond the instant gratification of the "like" button. "We have such a great relationship with our followers," said Phillips, adding that they connect regularly with people on apps like Discord and WhatsApp. They even host monthly Zoom calls, some hours long, to learn from each other and share stories. "We get to meet people from all over the world, from different walks of life, from completely different backgrounds, who all have different stories."
One particularly humbling moment came when the duo hosted a virtual Pride event last year. "We danced around and hung out and then we opened the floor to anyone who wanted to talk about their coming out experience or what life was like for them," said Phillips. After opening the floor, a young man from Egypt explained the difficulty of coming out as gay in his country. With thousands of people watching, Phillips explained, he realized the gravity of being able to share their platform with somebody else. "To have other people who have no idea what it's like to be gay in Egypt finally hear from someone.. situations like that have been very eye opening."
Beyond making virtual connections, the pair has also spent some quality time bonding with each other through travel. A tried-and-true vacation spot, O'Donnell took Jeff to his favorite place, Bermuda, somewhere Phillips had only associated with the infamous triangle. "It has this historic charm and we just have such good memories from there," the actor said. Phillips, in reverse, took O'Donnell to Europe for the first time, somewhere the model first explored after graduating college. In Europe, they both agree that Madrid, Lisbon, and Amsterdam felt very friendly to LGBTQIA+ travelers, and great places to truly dig into the culture.
"When I travel, I like to spend enough time somewhere where I can feel I live [there]," Phillips said. "I love staying at an Airbnb. I love going to the grocery store. I love going to the same place twice if I really like it." He continued, "Travel is such a growing experience simply because you are exposed to so much different culture and you learn a lot about yourself."
With travel on hold due to the pandemic, the couple has spent the majority of their time and energy remodeling their new house on Long Island and planning for their wedding. And with that, a honeymoon once it's safe. "As cliche as it is, Hawaii is on the list. I like to do island jumping," said O'Donnell, adding that he'd rather ride out the "energy and excitement" post-wedding before eventually heading out on the honeymoon.
And, if you're planning a future trip with a significant other, the couple has a few tips, starting with letting each person plan a portion of the itinerary. "Each of you should have an input on something, whether it's day by day, or lunch, dinner, breakfast — whatever it is," suggests Phillips. "It is nice to divvy it up so that everyone feels like they receive."
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Tanner Saunders is the Experiences Editor at Travel + Leisure. He thinks there should be more people like Taylor and Jeff in the world. Follow him on Instagram @Tizanner.