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Early in 2009, Nathan Manske, inspired by Harvey Milk, began collecting LGBTQ people's stories from all over the world. Ten years later, his website, I'm From Driftwood, has published nearly 600 video stories, given rise to a nonprofit organization, a book, and theatrical performances, and earned a place in the Smithsonian Institution.
And Manske has no plans to slow down. "I think I'm From Driftwood could last forever," he tells The Advocate.
Manske's mission to spread the message that LGBTQ people are everywhere came from seeing a photograph of Milk in the 1978 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, carrying a sign reading "I'm From Woodmere, N.Y." Milk, one of the earliest prominent gay politicians in the U.S., was reminding observers that he hadn't always lived in an LGBTQ mecca -- he was from a suburban town on Long Island.
Manske thought more about the Milk photo the day after seeing the biopic Milk. He was living in New York City then, but he's from Driftwood, Texas, a tiny town southwest of Austin. To share the stories of all LGBTQ people, no matter where they're from, and let them know they're not alone, he created I'm From Driftwood.
The site has been witness to a momentous time in LGBTQ history. When Manske started it, there were only two U.S. states with marriage equality -- Massachusetts and Connecticut. "Don't ask, don't tell" was still in effect. There was no LGBTQ-inclusive federal hate-crimes law.
The contents of I'm From Driftwood reflect the changes the U.S. and other nations have gone through in the past decade. "The stories are very different relative to a person's age," Manske says. The site's focus is not on politics, but on stories that are meaningful to the person sharing them, although sometimes political matters creep in.
For example, one contribution came from a woman who was at New York's Javits Center on November 8, 2016, for what she expected to be a celebration of Hillary Clinton's victory in the presidential election. It didn't quite work out that way. The woman, fearing what would happen under a Donald Trump presidency and feeling the need for emotional support, texted her girlfriend a marriage proposal. The girlfriend accepted, and the couple decided to make their wedding an act of political protest. But when the wedding day came around, the contributor realized it was all about love, no matter what was going on in politics, and was overcome with joy. "That is such a good representation of what I'm From Driftwood is," Manske says.
The site discourages coming-out stories as well, and the result is that contributors have shared a huge variety of tales about their lives. "The most surprising thing is the stories. ... The stories are all so different," Manske says.
Still, there are common threads. I'm From Driftwood's "What Was It Like?" project, a collaboration with SAGE that started in 2016, collects the stories of older LGBTQ people, in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. They lived in a different environment, Manske says, and their tales provide a reminder of the progress LGBTQ people have made. When talk about of falling in love, though, they show that it's the same for every generation. "The settings change," says Manske, who's nearing 40. "But that feeling of excitement is the same for everyone."
The site has sought geographic diversity in its contents too. In 2010, Manske and his associates embarked on a 50-state story tour, filming narratives from LGBTQ people all over the U.S. "It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he recalls. Stories from that project were eventually collected in a book, also titled I'm From Driftwood, and adapted into a play.
A major takeaway from the tour, he says, was that not all LGBTQ people have to leave a small town for a big city in order to thrive, and that large cities don't always offer the opportunity to be out and proud. A young woman he met at the Los Angeles LGBT Center noted that she wasn't out to her family and had to lie to them about where she was going. And people he met in small towns emphasized that living in a rural area didn't mean they were ignorant rednecks.
In August, artifacts from that tour will join the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. When embarking on the tour, Manske had met a Smithsonian staffer who was interested in the project and wanted to obtain something to display. Given that I'm From Driftwood is a digital effort, he was challenged to come up with something physical. The solution: a pair of old cowboy boots, dyed hot pink, that the I'm From Driftwood team photographed in every state. The organization is donating those boots to the museum, along with photos, journals, notebooks, and other mementoes.
"They'll be in the same museum as the ruby slippers," Manske says, excitedly.
The Smithsonian's collection is so huge, though, that there's no guarantee as to when the objects will be displayed. Because of that, in May I'm From Driftwood will have pop-up exhibits of the artifacts in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Austin, where Manske now makes his home.
Another event of the 10th anniversary year -- which, Manske is pleased to point out, also marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising -- will be an anniversary gala March 27 from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at Green Room 42 in New York City. It will honor several I'm From Driftwood storytellers: former Houston mayor and current LGBTQ Victory Fund president and CEO Annise Parker; singer, songwriter, and pianist David Raleigh; and LGBTQ and AIDS activist Cecilia Gentili. The event will include dinner, a silent auction, stories from the I'm From Driftwood archive, and a performance directed by artist and activist Mila Jam.
Manske plans to keep on expanding I'm From Driftwood, with not only more stories but more platforms. He intends to start working on a podcast in the second half of this year, with an eye to launching it in 2020. It's part of his goal of making the stories available to people in every way they consume media.
Some observers, he adds, have looked at the plethora of stories on I'm From Driftwood and asked if there will ever be too many. He doesn't see that happening -- he believes there's room for an infinite number. "How could we ever publish enough?" he says.