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Monday, January 24, 2011

Interview With Nathan Manske of "I Am From Driftwood" Tour

By David Mixner -

Inspired by the movie "Milk," young Nathan Manske, Marquise Lee and Nick Manske started a four month odyssey across America. The trio videotaped members of the LGBT community in all fifty states and complied them on a site called "I Am From Driftwood" (the home town of the Manske brothers!) Recently they returned to home base in New York and are in the process of editing and putting the remaining stories on their site. In the process they have created a remarkable library of inspiration and powerful stories from LGBT Americans. Click here to go to their site for the videos, stories, to order their book and get a real look at LGBT Amercia.
Upon his return, Nathan Manske had lunch with me and answered a few questions about their experiences and journey.
1. What was the most hopeful place you visited? The most difficult place?
Alamogordo, New Mexico, was the most hopeful. It's a tiny town that made it feel like we were transported to the 1980's. There is a missile testing site nearby and a military base. A Republican headquarters is on their main street. It's where they tested the first nuclear bomb. It's also known for their many thrift stores, which seem to be on every block. It's hopeful, though, because the LGBT people we met--a devout Catholic mother who threatened to disown her lesbian daughter while hurling dishes at her but is now accepting and part of PFLAG, and a gay man who's the owner of a thrift store who's had customers swear to never come back after realizing he's gay--have no interest or desire in leaving their small town. It's a great feeling knowing there are people like that out there, all over the country, who are making a difference in even the smallest of towns.
The most difficult place was Morgantown, West Virginia, but only for story-related reasons; we had a very difficult time finding one. It was the week of Christmas and the town was pretty much deserted. We ended up reverting to finding someone on Grindr who agreed to share his story but was a little...eccentric. Long story short, we tried to met him outside of a bar, but he insisted we follow him to his house to film his story. That's where we met his friend, who was a 65-year-old woman who bragged about her concealed handgun license and the fact she was an ex-military sniper. After entering his dark apartment, and declining a drink, we ended up leaving immediately after finishing his story. I left a few details out but it was pretty scary. What I won't do for a story, I suppose... To be fair, though, he ended up being quite nice towards the end and gave us a blanket and scarf for the cold months ahead.
2. What was the most inspiring story you recorded for your project?
I'm going to cheat and say it's always changing. The latest most inspiring one, though, is from a young man we met in Little Rock, Arkansas. He openly talks about how much of a selfish slacker he was, not caring about the queer community and the only thing "gay" meant to him was hooking up with guys. He does a complete 180, though, when he becomes surrounded by other people who care. By the end of the story, he says some pretty inspiring things about why he calls other queer people "family" instead of "community." It's comforting to know he and people like him are what will shape our community/family's future.
3. What did you find out about religion and the LGBT community?
The last part of the Tour was the South. Up until then, I had been hearing some stories dealing with religion and they would usually go somewhat as you'd expect: they grew up going to church with a religious family, found out religion doesn't look kindly on queer people, so they left the church. It wasn't until the southern states that I found more people looking for ways to balance their religion and sexuality than simply abandoning their religion. It wasn't always the case, but it did seem to be a trend.
4. Why do members of the LGBT community stay in small towns and cities?
In Grand Forks, ND, there was a young man who shared a story that touches a bit on this. He wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper expressing his disappointment in a bill being defeated, that would have prevented employment discrimination. Ironically, he was fired from his job after his bosses read it and found out he was gay. This guy is in a town that doesn't seem to care much for him, yet he organizes protests of which he's the only one who shows up, lets his opinion be known and stands up for what he believes in on a daily basis. I asked him why he doesn't go somewhere more accepting and he said if he left, who else would be there to do what's right? He stayed in his small town because he wants to do the right thing and make a difference. Others stay simply because they prefer living in small towns.
5. What was a typical day for the three of you on the road?
There were two typical days on the Tour. A travel day and a work day, although we did both every day. The typical Travel Day would begin by waking up at our hosts (we stayed with folks from the community who opened up their homes to us, not in hotels), say our goodbyes and hop in The Barn, which is the name of our big red van. We'd eat our dry cereal, fruit and snacks in the van and drive for however many hours--anywhere between 1 and 15--to our next destination. My brother was the driver, and we had a mobile wifi hotspot, so Marquise (videographer) and I could work in the backseats. We filmed every "Welcome to [State]" sign so we'd always have to keep track of that. We'd miss it sometimes and have to turn around, to grumbles and bickering. Once we arrived to our hosts, we become guests which is a job all it's own. Almost every host filmed a Video Story, though, which was great. The generosity of all the folks we stayed with quickly became a highlight of the Tour.
The typical Work Day involved filming Video Stories, having a Reading Event, usually at a youth or community center, where we read stories from the site and played Video Stories followed by a Q&A, and then sometimes we'd have a fundraiser at a bar to keep gas in the tank and our snacks stocked up.
We would also take photos of the Pink Boots in every state. The Boots started as a fundraiser idea--for people to put cash in instead of a boring old bowl or can--and people loved them. They represent queer (pink) and Texas, where Driftwood is and where I'm from. They're now pretty much the icon of IFD.
The next day, we wake up and do it all over again: Say goodbye, drive, state sign, meet hosts, sleep, wake up, Pink Boots, film Video Stories, Reading Event, fundraiser, sleep, repeat for 4 months. There was much more to it than that, but that's generally how it went. It was truly one of the most amazing and exhausting things I've ever done.
6. Tell me about the background of the powerful story out of Iowa.
We met Sam early on in the Tour, probably 4 or 5 days into it. We were in Manhattan, Kansas, speaking with LGBT Kansas State students--Sam is from Iowa but was at school in Kansas--, and he expressed interest in sharing a story so we set up a time and place the next day. The way it works is, I just tell the storytellers that I want any true story from their life involving them being LGBT (and an occasional A), Marquise starts filming and I have no idea what the story is going to be about. As you can tell in the video, Sam has a very strong and positive presence. The juxtaposition of the tragic words coming out of his mouth and his upbeat, warm and loving personality was disorienting.
After his story, I tried to ignore my own shock and dig deeper. I barely managed to get out, "Aren't you angry at your parents?" Instead of being angry at them, he tried to understand where they were coming from and is still giving them a chance to make it right. He said his daily goal is to make someone smile every day and has a smiley face poster on his ceiling so it's the first thing he sees in the morning. He's also very active on campus and helps suicidal students cope with depression. I met a lot of inspiring people on the Tour but Sam will always be the first one I think of.

for more from David visit Live from Hell's Kitchen.


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