On March 24, 2009, then ad man, Nathan Manske, 30, launched a site that he hoped would uplift the growing number of LGBT teens who meet and network online—many who struggle without allies or resources.
imfromdriftwood.com was inspiration by Gus Van Sant’s award-winning biopic, “MILK,” starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
“The film made me think about a photograph of Harvey sitting on the hood of a car in the San Francisco Pride March holding a sign that read “I’m From Woodmere, NY,” Manske writes from his New York apartment.
“It made me think that gay people are everywhere, and that that would be a comforting thought to queer youth.”
Now Imfromdriftwood.com is a thriving archive of LGBT stories from across the country—an anthropological study of the Kinsey-esque scope—with a small staff, big goals, and new book collection.
You recently returned from a 50-state tour of the U.S., can you share a little bit about how this trip came about?
My friend Marquise and I had been filming Video Stories for I’m From Driftwood for about a year when I realized something was missing. All the people we had filmed so far had made a decision to move to a big city, either Philadelphia–where Marquise lives–or New York, where I live. Part of the purpose of the site is to show that LGBT people are everywhere to help queer youth realize they’re not alone. So if I want to show that LGBT people are everywhere, I need to get out of New York and Philly. I wanted to get deep into America and collect stories from other big cities, but also smaller towns. I got Marquise on board, he quit his job, I got my brother on board to be our driver, he quit his job, we did a lot—a whole lot—of planning and then on September 6, hit the open road.
How did you raise the money for this?
We raised the bulk of the money by creating an I’m From Driftwood page on an online fundraising site called KickStarter. You set a goal of how much you want to raise and people start pledging different amounts. If you reach your goal in pledges, you get the money. If not, you don’t get any of it and no one is charged any money. It’s a good way to get you to choose a realistic goal.
We set the bar at $15,000 and we ended up raising just over $16,000. That’s nowhere near enough for a 4-month tour, though, considering we had to buy a van and lots of camera and computer equipment. So we had a lot of fundraisers at bars in New York and Philly.
Even after all that, we only raised enough money to get started but didn’t have enough to finish so we had fundraisers along the way. We did it all without any corporate sponsorship, which made it much more difficult, but I like that it was only possible because a whole lot of people from the community came together and made it happen. We’re still raising money by selling books and taking donations to help pay off some debt we accumulated.
Thanks to Facebook, I was able to follow you on your trip in many ways, by reading your status updates and seeing the uploaded photos. What was one of the most exciting or moving moments while on the road?
Visiting Alaska was very memorable. It felt like a foreign trip on a domestic tour. I really had no idea what to expect from the people or places or community but what I found was that the LGBT community there was very tight-knit and diverse. We collected stories from teens in Wasilla and one from a villager, which is what native Alaskans call themselves. I know it’s feeding the stereotype a little to say it felt like a foreign land, but it did in the best way possible.
A quick little story…we were leaving Wasilla on our last day in Alaska, going back to Anchorage, and I told a new friend we had met who was driving us around that I was bummed I never got to have a moose burger. He explained restaurants can’t serve moose; you actually have to hunt them to eat them. He then told me he has a lesbian hunter friend who usually has some fresh moose in her freezer. He called her up and sure enough…we stopped by her place and she gave us some moose sausage. Moose sausage from a lesbian hunter in Alaska. Memorable indeed.
The towns and cities you visited are a far cry from New York City’s Chelsea or West Village. Did you ever feel discrimination for being gay or unsafe while traveling?
Early on in the trip, based on an experience I had in Oklahoma, I made a promise to myself that I would never hide or lie to strangers when they ask what we’re doing, and I kept that promise. I talked to gas station attendants, car mechanics and folks on the street who were curious and I never had a single negative reaction. Most of the conversations ended with well wishes and safe travels.
The IFD book captures many of the stories we read online into a compact, travel-size digest reader. What was the most challenging aspect of taking the vision from online video and diaries to printed word?
The hardest part was choosing which stories to feature in the book. There are just over 50 stories in the book but online there are so many really great ones. It helped a lot once I decided to break the book up into different topics and chapters. I also tried to be mindful of the readers’ emotions. These are all true stories and can be pretty heavy sometimes, so I tried to maintain an emotional balance so that if you read a depressing story, it’s followed by a more light-hearted one.
Do you ever keep in touch with any of the contributors or are the stories purely anonymous?
The writers can be as anonymous as they want but most people submit their full name. With Facebook now, it’s much easier to stay in touch with folks. I don’t have too much contact with the authors whose stories are published in the IFD Book, but I stay in semi-regular contact with several people I met on the tour. Meeting people face to face, you create more of a connection.
Back in 2009 or so, I was lucky enough to do a video with you! Remember that? Good times. Do you still welcome more video interviews?
Of course I remember! You didn’t just do “a” Video Story, you were the first person to ever do an I’m From Driftwood Video Story. It was after yours and the other we filmed that day that I knew this was going to work. It was such a cute story. I remember we tried filming in a park and got kicked out because it was owned by the state and you have to have a permit.
We filmed about 175 Video Stories on the tour so we are in over our head with editing. We’re going to take a little hiatus in terms of actually filming stories but we are always in desperate need of written stories.
Just think…you might be in the next IFD anthology!
I was particularly moved by Eliot Ryan’s story, “I’m From Payson, UT” (pg 53). The story is about a military veteran who served 10 months in Iraq and is now coping from PTSD and finally coming to grips with their trans identity. How do you react to stories like this one?
These are especially the kinds of stories I want to get out there. You get to witness first-hand what the author is going through and regardless of your gender or sexual identity, you begin to understand the struggles she’s going through. Every now and then I read a story and think, “I wish everyone would read this.” This was one of those.
Another particularly moving story comes from anonymous in “I’m from Farmington, CT” (pg 65). This young man is struggling with suicide and is very depressed and perhaps ashamed of his homosexuality. He ends his story with “I pray that things will eventually get better…that one day, I’ll be able to feel a sense of worth again.” That’s a powerful call for help that delves to the heart of you site’s mission. How do you respond to a story like that?
I sent the author an email ensuring him that all the difficult situations he’s in right now will improve if he continues being honest with himself and others. Here’s a young man who’s already accepted being gay, been honest with others so much that he sent a Facebook message to a classmate letting him know he likes him, and is confronting his issues head on. Pretty big stuff for a teenager. And the great thing about the stories on the website is that people can leave comments. Sure enough, IFD readers banned together and left one encouraging comment after another. Sharing stories is therapeutic not just for getting it out there and sharing it, but also hearing what others think about it.
What did you think of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Campaign?
To be honest, I was a little intimidated by it at first. I felt like we were the little gay engine that could, going around the country doing what we can to collect true LGBT stories and then this Dan Savage-driven juggernaut takes the country by storm and President Obama is suddenly doing an “It Gets Better” video.
But then I took a step back, set my ego aside and realized how important both projects are, how different they are and how, despite their similarities, they’re tackling different issues in different ways. IGB is a laser-focused message dealing with LGBT bullying and suicide. IFD is a broader archive of queer stories helping people feel less alone.
Some people unfairly, I think, criticized “It Gets Better” for a few reasons, but come on…it’s helping people. Is it a silver bullet that ended LGBT suicide? Of course not. There isn’t one. But some people need to hear “it gets better”; some need to hear “you’re not alone.” There can never be too many ways to help queer youth and we should only encourage more.
Of course not all of the stories in the book are so heart wrenching. There are plenty of triumphs and wonderful uplifting moments. Can you share a story from the book that you find particularly hopeful?
I don’t think there’s any type of story more hopeful than love stories. If you’re struggling to come out or come to terms with your own sexuality, a love story sends so many positive messages. There’s one that definitely sticks out; he’s from Queens, NY (page 93), and his story is about the first time he told his boyfriend that he loves him. You’re right there with him during his anxiety and nervousness and at the end you just want to jump up and cheer.
There’s another one—a coming out story—that I usually read at all the reading events we have. It’s the first story in the book, it’s only about half a page but it is incredibly impactful and I think sets the proper tone for the rest of the book: hopeful and rewarding.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the future of IFD?
I’m in the process of turning IFD into a non-profit. I want to be a “story getter and sharer” for lack of a better term. There are many ways to tell a story and I want to utilize them all. I want to tell true queer stories through graphic novels, podcasts, TV shows, film, spoken word, radio, more books, etc. I know these stories are helping people so I want to make sure they’re seen, heard and read by as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. They deserve to be.
Thank you for your time Nathan! Keep up the amazing work. You’re an inspirational human.