On National Coming Out Day this year, John Glenn Harding took the audience seated inside the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre back to 1977.
That year, he was 13 and had locked himself inside a bathroom with the just-arrived Sears-Roebuck catalog that included an impressive array of thumb-sized photos of men in their underwear.
“There were 24 men with black hair, brown hair, blonde hair, square jaws, wearing only plaid pattern boxers, long john drawers, and the new trend of low-rise stretch briefs in white, red, plain blue, bright blue and gold,” Harding recounted.
“Looking feels taboo,” he added.“I have no one to share with what I’m feeling, not even a celebrity role model with whom to relate. Shame and fear knock on the outside of this room … a room the size of a closet.”
Harding’s coming out to himself experience so impressed a panel of celebrity judges that he was crowned the winner of the Center Senior Services department’s inaugural Hear Me Out storytelling competition. The four-week program was patterned after the National Public Radio show The Moth Radio Hourwhere true stories are told live as remembered by the storyteller.
Hear Me Out consisted of 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 on October 11.
“It’s been a great one-month journey,” said Anne Stockwell, organizer of the competition and the emcee each week. “I think it’s been more fun than anybody thought it would be. These are some very special people. People who are not professional storytellers, but people who have discovered a lot about themselves, about their voices, about what they really have to share and it’s just been a real privilege for me.”
The competition’s runner-up was Leticia Miller, who spoke about her struggles to find herself after the death of her mother.
“Anytime I had a problem or an issue, or wanted to make a decision, I went to my mother and she was no longer there,” Miller shared from the stage.
Then came the night that changed everything: “I woke up and I sat up in the bed and I heard this voice and it said: ‘Stop crying. I lived my life. I had my journey. Everything that you need, I gave you. What are you going to do with it?’ It woke me up.”
Hear Me Out’s third-place finisher was Cassandra Christenson who 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 with AIDS.
“I’m at a white stucco 1920s-style house just north of San Vicente,” she recalled. “His partner says as I come into the living room: ‘Don’t bother Will. Respect his closed door.’”
Christenson happened to have brought a blank notebook with her. So she settled into a couch next to a bay window, played Mozart, jazz, and opera from an extensive collection of albums, and began to write as she never had before in her life.
“Page after page I pack in the words and later discover they are all poems,” she recalled. “When done there are 23 pages. Break boundaries of sex … had never written 23 wordsabout sex before. … My life shatters and I go, ‘Oh my God, I’m gay.’”
“They were sweeping sagas in five minutes”
Judges over the weeks included famed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, actor Jim J. Bullock, and radio personalities Frank DeCaro and Doria Biddle, among others.
“Every story was heartfelt and meaningful and 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.
“A lot of the people here were a little bit older and I think they have more life to talk about,” he said. “Those are voices that we should be listening to. I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of stories that we heard. Everyone who was in the audience or a judge was moved by what we got to 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.”
Stockwell hopes Hear Me Out will become an annual event. The founder of Well Again, which helps survivors take back their lives after battling cancer, also led a workshop earlier this year at the Center for seniors whose lives have been touched by cancer, HIV, or other health challenges.
“This is the most amazing population really,” Stockwell says. “So many people have had extraordinary, creative lives and are continuing to live on very creative levels.”
The Center’s Senior Services offers more than 100 different activities and events each month including support groups, health and fitness classes, and various cultural workshops. To learn more, including upcoming activities and workshops, visit lalgbtcenter.org/seniors.