What do you hope people take away from The Book of Pride?
What do you hope people take away from The Book of Pride?
Well, I think the primary thing as I hold a copy of the book in my hands, the first copy arrived a few days ago - I really hope people browse, and REALLY get an understanding of how people were planting seeds for what we today call the LGBT civil rights movement in many, many places, in many many communities, and in many different ways years ago. In the 1960s, 1970s. And I hope people will really appreciate the diversity of stories. As I flip through the book, we have a marriage equality pioneer like Evan Wolfson, who literally drew the map and dedicated 30+ years of his life to advancing marriage equality- that was one cause he took one and won. And then I switch to Nancy Nangeroni, who is a transgender radio host living in Albuquerque NM, and whose radio show, Gender Talk, has served thousands of visitors not only in the US but around the world over many, many years. And she may not have the high profile work of an Evan Wolfson, but she’s been instrumental in supporting so many transgender people as they took that journey around the world. And my favorite interview, perhaps because it was the first, is a man named Eric Julber. He was a young, newly minted lawyer in the 1950s, was not himself gay, but wanted to do some pro bono civil rights work. And he came across this case where the United States postal service was refusing to mail an early gay magazine called “ONE” because they deemed it to be obscene. They literally deemed it obscene. And he took on the case of this magazine pro bono, took it all the way to the US Supreme Court, and won. He was literally the first person we interviewed after I had the idea for OUTWORDS. I had read a newspaper article about him, and even though he was not LGTBQ himself, I knew his work was incredibly important to our movement. So I got myself up to Carmel, California, to get his interview in January 2015, and that was literally our first interview.
The list of interviewees on your site is truly extraordinary. You’ve profiled people like "Marriage pioneer Evan Wolfson, trans icon Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Stonewall-era rabblerouser Mark Segal, and legendary anti-DADT activist Grethe Cammermeyer." What were some of the other interesting stories you’ve uncovered along this journey?
Well, one of the stories, one of my favorite stories, is a woman named Donna Burkett, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And this is sort of how the spirit of this project has been so intuitive. We just say “OK, we’ll make a trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Who are we going to interview there?” We start digging, asking questions, and lo and behold we start to come across the name “Donna Burkett.” And we read that in 1971, Donna and her then-partner Manonia Evans, applied for a marriage license - WAYYY before marriage equality was on anyone’s radar! And Donna is an African-American woman who faced enormous challenges, partly as a result of that groundbreaking action - her family, Menonia’s family, utterly rejected them, a lot of their friends abandoned them, their relationship actually didn’t survive - but lo, these many years later, Donna was living largely forgotten by history. She’d had a stroke, lived in Public Housing, and wasn’t on anyone’s radar as an important figure in our movement. So when we were able to track her down and share her story, I think it felt so good for her to know that she is remembered and valued. And now she’s in the Book of Pride.
I’m looking at this map on my wall, and let me mention one other, K.C. Potter. Who was a long-time dean at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the conservative “Harvard of the South” as some people call it, not a friendly place to be LGBT in the 1970s or 1980s. KC was gay, he could not come out as Dean of Students at Vanderbilt, he literally could not come out and keep his job, but he provided the first safe places for LGBT students to be able to meet. And especially when homophobic articles or letters started to appear in the student newspaper, he would provide a place where students could respond, especially as the AIDS epidemic broke in the 80s and 90s, and homophobia hit record highs, he was able to support queer students at this conservative, deeply religious university. Only after he retired in the early 2000s could KC come out as a gay man, meet his partner Richard, and today, the LGBTQ center at Vanderbilt is named the “KC Potter Center.”
When I was reading the audio introduction for the Book of Pride, and I got to the story behind the KC Potter Center, I started crying. Something about that story just makes me so happy. And out of the blue, I just became a blubbering mess.
When I’d set out to create OUTWORDS, I’d done many documentary features. I knew two things: I loved interviewing people, and I knew that finishing a nonfiction program for television is a huge amount of work and stress. I decided I wasn’t going to make a documentary film. I decided I was going to gather the raw material for countless documentary films, make sure the stories were recorded for all time. And so that’s why when people ask us about creating a documentary, we say that we’re creating an archive, and hopefully out of this will come many, many documentary films.
It’s not easy to give a simple answer. There are so many different ways. When we started out, I had 2 main advisors: one was a recently published history of the LGBT movement called The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman, and that book was published in 2015, it became like my Bible, highlighting names, contacting Lillian, having her put me in touch with some of the people in the book who were still alive. And the other very very important source was a gentleman who’d worked in the Obama White House named Gautam Raghavan, and because he’d worked in the Obama White House as an LGBT Liaison, he knew people all over the country. So that’s how we got started. And from there, we also did internet research, like “Who are the amazing LGBT pioneers in Michigan,” or “Who are Asian-American LGBT Pioneers,” and then as time went on, and we did more interviews, our interview subjects would say “I’ve had a good experience, and you should interview so-and-so.” So people began referring their friends to us. There’s no doubt that our list of interviewees are random and subjective. No one could say these are the most important 133 LGBTQ people. But there are countless others we need to interview, whose stories are equally valuable, we just haven’t had the chance to reach them yet.
You work with a dedicated team to put together each interview. What kinds of feedback do you get from the people you’ve profiled? Their friends, family, and the larger community?
If you think about the experience they go through, they’ve never met me before. Oftentimes they haven’t talked to me before. And then I send a team to interview them, so there’s always a little bit of nerves, and like “Hi, I’m setting up a camera, trying to get to know you”, worrying about logistical details like a dog barking next door. It’s a rather intense first date type experience. But in the vast majority of cases, when we leave, people are happy. It’s hard to sum up a life in 2 hours, which is what we ask people to do. We don’t ask people to share their whole life story, we structure an interview, but it’s quite cathartic. People discover things about themselves. They cry. I think they feel honored, which is extremely important to me. And in the vast majority of cases, they are glad that they did it.
And then we go through a really interesting process, because we’re a professional archive, we transcribe each interview professionally, and we review it internally to make sure it has no grammatical errors, and then we send the transcript back to the subject to offer them the chance to make any corrections or delete anything they aren’t comfortable with. And that’s really interesting, because people have the urge to re-write what they said, and the written transcript has to match the video - if it stops matching the video, it becomes a totally different thing. So you can delete something if you’re not comfortable with it, but you can’t rewrite the interview. It’s a really interesting process, where people say “I can’t believe I told that story!” Or it’s another way of coming to terms with the life they’ve lived.
I think it’s really meaningful. I hear from our subjects all the times and now that the book is coming out, people are asking me if they’re included - and unfortunately not everyone can be included, but everyone will be on the digital platform. The digital platform is launching on May 21 along with the book. The Book is a sneak peek, a little taste of what the archive contains. But our pledge and our mission from Day 1 has been to make all of our content fully and freely available, like a big library you can wander into whenever you want, spend as long as you want, and it doesn’t cost you a penny. That’s our pledge, that’s essential that there’s no barriers - if someone can get on a computer, they can access our interviews, read the transcripts, look at photos, learn about who these people were, and that all launches on May 21st at the OUTWORDS Archive. We’re starting with 40 interviews just to get it up and running, and over the next 6 months to 1 year, we’ll be adding the rest of our interviews as well as new interviews we’ll be shooting in the coming months and years. We provide mini-profiles online, but we have so much to do in terms of fleshing out all the amazing content we have.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Does that underscore the urgency and importance to you of capturing these stories?
Well, what I would say is yes. It really provided, in practical terms, it gave us a super-important milestone to aim for as we were building this archive. I said to Harper-Collins our publisher - and I want to give them a shoutout, they’ve been amazing - it was 3 years ago, and I said “June 2019 is coming up, it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.” So we pointed our ship towards June 2019! It was a happy coincidence, but I knew in 3 years we could build a beautiful archive and book. And the other thing that creates urgency is the simple awareness our subjects are mortal. At least 3 of our interview subjects passed away since we interviewed them. Donna Red Wing passed away a few weeks after we interviewed her. She fought battles coast to coast, ended up living in Des Moines, and we heard she had cancer, and we detoured a team to capture her interview in March 2018, and she passed away six weeks later. So that’s a very very tangible indication of the fact that these people are in their latter years, and every day, I hear someone saying “Oh did you hear about so-and-so, they just passed away and would be an amazing interview.” So the thing that lends the most urgency is the fact that these people aren’t going to be around much longer, and we are hard-pressed to reach them in time. They have to be physically with us, and have the capacity to tell their stories. So this weighs on me all the time. We do what we can, but we hope to do a lot more in the coming months and years.
The other thing that adds urgency is having experienced a very supportive administration and leadership in Washington with the Obama White House, we’re now in a totally different climate. President Trump has instituted a ban on Transgender people serving in the Military, which is not just ethically and morally wrong, it’s factually wrong. So we are in a time where we’re experiencing blowback, pushback on the advances we’ve made in the past 50-60 years. And that lends urgency to our work as well. We have to make sure our history is recorded so it cannot be erased. Because as we know in this fake news era, there’s no limit to the history or facts that people will try to erase if they are given the chance.
For someone who’s just learning about OUTWORDS, how would you recommend someone start to experience the archive?
Go to the site, and that’s it. Poke around, watch some of our clips. But if you go now, be sure to come back on May 21st, when the entire website and platform will undergo a total updating, transformation, and renewal, with unbelievable amounts of brand-new content available to explore, dig in, get inspired and go on from there.
Also buy the Book of Pride!
Can you share a story of someone who’s been impacted by OUTWORDS?
Yes. We were contacted by a student who lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He’s a college student. And he - I don’t even know how he heard about us, but he said “OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG.” He’s a young gay student, I forget what institution he attends, but it’s probably small, remote, rural, in the middle of what’s referred to as a Red State. So he was so excited to feel connected to a much larger sense of who he is. In a way, his own sense of himself as a young gay man expanded exponentially when he felt these tentacles of these stories connecting him to people as far away as Maine, Hawaii, Florida, but also right next door in Arkansas or Texas or Iowa. People whose experiences have been similar to his. It’s one thing to hear about the story of an LGBTQ pioneer in a big city like San Francisco, but that may seem as foreign to you as a place in another country. But if you learn about people who come from states or places like yours, experiencing things similar to what you’ve experienced, that’s so powerful to enable a young person to not feel alone. To know that he or she are not alone, and other people in both their age range and al to older have gone down that path, have survived, have been rejected by their churches or families, and are still standing. If they got knocked down, they go back up.
We interviewed a guy who runs a gay bar in a town in Texas that - I kid you not - is called “Gun Barrel City, Texas.” That’s the name of the town. You can’t dream it up. And this guy runs a gay bar there. And he’s a Trump supporter. But his bar provides a safe place for LGBTQ people in this remote part of Texas to talk, get together, have fun. He has people who drive from 50-60 miles away, or people who are in the closet and can’t come out in their regular lives, but for a little while, they can come to his bar, be safe, be who they are, and have some fun, have a beer. And that’s amazing. Without that resource, where would these people go? They would have no way to find anybody. And maybe someday down the road, they’ll gain the courage, the readiness, to come out a bit more fully in their lives.
That’s a long way of saying this kid in Stillwater, we made a big impact on his life. And I think we have the ability to impact a lot more young people, in smaller towns, but also in big cities, it can be very lonely to come out, to come to terms with yourself, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, who am I, what am I. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, I believe learning about people who have gone through struggles similar to yours and are still standing, I believe that’s one of the most powerful gestures of support someone can receive.
It must be very emotionally challenging at times to do the work you do. How do you stay inspired?
Well, my first response is literally it’s not hard at all to stay inspired. I don’t find that my inspiration is ever far away. Granted, having said that, I come to the office, I work alone, my team is distributed, we work a bit together but mostly wherever we live and work, so most days I work alone, I’m constantly trying to raise money, I’m constantly worrying about whether my nonprofit has an HR handbook, or talking to my accountant, all the nuts and bolts of just building a nonprofit organization. Those details, at times, have the capacity to wear me down, and as I’ve said to friends on passion, “I feel like I’m doing everything except what I was initially inspired to do, which is conduct interviews.” So at times, it can get a little lonesome, and who has a passion for HR, or talking to their accountant? Some people maybe, but not me! But at the same time, the overriding importance of the mission, the overriding sense of awe at the stories I get to hear and convey to the world, and above all the overriding sense of honor. I’ve been honored to have this opportunity, I didn’t do anything to get this, it just landed in my lap. An those feelings (which are never far below the surface for me) rise up like hot air balloons and keep me going.
And whenever I talk about OUTWORDS, it all comes back. I just get so excited.
How can we best stay updated on you and OUTWORDS?
You can follow us on Facebook:
You can follow us on Instagram, same handle:
Those are the two best ways. We aren’t very good yet, but hopefully today I’m hiring a social media person for the first time. And hopefully that presence will expand in the coming weeks and months! And May 21st, come visit the new platform. And among the things that elevated OUTWORDS was taking a desk at WeWork in 2017, whether it was practical support from fellow members or being nominated for and winning at the WeWork Creator Awards in May 2018, honestly we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
And I wish we could have a party online, but starting on May 21 there will be a new version of our website with SO Much amazing content for people to watch. We have podcasts as well as videos, so people can download the five podcasts to listen to, as well as our videos, and we’ll be constantly adding more content as we go forward.