It’s 1977. John Glenn Harding is 13 and has just locked himself in the bathroom at his house. He’s finally alone with the newly-delivered Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, which is now open to the page advertising men’s underwear.
Recounting his coming out story more than 40 years later, Harding still remembers all 24 of the thumb-sized photos of men in their underwear.
“Looking feels taboo. I have no one to share what I’m feeling,” he said. “Shame and fear are knocking outside this room…a room the size of a closet.” Harding shared his story as part of the Center’s SeniorServices Hear Me Out storytelling competition, a four-week program patterned after National Public Radio’s The Moth Radio Hour of true stories told live as remembered by the storyteller.
HearMe Out included four rounds of five-minute stories on a different topic each week: Love, Money, Family, and Coming Out. Three judges rated each storyteller, and the two contestants with the highest combined scores from the first three weeks advanced to the final held on National Coming Out Day on October11.
“It’s been a great one-month journey and a real privilege for me,” said Anne Stockwell, organizer and emcee of the competition. “These are some very special people who have discovered a lot about themselves and their voices. They make me so proud of the road in which all of us have traveled as part of the LGBT community.”
“LGBT seniors experience an enormous amount of discrimination. Their stories and life experiences are often not valued by society as a whole, and they feel very isolated in not being able to share that part of themselves,” said Center Director of Senior Services Kiera Pollock, MSW. “This workshop has really allowed them to share those life experiences in a place that’s valued and feels validating to them.”
Judges over the weeks of the competition included long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, actor Jim J. Bullock, and radio personalities Frank DeCaro and Doria Biddle, among others.
“Every story was heartfelt, meaningful, moving, and funny,” Bullock said. ”These were really great stories, and some were very, very relatable. I know all about the Sears catalog—my mother found the Sears catalog!”
DeCaro attended the show during an earlier round as an audience member then was asked to be a judge during the finals.
“These are voices we should be listening to,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of stories we heard. Everyone who was in the audience and the judges were moved by the experience.”
Biddle agreed, adding: “With that five-minute limit, they had to pack so much in. They were sweeping sagas in five minutes—that is very hard to do.”
“The judges were so warm and supportive, and the audience was over the moon,” said storytelling contestant Russ Ford. “The kind of validation that we felt was magnificent.”
A partnership with local radio station KPFK means the seniors’ stories will reach an even wider audience.
“We are endeavoring to be the people who record the voices of our tribe, to tell our stories, and record our history,” said Wenzel Jones,co-host of KPFK’s IMRU Radio.
As part of her story, Cassandra Christenson shared how she came out to herself in middle age while she was working a 12-hour, in-home nursing shift caring for a man living with AIDS.
“I’m at a white stucco, 1920s-style house just north of San Vicente Boulevard,” she recalled. “His partner says as I come into the living room, ‘Don’t bother Will. Respect his closed door.’”
Her work temporarily on hold, Christenson remembers a notebook she brought with her to work. Serenaded by a rotation of Mozart, jazz, and opera performances from the couple’s extensive record collection, she settles into a couch by a bay window and begins to write.
“Page after page I pack in the words,” she recalled. “Later I discover they are all poems, breaking through my boundaries. I had never written even 23 words about sex before—but now I had 23 pages. My life shatters. Oh my God, I’m gay.”
Stockwell hopes Hear Me Out will become an annual event. In addition to founding the Well Again organization, which helps survivors take back their lives after battling cancer, she led a workshop earlier this year at the Center for seniors whose lives have been affected by cancer, HIV, or other health challenges.
“I’m really grateful to have a space like the Center that gives us the opportunity to create such special events for seniors and has such great resources to make them wonderful,” Stockwell adds. “So many people have had extraordinary, creative lives…lives they are still creating. This is the most amazing population.”