I’m From Driftwood: Celebrating Nine Years of Coming Out Stories

by Sebastian Fortino
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While the collective LGBTQ community sort of hates having to come out, wondering why “is straight the default,” as does Simon in “Love, Simon” we also find great strength in our coming out stories. Nine years ago, Nathan Manske decided he would share our coming out stories.  

“I started I'm From Driftwood because I wanted to get stories out there, as many ways as possible,” Manske told me from his home in Brooklyn, NY. “The whole purpose is to help people in smaller towns realize they are not alone, and get their stories out there as quickly as possible.”

Initially, he saw these collected stories as a book. However, he realized having these first-person stories in written form wasn’t enough. The format quickly embraced video of subjects sharing their personal histories of coming out.

“A month after [the website started] one of my now board members, Marquise Lee, had the idea of doing video stories. We experimented one weekend, of someone sitting down and telling their story,” Manske adding that at first he was skeptical. “But after the first two he really showed me how great they could be. Once we published the first video stories I could tell people really connected with them. You can see how people move and act more than a written story. It’s just a different way to connect.”

Now, nine years later, Manske and his colleague Damien Mittlefehldt have a collection of close to 700 written stories. While that number is amazing the amount of video stories is rather astounding: they have 500 video stories. They started doing them when time allowed.

“At first we kind of did them when we could. Sometimes two or three a week, sometimes. It wasn’t until we got our first major grant from the Palette Fund in 2014 that allowed us to put more structure into the organization. That’s when weekly videos started to come out. So, every single Wednesday we publish a new video story.”

According to their website, The Palette Fund “supports trailblazers creating change throughout the world and places a priority on funding collaborative partnerships among organizations that strengthen the health and leadership of the LGBTQ community and next generation of philanthropists.”

In 2010 there was already such a response from Manske’s stories that they did a tour of all fifty states. The four month adventure took them to Hawaii, and even Alaska. Lately they have been focusing on stories from locals in New York, (my native) Philadelphia, D.C., Chicago, and Montreal.

“We often find stories through different partners, such as SAGE,” the LGBT group for seniors, “They help us find storytellers, as does Comcast/NBC Universal, from their employees. We also worked with United AIrlines. It’s not always corporate,” he told PQ. “We try to keep it rooted in the community with as many people who want to share their stories and worked with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.”

They try to go back to the communities from whence the stories came after they cut and edit the video. Once they go back they present the films in a venue, and engage in live storytelling.

Manske and Mittlefehldt have achieved enough success, that I’m From Driftwood is their main work. I also reached out to Mittlefehldt, his videographer and editor, with whom I share a friend in common. I also knew him socially in New York.  

“I've been a supporter of I'm From Driftwood since its inception, and served in volunteer capacities for a long time,” he told me. “About four years ago, I began filming and editing IFD's video stories on a contract basis. In 2017, I joined IFD full-time as a Program Director.”

When I was acquainted with him he was pursuing a career in politics. But, he left the New York City Council in 2013 and took an intensive course in filmmaking at New York University’s School of professional studies. In 2017 he became the Program Director for IFD.

While Manske says he was not necessarily politically motivated to create IFD, Mittlefehldt had a different response.

“The appeal was definitely related to politics. When I was a Legislative Policy Analyst at the City Council, my areas of focus were primarily related to civil rights and consumer protection,” he said of the connection. “So basically, I got to work on legislation that would positively impact people's lives. When you're doing research on these issues, you can't help but develop a lot of empathy for the people whose lives your trying to improve. Similarly, knowing that these LGBTQ narratives can positively impact the viewer and increase empathy is very appealing!”

When asked if the pair have any any favorite stories, and they easily could given that several celebrities have appeared in their work. Influential people such as Annise Parker, the first out mayor of Houston, gay icon and actor Allen Cumming, transgender activist and actor Laverne Cox, who they got before her work on “Orange is the New Black,” and Brian Simms, the first openly-gay elected representative in Pennsylvania. Despite that, Manske said he prefers the stories of normal, everyday people, because these are most likely to resonate to kids from Driftwood and Altoona, Natchez and Canby.

For Mittlefehldt, my old friend Damien, it’s much more sentimental, it’s related to his partner of ten years, his husband Rafi Mittlefehldt.

“Pretty early on, I'm From Driftwood shot a video story featuring my then-boyfriend/now husband, Rafi, and me. We had been dating just over a year and we shared a story about our first date. We've been together for almost ten years, so it's very fun to revisit once in a while.”

Their work, and their collected stories, will continue to chronicle queer lives. They raised over $9,000 this week in honor of their ninth anniversary. Here’s Portland’s former mayor Sam Adams. Here’s Laverne Cox. Here’s a Seattle piece. And, embarrassingly, here is a 29-year-old me first learning how to write.

Visit I’m From Driftwood to browse the archives, and keep up with the latest stories.