On the dresser in Nathan Manske’s New York apartment is a pair of electric pink cowboy boots. From last September to this January, those boots accompanied him on a tour of LGBT communities in each of the 50 states that make up the USA, so they’re
showing signs of wear – the leather has begun to crack and the paint is chipped. In spite of this, Manske tells me over the phone early one morning in March, they’re ‘still so bright and bold. You can see them from a mile away.’
If you’re reading this in the UK and have never heard of Manske or his website, I’m From Driftwood, now is an excellent time to get acquainted.
I’m from Driftwood (so called because Driftwood is where the Texan Manske grew up) is a virtual storehouse for the real-life stories of LGBT people living anywhere from the biggest cities to the most provincial towns. Written or filmed, these reminiscences cover the spectrum of age and experience, from people coming out to welcoming arms, hostility or embarrassingly enthusiastic mothers, to men and women changing jobs, living with illness or simply learning to live with themselves. Sometimes the stories are inspiring, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re laugh-out-loud funny.
The idea for I’m from Driftwood came to Manske, a boyish-looking 30-year-old, at a time when he was financially secure but personally unfulfilled as a copywriter for an advertising agency. ‘Have you seen Avenue Q?’ he asks me. ‘Well, there’s a song in there about having purpose. It stuck out in my head. I just didn’t have a purpose. I was having fun, being creative, but I was selling things I didn’t care about, like sugar water and automobiles. It was cool but what did it mean at the end of the day?’
Where some might have drowned their sorrows in a drink or three and resigned themselves to an existence of comfortable corporate soullessness, Manske didn’t. He found inspiration for the project that would change his life in an image – from the award-winning film, Milk – of Harvey Milk holding aloft a sign that read, ‘I’m from Woodmere, NY.’ There was his purpose: LGBT people were everywhere and he was going to bring them together and provide a platform for their voices. If nothing else, losing his job shortly afterwards gave him the time to do it.
‘I saw the film on the Wednesday, got the idea for I’m from Driftwood on the Thursday, then on the Friday went into work and got laid off,’ Manske recalls, laughing.
In the two years since its launch in 2009, I’m from Driftwood has attracted a huge amount of attention Stateside. Its archives now swell with approximately 550 written stories and 110 video stories, with more being submitted every day. The success with which the site has tapped into a need among LGBT people across the USA to express themselves catapulted Manske into US magazine The Advocate’s ‘Forty Under 40’ list of activists, artists and leaders of the gay movement last year.
The appeal of I’m from Driftwood can be attributed to Manske’s reluctance for it to be ‘just a coming-out site.’ When it launched, he had six guidelines. Aside from the ‘pretty basic ones like no porn,’ he asked contributors to ‘think outside the closet’ and to bear in mind that ‘there’s so much more to gay lives than that one, difficult moment.’ Once this clicked with people the stories started flooding in.
The experience of being gay that Manske hopes I’m from Driftwood captures is that of ‘a series of firsts; that it isn’t one event. It’s every time you meet someone new, every new town you move to, every new apartment you move into, every new landlord and everyone you have to work with at every new job you get.’
To illustrate his point, he tells me about stories he received early on from members of a retirement community. ‘These people were 70, 80 and 90 years old, they were in the twilight of their life and then, suddenly, after all these years they had to go back in the closet because they were afraid of being openly gay where they were living.’
As ‘firsts’ go, this is pretty depressing. When initiatives such as ‘It Gets Better’ are dedicated to persuading unhappy LGBT teens that there’s a brighter future ahead, does Manske ever worry that the picture painted by I’m from Driftwood can be a little bleak? He pauses for a moment before replying, carefully:
‘I don’t want to draw too many comparisons with It Gets Better, but kids are constantly being told by adults what to do, or being advised, and of course that’s important – there aren’t enough ways to help queer youth – but I shouldn’t be afraid to post a sad story on my site if it’s real. It’s more than just the events, it’s the emotion. I think that’s what makes people feel better.
‘When someone tells you something bad it’s natural to tell them a story that lets them know you hear them. It’s like saying, “Hey, I’ve been through something similar.” And that’s how you make someone feel more comfortable, how you connect with them.’
Warming to his theme, he continues: ‘I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of the gay community. I’m trying to paint a real one. So many people complain about, in different forms of media, film or TV, all of the stereotypes – “that’s not who we are or what we are” – and there’s no better way of capturing a true picture of our community than just posting a whole lot of stories from our lives.’
This all-embracing approach has also had a positive impact outside LGBT circles. Shortly after starting I’m from Driftwood, Manske went to a high school reunion. While he was there he bumped into someone he’d known from kindergarten through to twelfth grade. He gave him his business card, complete with the site’s web address, and they went their separate ways. A few days later, Manske received an email from his former schoolmate.
‘He said that he thought we’d disagree on a lot of political issues – gay marriage, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – but that he’d never felt more welcome to go to a so-called “gay” website because it was so open and honest. There was no agenda. We were just telling our stories. That was the first time he’d been exposed to that.’
Such experiences were heartening but Manske refrained from indulging in self-congratulatory back-patting. In fact, even as the site was growing in size and popularity, he began to wonder if it was reaching as far into the USA as it could – particularly when it came to the video stories.
‘I was here in New York and Marquise Lee, the site’s videographer and editor, and my friend, lives in Philadelphia. The video stories we were getting were from people all over, but who all had one thing in common: they had decided to move to a big city. I didn’t feel like that was representative of the entire spectrum of the queer community. What about the guy in Grand Forks, North Dakota, who decided never to leave his town? What happens to his story if maybe he doesn’t want to write it?’
Manske’s sense of not living up to the task he’d set himself resolved itself into a plan for a four-month road trip across the country. It would start in late 2010 and take in reading events at cafes, bookstores, bars and other venues. Most importantly, it would be an opportunity to hear and film a greater variety of LGBT stories than before.
It was at this point that the cowboy boots made their debut. Bought from a thrift store and spray-painted, they started life as a fun alternative to a pot at fundraisers. However, when the book tour eventually got underway last September they became an indispensable part of its branding. Manske chuckles when I ask about them.
‘I’ve done a whole study in my brain on the pink boots. Why are they cowboy boots? Because there are gay people in Texas, where I’m from, and obviously pink is the gay colour, from the pink triangle. We ended up taking a picture of them in every state in front of a monument or something that represented that state.’
These symbolic landmarks included, perhaps surprisingly, Sarah Palin’s house. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ Manske laughs when I mention this photo from the blog that he and Lee kept during their travels. ‘I’m not sure what the LGBT community in Alaska thought about that being their state icon, but I’m sure they got a kick out of it.’
The tour finished two months ago. When I ask Manske if, looking back, he can identify any common threads between the places he visited, he answers immediately:
‘Yes. First, the small towns I would go to were very quick to become defensive. Not in a negative way; they wanted to make sure that the country and the gay community knew that just because they were a small town this didn’t mean they were backward. People were like, “Look, I know I can leave but I don’t want to. I’m out and I like living here.” That’s not say that there weren’t challenges they’d gone through – we heard some really difficult stories – but they were proud of their gay community.
‘In this one town, Alamogordo, New Mexico, the LGBT centre is a thrift shop. They move around furniture for sale to sit on and work from that. You go to Chicago and there’s this three-storey building with a gym and a kitchen and all this stuff, which is great because they have a higher volume of people, but these small towns seem to know what they need.
‘The reverse of that was in Los Angeles, where we went to the LGBT centre and spoke to some 16 to 22-year-olds. When I asked, “What’s gay life like here? Because there’s a perception that you come here to live the good life as a gay kid,” they started laughing and shaking their heads. Their hands shot up. They were concerned that people thought that just because they lived in Los Angeles, everything was nice and easy and comfortable. They didn’t all live in West Hollywood; they didn’t want people thinking that everything was peachy keen.’
The dust from the tour may have settled but Manske hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal. There are videos from the trip still to be uploaded and new written and filmed stories to be edited, including one by Scottish star of stage and screen, Alan Cumming. Within the next two months a podcast service will be launched. And in a few weeks I’m from Driftwood will be awarded non-profit status. This is crucial to the site’s survival, as Manske explains:
‘Running I’m from Driftwood is taking up all of my and Marquise’s time, and we’re not making any money from it. So we need to hold more fundraisers, get grants and do more tours; really just do everything we can to continue,’ he says with quiet determination.
‘I feel as though gay people have forever been told to keep it in the closet, don’t talk about it; keep it in the bedroom. But this is not the time to do that any more. I think that has a deep meaning for the older community, especially, because they lived through that. These stories are important, we need to archive them, preserve them and pass them on. Now is the perfect time.’
I’m from Driftwood is keen to receive stories from the UK and across the world. If you’d like to share your experiences, you can do so here.
First published by So So Gay