Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg.
Phil: And I’m from Brooklyn, New York.
Alex: And I’m from Philly.
Phil: I’m a podcast host, a stylist, a wedding, officiant and storyteller at heart.
Alex: I’m a host, producer and journalist. Recently I hosted a morning show from Buzzfeed news. I also play roller Derby, have three cats, and I live with my wife in Brooklyn.
Phil: I just love being queer because oftentimes it feels like I’m part of this big, large family that accepts me just as I am.
Alex: I love being a queer, bisexual femme, because I love queer and trans people. I love being part of a community that challenges me and makes me feel seen for who I am.
Phil: I am so excited to host the I’m From Driftwood Podcast, as a host and storyteller, I’m always looking to highlight the unique experiences of LGBTQ+ people to bring focus to our experiences, but also to increase the visibility of all the diversity within our community.
Alex: I’m excited to host the I’m From Driftwood Podcast, because I love listening to the stories of LGBTQ+ people and that ultimately these stories can make people feel affirmed or even be used as a tool to help teach others to affirm them.
Phil: I hope what listeners get out of listening to the podcast is a level of comradery, perhaps permission where it’s needed.
Alex: And I love being able to highlight the many ways that LGBTQ+ people are not a monolith.
Phil: Welcome to the first episode of I’m From Driftwood.
Alex: Yes, welcome everybody. We are so excited you’ve decided to give us a listen. You’ve just heard a little about us, your hosts. But for our first episode, we thought you should get to know a little more about I’m From Driftwood.
Phil: And Alex, who better do that with other than our founder and executive director, Nathan Manske, as well as our program director, Damien Mittlefehldt.
There’s so much I want to discuss. So let’s jump right in, Nathan. What is I’m From Driftwood and where did it come from?
Nathan: I’m From Driftwood is a nonprofit organization that collects firstiperson LGBTQ+ stories. Back in 2008, I had seen the film Milk. It was just a moving film. And the morning after watching the film, I was thinking about a popular photograph of Harvey Milk.
And he was in the San Francisco pride March. And I believe it was 1978 and he was sitting on the hood of a car and he was holding this big sign that read “I’m from Woodmere, New York.” And I just kept thinking about that sign over and over again, and why it was having such an impact on me. And I realized that it was because he’s known as being a big figure in San Francisco, where it’s known as, you know, this big queer Mecca where everyone can go and everyone there’s gay and it’s all accepting and great, but he’s not from there. He’s from this town that, you know, most people, no offense to any Woodmerians, but most people have never heard of it. And I connected with it so much because I was, when this was happening, I was living in Brooklyn, but I’m not from there.
I’m from a town called Driftwood, Texas, and it just meant so much to me. I was like, man, that message that I just felt of You’re not alone, I knew that I wanted to get that message out there through storytelling. So, you know, it was really – what I got from that photograph of Harvey Milk and him proclaiming that, you know, he’s not from San Francisco, he’s from this town that no one’s ever heard of. And I thought that that would be a really powerful message for other people.
It’s funny. Some people are like, Oh, I love the name “I’m From Driftwood” because your destiny, controlled by waves of society. And I’m like, Oh no, no, no, no. I appreciate that… that credit for being that smart and creative, but no, I’m just from a town called Driftwood.
Alex: Nathan, that was so beautiful. I love hearing the story about Harvey Milk and how that inspired you. So how did you take that from point A of seeing that photo and reflecting on the meaning and what it meant to you to then turning the idea for I’m From Driftwood into a reality?
Nathan: This was in late 2008, so it was at the height of the great recession. My own personal story goes, I saw Milk on a Wednesday. I thought of this idea, thinking about that photograph, on a Thursday. And Friday, I used to work in advertising as a copywriter and I went into my job and I was laid off. So those three days were just massively important to the creation of I’m From Driftwood.
And I was kind of looking for something else that – this is gonna sound very cheesy – but that my heart cared about, that a little more than selling products, where if I’m successful, it means that someone sold more products that I have no connection to. So I knew that I was – this transition period in my own life, I liked that feeling of fame purpose.
There’s no way this would have happened without the help of so many people. Like the universe was like, “You need this? Here you go!” And I actually try not to use the word magic because this is really… just again with the cheese, like it’s my faith in humanity. And just knowing that people do want to help.
And I had the idea and then I told everyone about it, and then we moved really quick on it. You know, we launched in March, 2009 and I was laid off in late December of 2008.
Phil: Speaking about people wanting to help. Damien, I’m curious. When did you get involved with I’m From Driftwood? How did that come about?
Damien: I would say I’ve been involved with I’m From Driftwood in an informal basis pretty much since its beginning. I became friends with Nate probably days or weeks after I started dating my boyfriend, Rafi, now husband Rafi. I would help out at fundraisers. I would contribute written stories. Rafi and I sat down for a video story, I think in like the first year or something like that.
But then I actually became videographer for Driftwood in, I want to say 2014. I was doing contract videographer, video editor work for Driftwood, and then came on full time in 2017.
Alex: So what role do you exactly have today? How would you describe it?
Damien: So I’m the Program Director and I’m From Driftwood. And that obviously involves filming and we have, in addition to producing in Philly, which is what I do, production teams in New York City, Austin. In addition, I managed some other programs like our Live Storytelling, events, screenings. And as of now, Podcasts is a part of my portfolio, which was great and very exciting. And of course, Nathan and I being the only two employees of this organization, there’s some other non-programmatic areas in my portfolio, like organizing fundraisers, working with Nathan on grants, and things like that.
Alex: One of the coolest things about your job sounds like you get to listen to all different kinds of stories from LGBTQ+ people. Were there specific reasons that you want it to be involved in I’m From Driftwood?
Damien: Well, there’s two. I would say one is like, basically, since I was in my twenties, I wanted to be a filmmaker in some capacity. I would always have fun doing that. And so Driftwood sort of scratches that itch.
Beyond that, and this is going to sound a little saccharin, I guess, but when I, prior to coming on Driftwood, onto the team, I worked in the New York City Council doing legislative policy work in civil rights and consumer protection.
And there were some boring days of course, but one of the things that kind of gave me enthusiasm for the job was the fact that we were passing legislation that in theory was helping other people. It was sort of great to have this Venn diagram of helping people and doing video work. So Driftwood, not only do I get to be creative in some capacity, but I also get to create content that is helping others feel less alone or, you know, being able to relate to the community and things like that.
Phil: Nathan, I have a question. I’m guessing not so much so now, but maybe throughout the years of doing I’m from definitely was there ever a time you received some criticism or negative feedback to what you guys are doing?
Nathan: So whenever we publish a story we share on different social media outlets and like Facebook, for example, and we spend a little money for each story to promote it and boost it. Otherwise it kind of gets buried under all the content on Facebook. So because of that, it’s showing up in people’s feeds who might not have an interest in I’m From Driftwood or LGBTQ stories or, based on their comments, anything outside of their little world. And so I would say indirectly yes, through the stories. And over time have become a little hardened and I let those go. It’s just a Facebook troll. Why get worked up over it?
But then you look at our YouTube comments and it’s just consistently one wonderful comment after the next. And I think, or the reasoning of that difference is because our YouTube audience has been built so organically. You know, we have about 88,000 subscribers now, and we haven’t done any YouTube – we just started doing YouTube advertising, but all those 88,000 people, it’s just been people who find it and subscribe. And it’s become kind of like this community. I start recognizing their avatars and their names.
And even sometimes there might be a comment that seems a little confrontational, but then somebody from the YouTube community, like one of our followers will respond to it and it actually becomes this conversation and that’s really what we want. And that’s why we wanted to do podcasts, is kind of guide more conversations around the stories.
Phil: This is a question for both of you guys after years of looking at these amazing stories. Are there stories that really impacted you in some way?
Damien: There is one story that I filmed with our producer in New York, I think last year, about a young man named Ben.
Ben: Hi, my name is Ben Conard and I’m from Setauket, New York.
Damien: He was in the closet and his sort of internalized anxiety was manifesting itself in ways that weren’t healthy and it was just almost crippling him.
Ben: Deep down, I knew that I was gay and I couldn’t come to terms with that. And that was not part of my plan and my journey in my life. I had felt so uncomfortable with who I was. I genuinely wanted to have it end.
For weeks I had these debilitating panic attacks. A couple of weeks later, I just kind of got over them. I used to have this credit card knife. So it was a… it would like slip into my wallet and it was like a utility knife that you could bring anywhere. And I remember taking that out of my wallet, opening it up, and I just started cutting my wrist. It was because I wanted to, I don’t know, feel pain that felt real, like the emotional pain was real, but I couldn’t see it or, or understand it really. And so this kind of form of physical pain and harm was the only way that I could feel it.
I remember one day I called home and my sister answered. she said, “Hello?” And I had no words to answer back. And I finally, after the third, hello, I broke down into tears.
Kate, my sister, told me, “Look, Ben, I think I know what’s happening. And I have this sisterly vibe that you’re going to be okay. And that whatever it is, we’re going to get through it.” And that when I’m ready, I should be able to tell my sister anything.
And she said, “I’m ready. Are you?”
And I said, Kate, “I’m gay.” In that moment, I felt so much fear and so much relief all at the same time.
And I remember my sister said, you know, “Oh, this is wonderful. This is, you know, going to save your life. And I’m so excited for what’s to come for you. Now, you need to tell mom and dad.” And, you know, in a matter of minutes I had come out to my family. After coming out to my family, I came out to close friends, and I felt like I could really be myself. I suddenly felt like I could. Have a future that I wanted to live in.
Damien: It was the story basically about mental health and, and the overlap with kind of keeping this part of your identity hidden and all that. And I think to some degree, a lot of us who’ve been in the closet have dealt with that anxiety. I think maybe all of us have. I thought it was brave of him to be candid about his own struggles. And I think there’s probably a lot of folks that can relate to his story.
Phil: What about you? Nathan?
Nathan: There was one that I always go back to and we filmed it… it was over 10 years ago now. Her name is Ashley.
Ashley: I’m Ashley Jackson. I grew up in Brandon, Mississippi. I live in Jackson, Mississippi now.
Nathan: It’s sort of similar to Ben story that Damian just talked about. The dangers of the closet.
Ashley: I was seeing a woman when I was 21. She was a good bit older than me. But, you know, I was telling myself I’m not really gay. I just liked her as a person. And I was seeing a guy at the same time and they both knew about each other, but I was… I was kind of going through the motions with him, obviously. And I really cared for her, but it was a very unhealthy relationship
On my birthday, which is Christmas Eve, I had been out with friends and were buying me shots and it was great. And the girl I was seeing, came to one of the bars I was at and she was like, “Oh, I’m going to take you to go see a friend. It’s gonna be great.”
And I was like, “I’m really close to home. I’ve been drinking a lot. I should just go home.” And she was like, no.She convinced me. And so I went with her and. I ended up having a huge argument because she was upset that I was seeing the guy and I ended up attempting to drive myself home, which I should not have done.
You know, I was like, you know, yeah, people get in accidents, they have DUIs, whatever. That’s not going to happen to me that only happens to those other people that are complete idiots.
And I passed out driving on the interstate. I was not wearing a seatbelt and I fell into the passenger seat. As I was driving and I remember telling myself, okay, Ashley, you’re driving. You need to get up. And when I did that, I used my left hand on the wheel as leverage to pull myself up. And I did that and I jerked the car to the left and went over four lanes on the interstate and smashed into a concrete guardrail. I don’t know how long I was there. I don’t know who found me, but I ended up in the hospital for over a week and shattered my left ankle. I had 50 plus stitches in my face and had to move back in with my mom.
It was easy to drink all the time. And you know, that was one thing I could control in my life. I couldn’t control the feelings I had for women. I couldn’t control what other people would think about me being in a relationship with a woman, but I could drink. And that made me fun. And that made it easier to date guys. Or to be in reckless relationships and, you know, unprotected sex and being promiscuous and all of these things.
Having that self destructive life led to me almost killing myself, unintentionally driving on an interstate at 70 miles per hour and no seatbelt and flying across four lanes and not hitting anyone else and surviving. If that’s not a wake up call, I don’t know what is.
Nathan: Her story really showed how it impacts your entire life. You know, so for her to go back and to share that dark time in her life and how it actually impacted all these different aspects of her life, I thought it was just so brave and honest and important for people to see.
Alex: I love this idea that you’re trying to create more of a conversation because all of these stories, they have a completely different life. I think once you put them out in the world and once viewers own them for themselves, So that brings us to the Podcast. So why did you want to turn I’m From Driftwood into a Podcast?
Nathan: People have been asking for it for so long. Because 11 years ago, YouTube was new-ish. And it’s crazy to think about it but social media was kind of new and it was kind of the perfect time for I’m From Driftwood to start. But over the years there’s been so many different forms of media. And part of what we do is try to keep up is the feeling.
You know, it’s like, oh, now we have to upload directly to Instagram for Instagram TV, but also it’s like, Or do we? You know, Is there enough people watching? So it’s constantly kind of feeling it out, but podcasts have been around for awhile and so many conversations in my own life from people around me start with, “I was listening to a podcast…” And podcasts seem to lend themselves better towards conversations, as opposed to only on YouTube.
I feel like podcasts, you’d take with you into your own world, whereasa YouTube is almost like a transaction. Like, I process this, I felt it, I feel not alone, my feeling changed and now I’m done.
And one time we have the annual brunch fundraiser in Philadelphia and we had a volunteer who’s always there helping us. And she came up to me afterwards and she said, “I just love what y’all do.”
And I said, “Thank you so much.”
And she was like, “But I’ve never watched a story.”
And I was like, “What?? How do you… how do you know what we do then?”
And she said,” I just, I love the idea of storytelling. I know it’s important.” And she’s an ally. You know, she has a lot of LGBTQ+ friends and she said, “I’m just addicted to podcasts. That’s how I consume my media and my stories and my news.” And her one channel is podcasts. And there’s no way, she’s the only person out there like that. You know, that’s very anecdotal. Like, you know, we’re not doing it just for her, but I know that a lot of people do consume media that way. So we want to make sure that these stories are available to as many different people as possible and as many different ways as possible.
Phil: You know, I agree that it does lend a certain level of being very intimate and it gives it a bit of feeling that you might not get from the video or whatever the case is.
Alex: Let’s look forward a little bit. Just what are your hopes for the future of this podcast? What kind of impact do you hope it makes? What kind of stories do you hope we tell?
Nathan: So what I hope happens from this Podcast is I want more people to be exposed to these stories that we have, that we’ve collected over the past 11 years. And out there somewhere at least once, and I know it will, but someone’s like, “Hey, I was listening to this podcast and it was about immigration. And it kind of put this whole issue of immigration in a way that I hadn’t thought about it before.” And it uses a queer lens for that. And it starts a conversation between a group of people.
Damien: I get kind of excited when I see the number of followers on our YouTube channel increase. Or just, you know, a big hit in terms of views and that sort of thing. One of the great things about the podcast is that we’re delivering our content in a new-to-us format. So that means we’re developing a new audience. And so I always get kind of excited when we brainstorm about different ways to get our stories out there, because they’re really valuable stories. I’m just excited to see what the audience is going to think.
Ben: People can be going through things without you knowing it. Sometimes it manifests into something physical and begins to break your body down. And other times it doesn’t. And I think it’s important that we all know that, in ourselves and in the people in our lives so that we can be supportive when we need to be and help each other out.
Ashley: I realized I was hiding from who. I was who I was born to be. And, I couldn’t do that anymore. I couldn’t live my life for other people anymore. And I told myself, okay, you’re gay.
Damien: One thing that I’ve said to people when they ask why we do these stories is, well, they’re, you know, is to increase empathy, you know, between the listener and the storyteller. And what I say is, yeah, of course, you know, we need more empathy. From the non LGBTQ+ community, but also within our own community, we tend to put ourselves into these little columns and sometimes – not everyone – sometimes a lot of people just stay there and don’t seek to learn about the lived experiences of other members, of our community. For you know, a cis gay white man to hear the experience of someone who is not, that is critically important.
Nathan:I feel like a lot of people are going to learn about I’m From Driftwood for the first time and that’s really exciting. Then I look to all these other ways of telling stories and I can get equally excited about that. So, you know, we’ve done live storytelling in the past. I’d love to do more of that. I’m a huge comic book geek. So I’d love to do, like, graphic novels. I’d love to have like a regular ongoing theater production. Basically just if you take a step back and think about how many ways you can tell a story, I want I’m From Driftwood to have a presence in every single way that we’ll tell stories. And I think that’s wrapped up into the excitement of sharing these stories with the podcast audience or the podcast world.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil AKA Corinne
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe.
Phil: The podcast is recorded as part of. I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQ+ story archive, and is funded in part from TD bank and Heritage of Pride New York.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood was created by Nathan Manske to help queer and trans people learn more about their community, help straight people learn more about their neighbors and help everyone learn more about themselves all through the power of storytelling. The IFD program director is Damien Mittlefehldt. The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more …
Phil: At ImFromDriftwood.org. Please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. And our score is provided by ElevateAudio. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
Alex: Thank y’all for listening.