Justin Nordell knows a little bit about summer fun. From music to sports, he’s the go-to fellow for some good, old-fashioned fun in the sun.
PGN: What’s your day job?
JN: I’m the executive director of the Philadelphia Folksong Society and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. It’s the oldest continuously run outdoor music festival in all of North America, which is pretty cool. A lot of people don’t know that, and it’s right here in our backyard, just outside of Philadelphia. I grew up going there; in fact, my parents met at the festival so, if it wasn’t for this organization, I quite literally wouldn’t be here! So it means a lot to me to be able to steer it forward. In addition to the festival, we go into a lot of Philly schools where they have cut the music programs and provide music lessons and in-class concerts or help connect music to various curriculums. We also work with local musicians and do artist-development programs teaching musicians the business side of music. Most artists already know how to write and perform and do the creative aspects but need help with the business end of things. We also just opened up a music school and music venue in Roxborough, which is exciting. The organization has been around for 59 years and this is the first time we’ve ever had our own venue so we can now present music all year long. That’s my day job.
PGN: What was a favorite festival moment from when you were a kid?
JN: Oh gosh, just getting to see so many musical legends and getting to experience that they’re just real people. Getting to interact with Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, and also getting to discover new people and new music. It’s really shaped who I am musically, and I have to say, growing up around all those hippies made it really easy to be gay. Being surrounded by people who were all about peace and love, who preached loving and being yourself ...
PGN: My babysitter was a hippie. She used to drive a converted ambulance that had flowers painted all over it. All my friends’ parents were terrified that I “associated with hippies,” but the most radical thing we ever did was when she let me put a stained-glass lampshade that she made over my head while she played Beatles songs and I spun around to get the sensation of being high.
JN: I love it! A safe high for kids!
PGN: No favorite celebrity encounter? Ever get hit on or have a tryst with a musician?
JN: No! The funny thing is that in the folk world there are very few gay men. I get to meet the “who’s who” of lesbians, but very few openly gay men in this realm. Now, in a previous life, I worked for the Philadelphia Film Society and Festival and there I had some great celebrity interactions with people like Jennifer Lawrence and Kerry Washington and all sorts of famous-ish and up-and-coming people. But my favorite encounters are always with those who just act like regular people as the Lyle Lovett “Gosh darn, thank you for having me here”-types of people.
PGN: You’ve had a pretty good variety of jobs. Give me a quick rundown.
JN: Ha! I like to call myself culturally promiscuous. I’ve worked with a lot of different arts organizations. I was with the PA Ballet for a little while, the Philadelphia Film Society, I worked with Angela Giampolo at Philly Gay Lawyer for a bit, I was a trainer for the Bryson Institute, but Planned Parenthood was probably my first big-boy job. I’ve always worked in and around nonprofits; I guess I just have that do-goodery spirit. I always wanted to help people or help distract people, to give people some escape and something to look at or listen to to lift their spirits.
PGN: Tell me a little about the family.
JN: I grew up with my mom and dad on a horse farm in Chester County for the first eight years of my life and then my parents split and my mom, sister, grandmother and I moved to Bucks County. My mom married husband number-three there;, she’s on number four now and she met all four at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, so if there are any hetero hippie ladies looking for love, that’s the place to go.
PGN: I’ll tell my mother.
JN: Definitely. So my mom had sooooo many lesbian friends growing up. I had my Aunt Nancy and my Aunt Beth and my Aunt Cathy, I think every lesbian in the tri-state area became an aunt to me at some point. I knew that they were women who loved women and that some of them had dogs and cats. [Laughs] I understood the word “lesbian” at the age of 2 but I don’t think I knew what gay was until I was in my teens!
JN: I have one sister who works in public health for the City of San Fransisco and she’s been working in HIV/AIDS prevention in LatinX, African-American and teen communities. I could not be more proud of her.
PGN: How was your coming out?
JN: Well, with all her lesbian friends, I expected my mother to exclaim, “Oh, that’s great!” but she got really, really upset and bawled her eyes out. I didn’t understand; you know, in my 16-year-old head I thought the world revolved around me and my sphincter, and I thought, How can you not immediately be supportive? You have all these gay friends! But I came to realize that it was because she had so many lesbian and gay friends that she was upset. She’d walked down the street when people had thrown stuff at them and yelled out slurs, she’d visited friends who’d had the shit kicked out of them and ended up in the hospital. She knew it was a hard life and as a parent you, of course, want the easiest life possible for your child so that’s why she reacted like she did, but by the next day all was fine and she’s been one of my biggest advocates ever since. I don’t get to see my father too often but I’ll never forget when I came out to him. My dad was very handy so he was coming over to fix something for me. My high-school boyfriend was just leaving as my dad came in and I introduced them. When we went up to my room I realized that my boyfriend had left a periodical right there on the bed. It was a little paper called the PGN! My dad saw it and went, “Oh ... Oh? Ohhhhh. Uh, is your friend gay?” I got quiet and then I said, “Yes, and so is your son.” Then he got quiet and then the first words out of his mouth were, “Don’t let it affect your school work.” And that was it.
PGN: Any early signs?
JN: No, I really didn’t know I was gay until my best friend kissed me at his 13th birthday party. It was a sleepover and we were watching “Scream 2” on VHS and his dad told everyone to go to sleep. Neither of us could sleep and as we were up whispering he suddenly leaned in and kissed me. I flew back 10 feet and was like, “Whoa. This is my best friend! Who is a dude … and he just kissed me! Let’s do it again.” After that, we began to date in secret for two to three years, all of middle school. No one noticed or cared that me and my best friend spent a lot of time going to the movies, hanging out or locked in each other’s rooms. So that was a pretty big sign.
PGN: That’s one of the few benefits of being an LGBT youth. In college, none of my girlfriend’s straight roommates were allowed to have boys in the dorm, but I was free to spend the night and no one thought anything about it!
PGN: On behalf of my nephew, I have to ask you about one of your other lives. When did you get involved in anime?
JN: How did you find that out? Yes, I was the director for voice-overs, dubbing anime cartoons. And if you’re a male that sounds young and you’re anywhere near it you’re eventually going to get dragged into a booth to act like a whiny teenager, which I did. I got to be in a gay ninja TV show, “Nabari no Ou,” which was pretty cool, being part of something that was gay-friendly. Anime and the Japanese culture have been very supportive of showing the LGBT community as special and unique and beyond the “normal” heteros. I got to work on things you may have heard of like Dragonball Z, did some script work on that and the biggest thing I’m most proud of was a show called “Sgt. Frog” on Netflix and Hulu. It was like “Pinky and the Brain” with alien frogs and it was so funny. I played a whiny teenager in that too! I was also in “One Piece,” which a lot of anime fans know.
PGN: How did you get into it?
JN: I slept with the right person. [Laughs] While on vacation in Baltimore, I met this guy from Dallas who did voice acting. We hit it off and had a little weekend thing and followed up with trips to visit him in Dallas. It didn’t work — for me, a long-distance relationship is more than five SEPTA stops — but his best friend, Monica, and I became friends too. She’s the voice of “Hello Kitty,” amongst other things, and she got me into the studio to work on a show called “Shin-Shan” on the Cartoon Network. From there, I did some writing and coordinating, which was a blast. I remember I was auditioning people in Dallas and people would be like [with a thick Southern accent], “Oh no ya’ll, don’t go over they-ar.” I’d say, “OK, cool read, but your accent is coming through just a little” and they’d respond like Gomer Pyle, “Whut ak-ceyent?”
PGN: Great story. When did you get involved in sports?
JN: I played growing up. I loved, loved baseball; I’m a huge lifetime Phillies fan. It’s hard right now but I’m hanging in there. I played tennis and volleyball and have always loved sports, but for the longest time in LGBT Philadelphia it was, you can play softball or you can play softball or you could play softball. I know there were other choices, but that was the main one. But softball was the closest thing to baseball so I went to join a league until I saw the schedule. There were games scheduled for 8 a.m. on a Sunday! That’s the most homophobic thing I’ve ever encountered. I was just like, I can’t. Then a good friend of mine, Kevin Gallagher, messaged me, “There’s gay kickball in Philly!” But it was in summer when I do the folk festival and I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend much. I signed up anyway. It was only $40 and after the first game I had so much fun I completely rearranged my calendar so I could participate. Because of my nonprofit experience, I was asked to join the Stonewall Sports board. After kickball season, we were looking for a winter sport, and my hand immediately shot up and I yelled, “Volleyball! Let’s do volleyball!” I played in school and really missed it, so we started gay volleyball.
PGN: What sports are offered with Stonewall Sports?
JN: Right now, we have billiards and sand volleyball in the summer and kickball, dodgeball, volleyball later. We just added yoga and we’ll start bowling in the fall. It’s really grown. The first season we had 100-some odd people and nine teams; now, we just had close to 800 people sign up for dodgeball and are sold out for sand volleyball. There seems to be a real need for recreational sports for LGBT people on weeknights as well as weekends that are non-competitive and fun. OK, some of us — and by us, I mean me — can get a little yelley and screamy but all in fun. It’s a great way to bring the community together. This past spring, we really changed things with that in mind. For kickball, instead of letting people form their own teams with the same people they’ve played with since the beginning, we randomly picked people and put teams together. We called it the Kickball Remix and it was great. We all met and interacted with people of different ages, different backgrounds and met new friends.
PGN: Are the teams mixed gender?
JN: We have no requirements. We let everybody play however you identify. We want women to have a place to connect as well since there are so few places for lady-loving or identified people to go. Thank God Toasted Walnut opened up, but before that, there wasn’t much available.
PGN: Craziest sports moments?
JN: I had a crazy, “OMG kill me now” year in 2105 where I went to 15 weddings! I was at a bachelor party in A.C. and I was asked to ref a game the next morning. I’m a Philly boy so I don’t have a car, so by the time I got back from A.C. I ended up having to go straight from the strip club to the game in my tux. It ended up becoming a weird tradition and I now wear a tux to any of the big match-ups that I’m called to referee. But so many great memories. I play billiards with “Ruth Bader Ginsballs.” We played 20 games and lost every single one — we were 0-20 — but somehow we rallied in the championships and won every game except the double elimination at the end. We had fun throughout.
PGN: I love the team names.
JN: Yeah, Volley Parton is my volleyball name.
PGN: You mentioned a tux, but I understand you were in a more interesting outfit recently.
JN: Yes! So Stonewall was invited to participate in Drag Wars last week, which is why I have no beard for the first time in six years. I was paired with the fabulous drag queen Jennie Haney and we won! It was fun, but I probably won’t be doing it again because I realized that high heels are terrifying! I can’t believe we ask women to wear them. It should be classified as a hate crime! Stairs? Horrifying in heels. I was grapevining down the stairs at Voyeur and one of my lesbian teammates had to talk me down. But I love drag. It was good to learn that I could do it, I just chose to leave it to those who are better at it.
PGN: Best prank you ever pulled?
JN: I was born on April Fool’s Day so my entire life is a joke. I’m very much a kidder. I had a boyfriend who was very skittish, so I took a coat and put it over some balloons that were in the house so that it looked like it was an intruder. He screamed and ran and called 911. We’re not together anymore ...
PGN: If you could name the street you live on, what would you call it?
JN: Gloria Way.
PGN: No explanation needed.
For more information on Stonewall Sports, visit www.stonewallphillly.org.
For more information on Philadelphia Folksong Society, visit www.pfs.org.
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