“I’m from Driftwood” is a curated collection of stories of LGBT people founded in 2009 when Nathan Manske saw a photograph of Harvey Milk riding on the hood of a car and holding a sign that read, “I’m From Woodmere, N.Y.”
That simple gesture made Manske realize that LGBTQ people come from all across the country and around the world. This week’s Portrait, Marquise Lee, was instrumental in helping collect many of those stories, and this week we get to hear his. A man of many talents, the Philly-based Lee is a tech guy by day and a party purveyor by night.
PGN: Like this column, “I’m from Driftwood” is all about people’s stories. I’m excited to hear about yours.
ML: I grew up in Garland, Texas — a suburb of Dallas, but I’m not a Cowboys fan.
PGN: I don’t know a lot about Dallas other than it’s big. Is it bigger than Philadelphia?
ML: In terms of land mass, it’s about three times the size. It’s very sprawling and at the time I was there, there wasn’t much of a downtown or center-city experience. Pretty much everyone commuted back to the suburbs after 5 p.m., which is where we lived too.
PGN: That sounds like what Philly was like back in the day. There’s a famous quote from W.C. Fields, “I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed.”
ML: As far as population goes, Philadelphia is larger and has a more dense population than Dallas.
PGN: Tell me a little about the family.
ML: I was actually born in New York and my parents split when I was very young. My mother was transferred to Dallas when I was about 5. I actually lived for a year in Florida with my grandmother while my mother went ahead to Texas to get settled in before we got there. I have a sister three years older than I am.
PGN: Any memories from Florida?
ML: I remember the day the Challenger space shuttle crashed. I was in school and the teachers took us outside to look at it. You couldn’t see much because we were in Tampa, but we knew that something had happened. We got rushed back inside and all the teachers turned on the classroom televisions. I remember it was nap time, and we didn’t realize the gravity of what had happened, but I knew it felt weird.
PGN: What was the first film you made?
ML: When I was in high school, I took footage from the Academy Awards and mashed it together for a school project. “Titanic” was the big film that year, so I remember editing that in. I did do a film later that was in QFest here in Philly. It was kind of a music video.
PGN: Cool. How did you get involved with “I’m from Driftwood”?
ML: I came out in about 2005 to family and friends. Over the next two years, I was going up to New York City a lot with my friends to party and hang out and that’s how I met Nathan Manske, the founder and director. We were running around in the same circles, going to bars and when he got laid off, in 2008 I believe, he created “I’m From Driftwood.” He knew I did computer stuff, so he asked if I would do a promo video for him. I turned him down and two weeks later, he asked me again, and I said no again to a promo video. I said that I would do a video, but wanted to do a film version of the written format. At that time, IFD was all written stories. I wanted to tape someone telling their story. So I did one and we’ve been doing video stories ever since. Now I think it’s the primary focus over the written stories, though we still do them.
PGN: You’ve been involved pretty much from the start.
ML: Yes, and was involved in planning several of the special initiatives like the 50-State Story Tour and the Black Community Spotlight.
PGN: What were two of the stories that moved you the most?
ML: One was Sam Brinton — that was probably one of the toughest stories I ever filmed on two fronts. He was the son of Southern Baptist missionaries who was beaten repeatedly by his father when he mentioned that he had feelings for a friend of his. When the beatings didn’t work, he was sent to conversion therapy where he was tortured both mentally and physically. So it was tough, one, because of the subject matter and, two, it was the end of summer and we were filming outside in 90-degree weather with mosquitos biting us throughout. That was hard in multiple ways, but the story that came out was powerful and is one of my favorite stories to this day. The second story is a local one, Amber Hikes. I knew Amber, but during the interview she really opened up about her mother’s passing and what it was like losing that support. For her to share that with me was special — this was an intimate side of her that she opened up and shared.
PGN: If you were to do your own IFD story, what would we learn?
ML: Um, I try to avoid it but yes, I did a written one a while back, but it’s not very good. It was before the site launched and I didn’t really understand what IFD was about. If I were to do another one, it would be different. We usually ask someone to tell us a story and then end by asking, “Why is this story important to you?” So my story that I did write when we first started the program was about my first boyfriend and how we spent most of our time trying to change each other to make the image of a boyfriend that we had in our heads. It didn’t work. The story was important to me because it helped me learn that you can’t change other people and to be happy with yourself. You shouldn’t try to change yourself to fit someone else’s image of what they think you should be.
PGN: Well, apparently you found someone who you can be yourself with — your partner Paul. The two of you were featured in an article as one of Philly’s Happiest Gay Couples. How did you meet?
ML: In the basement of Voyeur. It was a Monday night after a concert. We’d both gone to the same concert and both ended up at Voyeur. He tells a different story, but I was there with a friend and looked up and saw this cute guy sitting by himself at the bar. I was with my friend Samantha and we were talking. I was looking at him and trying to figure out what to do next when he got up and went to the dance floor. And I finally mustered up the courage — and by the way, he was totally looking at me the whole time — so I finally got the nerve to go up and say hi and ask him his name. His reply was, “It took you long enough.” And that was it.
PGN: And the rest is history. Switching to work, how long have you been with Comcast?
ML: Except for a break I took to do the Driftwood tour, I’ve been with them since 2005. When I first started, I thought I was being brought on for a limited time. I interviewed and then almost a month passed without hearing from them. I thought I hadn’t been hired and then they finally called and offered me a full-time job doing content-video work. YouTube was just getting big and I worked on content for Comcast’s video-gaming site and their music blog, which allowed me to meet and interview a lot of great bands. I got to travel, going to Tokyo for the gaming site which was a lot of fun. I also got to interview The Thermals, which is one of my favorite bands.
PGN: I was in South Korea and I did not see many black people there. I imagine Tokyo was the same.
ML: Oh yes, I went to a Giants game at the Tokyo Dome and back then I had a big fro. This kid kept staring at me and his dad was trying to get him to stop staring, but he just couldn’t help himself. I was probably the first black person he’d ever seen, especially with a fro. I didn’t mind; it was fun.
PGN: Speaking of fun, I heard you have a side gig.
ML: Yes, Paul and I run the “NSFW-Not Safe for Work” parties. It’s a party that we’ve been doing for six years, but relaunched it about two years ago and, since then, attendance has been way up. We do it in different
locations to keep it fresh. We do it as a fundraiser and the proceeds from each event go to a different nonprofit. The last party was for The
Bearded Ladies and
PGN: If you could choose someone from the past to do an “I’m from Driftwood” segment with, who would you choose?
ML: James Baldwin,
PGN: What’s a trait that you’ve inherited from your mother?
ML: [Laughing] Stubbornness? No, I think something that I learned from her is that she never talks negatively about people and she takes everyone as an individual without judgment. That’s something I try to emulate from her.
The next NSFW party will be held Dec. 8. Proceeds will benefit Morris Home. For more information, go to www.nsfwparty.com.