Bar owners. Artists. People of faith. Protesters. Pioneers. These are just some of the types of folks who built up the LGBTQ+ movement over generations.
In time for Pride month, Mason Funk, who has been collecting their stories for the digial archive, OUTWORDS, has curated these interviews for his new book, The Book of Pride, celebrating the accomplishments of the veterans of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, including activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Native American poet Crisosto Apache, and attorney Evan Wolfson.
Here Funk talks to Out about what he’s learned creating an archive of these powerful interviews, and what his life would have been like if OUTWORDS existed when he was a gay teen.
What was the original goal in mind, when you established OUTWORDS?
Initially, the goal was to record in-depth interviews with the people who were at the forefront of the American LGBT civil rights movement. I knew I had benefited tremendously from their courageous activism and I wanted to make sure their stories were recorded and preserved forever. As the project got underway, I also realized that our history contains immense practical wisdom that can be used by other individuals and groups seeking to secure their rights, improve their visibility, and participate more fully in our society. I became passionate about not only capturing, but sharing the stories of America’s queer pioneers and elders, so that other people could benefit from what they went through, what they survived, and what they learned along the way.
Over the course of doing this project, what have you learned about LGBTQ+ people in America, or just in general?
About LGBTQ+ people in America, I’ve learned the most about the fascinating diversity of our community and our movement, including the unique paths, and contributions of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and how different their journeys were from mine. They dealt with and overcame various types of discrimination all at the same time, whereas for me, as a privileged white male, I only confronted one type of discrimination.
I’ve learned that the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t all feel the same way about most topics. We diverge wildly in our opinions on things from politics to religion to the best, most effective ways to create change. Some of us are more “incrementalists” while others of us are more radical. Even on the topic of marriage equality — which one might think we all agree on — our community has very different positions. The experience of creating OUTWORDS has not only given me the chance to learn about this, but also to experience from it and be changed by it.
What stories stand out to you as delivering the mission of OUTWORDS?
Each story is equally important and central to the fundamental ethos of OUTWORDS.
A few stories that come to mind: I think of Emma Colquitt-Sayers of Arlington, Texas, who overcame physical disability as well as being a black lesbian to become a successful businesswoman, community organizer, and philanthropist. Richard Zaldivar of Los Angeles, a devout Catholic political organizer who runs an AIDS service organization devoted specifically to meeting the needs of Hispanic men who might not be reached and touched by traditional HIV education strategies. Retired Admiral Alan Steinman of Olympia, Washington, an open-water survival specialist who went on to become the Coast Guard’s chief medical officer, and who became the highest ranking military official to come out as gay in 2003.
Julie Nemecek of Spring Arbor, Michigan, a Baptist minister who came out as transgender in her 50s, got fired from her university teaching position, bravely reinvented her life, and managed to stay married to her wife and connected to her three children. Cliff Arnesen of Boston, one of America’s bravest bisexual activists who also battled profound PTSD after being kicked out of the military during the Vietnam War, and ended up becoming the first bisexual veteran to testify before Congress.
What has the feedback been like from people who come across your project?
People are so excited and deeply moved by the project. While there were smaller scale efforts with similar missions, what we are creating offers a fuller portrait of our community and its fascinating diversity.
One of our strongest sources of enthusiastic feedback and support has come from the WeWork community. OUTWORDS has had our office in the WeWork Gas Tower location in downtown Los Angeles for over two years now, and being part of the WeWork community has brought me into contact with countless younger LGBTQ+ people and allies who have helped me to understand just how valuable a project like OUTWORDS can be to them.
For far too long, trans folks’ stories, especially, had been relegated to the side, or otherized in some way, among LGBTQ+ people. Can you speak a bit about how trans folks’ stories are being centered in this project?
The acronym LGBTQ+ is tossed around these days as if, A, everyone knows what the individual letters stand for, and, B, everyone is fully open to, interested in, and accepting of the bisexual and trans members of our community. This, obviously, isn’t the case.
OUTWORDS cannot overcome attitudes like this all on our own. But we are going out of our way to seek out as many different versions of the transgender journey as we can possibly find. We’re not saying, “OK, we have two trans men and trans women, we’re done with that.” Instead, we are recognizing that ‘trans’ means vastly different things to different trans people. Crystal Little in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi has a very different story as a trans woman than Nancy Nangeroni of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Kylar Broadus, a black trans man from Washington, D.C., who found the Trans People of Color Coalition has had a very different life than Jamison Green, who was born and raised in Oregon. OUTWORDS must and will center these stories as well as many others, to highlight the diversity of the trans experience, and to correct decades worth of othering and fetishizing and treating trans people as objects of superficial curiosity.
If you had access to an archive like OUTWORDS when you were a 15-year-old kid, how do you think that would have affected your life?
I think it would have depended on how it was presented to me. I was a closeted gay teen who was deeply involved in his church youth group and got through life by being a “good kid.” I think I would have needed OUTWORDS to be shared with me in a way that felt safe. Frankly, I just think I needed someone to tell me, “There is nothing wrong with you for what you feel in your body. There’s nothing wrong with having crushes on your high school classmates.” That information would have been life-changing.
OUTWORDS tells the stories of dozens of people who had to go through that journey, who had to come to terms with being different, and who had to learn to celebrate and enjoy their own feelings, their own crushes, their own loves. If someone from OUTWORDS had sat me down and said, “Not only are you OK, you are actually special. you are worth celebrating,” I think it would have affected me profoundly and literally changed the course of my life.
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