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We Are (From) Everywhere

At 28, Nathan Manske might be a poster child for fun employment. Tan, attractive, articulate, and recently laid off by a large advertising firm, Manske has spent the last six months channeling all of his energies into creating and maintaining the website I'm From Driftwood. IFD publishes short first-person accounts of LGBT people from all around the world, each under the simple header "I'm from _____."

The stories come from everywhere: small towns in Michigan; big cities in Argentina. As the title suggests, Manske himself comes from Driftwood, a small town in Texas, about 45 minutes south of Austin. Recently, caught up with him in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he now resides, to talk about IFD. So what gave you the idea for I'm From Driftwood?
Nathan Manske: I thought of it the day after seeing [the movie] Milk. I was waiting to go to work, snoozing and half asleep, and I was thinking about him. There's an image that actually isn't in the movie, of him holding a sign in the San Francisco Pride parade. It said, "I'm from Woodmere, New York." I thought, That's pretty cool. The biggest gay elected official is actually from this little town out on Long Island. Harvey Milk is a huge gay icon, and we associate him with San Francisco, but he's from this small town. It said to me that gay people are everywhere. We're from Woodmere. We're from Driftwood.

How did IFD go from an idea to a reality?
It was pretty quick. The day after I thought of it, I was laid off from my job, so I suddenly had the time to do it. Also that day, I went home to Austin for Christmas. I was there for about a week, talking to people about my idea, getting their feedback. Once I figured out it was going to be a blog, I thought, I could do this right now. That was the middle of January. I wrote a really long e-mail to everyone I knew who was gay and close enough to me that I could hound them to write for it. But the idea of true stories from gay people all over the world was the first thing I thought of. So the heart of it I saw that morning, and it's exactly the same now.

What do you hope IFD accomplishes? Who is the site written for?
Primarily, it's written for gay teenagers who are struggling to come to terms with who they are. I want them to know they're not the only ones. Even in today's society, where it seems so much easier, it's still hard for kids out there. If they read these stories, they can think, They went through what I went through, and now they're living a happy life. Every story should act as a role model of some sort for someone. What's cool about it is I don't know which one will work for which person. Some stories, I'm like, "Eh, this isn't that good." I'll post it, personally not liking it, and the comments will say "Oh, my God, this is the best story on the site yet!" You never know what will inspire or help someone.

As someone who came of age as the Internet was becoming the behemoth it is now, do you think it's changed what it means to be gay?
You're right on when you say I'm of that age. I was in the Austin M4M AOL chat rooms when I was 17, just exploring, meeting other gay people. Trying to figure out if I was gay. It created this new outlet, helped to connect people and make them feel less alone. I found my first boyfriend on AOL when I was 18, and it was he who helped me come out more. If I hadn't met him online, who knows how long it would have taken.

Has IFD spawned any relationships yet?
Not for me.

No one's written in saying, "I'd like to meet this person" or "So-and-so is from my home town?"
Some people have written to say they were amazed there was a story from their town. I really want it to become a community. Even the design looks simple and small-towny, you know? I like that. I would love it if a relationship started because of IFD -- but they'd have to write me the story of it!

Where do the submissions come from?
IFD is very viral. It's down and dirty. I don't have any money to do traditional advertising. Anyone I meet -- at a bar,or whatever -- they ask me what I do and I jump on the opportunity to explain the site. I give out cards for it everywhere I go. The other day I saw these two guys being cute on the subway and I went up to them and said, "Hey, I noticed you guys were touching, and I have this website -- check it out!"

Do you edit or reject pieces?
There have been very few stories I've put up exactly as is. But the only thing I check for is spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The more raw, the more real it feels. If they were all written like Stephen King, people would think, Oh, these are only written by great writers. But if they're written by not-great writers, I think most of America will relate to them.

Do the stories ever seem repetitive? You know, you've heard one coming-out story, you've heard them all?
Even in the guidelines, I ask for something other than coming-out stories. Every gay person, one of the biggest stories they have is coming out. With good reason: It's a huge story and it literally changes your life. But people know that story. They know it's difficult to come out. They know -- kind of -- what could happen. But I had this gay Iranian who wrote a coming-out story, and it definitely stood out. So I don't tell people they can't write a coming-out story, but it needs to be a special one.Overall, the stories are not repetitive. They're all over the spectrum.

Do you have any recommendations for people who want to send something in? Anything you're particularly looking for?
My favorite stories are the ones where you don't know where it's going to go. One I posted today started off, "This story is about jealousy. And about seeing Joan Rivers." And I thought, Awesome. I have no idea where this is going to go. My other favorites are stories from people in their 60s. A lot of them start with "The year was 1965," and immediately you think about how that was a different world for gay people.

How many stories are you up to now?
Probably like 130.

One hundred thirty since February? That's a lot.
Since March. March 24. Right now I'm publishing one a day.

Do you have a favorite piece on IFD?
When we hit 100 entries on the site, we had a contest to pick the best one. The winner was by J.R. Mortimer. It's about him folding laundry, about to break up with his boyfriend. As he's folding, he's talking about all the articles of clothing, like, "Oh, you bought me this shirt when ... " And then there's a flashback. So it was a lot of little moments, all connected through the clothes. It was very well written, had a lot of anecdotes within one story, and it was short.

What's the future of IFD, now that you've got the site up and the unemployment is running out? Book? TV Show? Deal with NPR?
I'm turning IFD into a book. I have an agent, and I've divided the stories I've chosen into sections, like "Love and Relationships," "Coming Out," "Family," "Life Before 1970." We're submitting the proposal now. Wish me luck

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