National Coming Out Day is Oct. 11, making this a fitting time to call attention to the Personal Stories Project, an organization that gives members of the LGBT community a platform through which they can share their coming-out stories.
Charles Chan Massey, executive director and co-founder of the project, said it was created to promote activism, advocacy and support for the LGBT community. Stories are posted at personalstoriesproject.org.
The primary goal, he said, is to “engage people and to help change hearts, minds and lives by offering people … a medium to share their stories.” As out-and-proud filmmaker and activist Shane Bitney Crone, who has been involved with the project, says: “Personal stories are the most powerful tool we have to erase fear, give hope, and unite people.”
The project was founded in 2013 by Massey and Sara Christie.
“You could call me an accidental activist,” Massey says with a smile, confessing that before helping create the organization, he had little experience with activism. He had never attended any rallies for gay causes and had maybe marched in one Pride parade.
“I was that ‘lazy gay’ [that] gay activists talked about,” Massey said, with a laugh.
Then a series of disconnected events drew him to greater awareness and action.
“While not necessarily earth-shattering separately, these were pieces of a puzzle when viewed collectively,” he said. First, the daughter of an old friend from high school came out to him via Facebook. She told him that she had essentially come out to herself at age 13. Two years later, she came out to her mother, who then brought up Massey’s name.
“Her mother told her that her best friend had a gay brother and that he was one of the kindest and most successful men she had ever known,” he said. “Although it still took her mother a while to become OK with her daughter being gay, she [the girl] thanked me and told me that if her mother hadn’t known me, the girl might still be holding back to this day. She added that she felt I had helped her through a situation that she might not have been able to get through on her own, and for that, she contacted me just say thank you. I was thankful to find out that my story had somehow touched and helped another person without me even knowing it!”
That same year, Massey said, his sister also reconnected him with Sara Christie, the woman who became his co-founder in the project.
“Her son, then 14 years old, had recently come out, and Sara was scouring the internet for resources,” Massey said. “Around this same time, I myself ran across a YouTube video that had gone viral. It told the story of a young gay couple whose lives were tragically altered by the accidental and untimely death of one of them.”
That couple was Shane Bitney Crone and his late partner, and the video was called “It Could Happen to You.”
“Shane was a big part of my inspiration,” Massey said. “I knew he was onto something when his initial video affected me the way it did – I probably watched it at least a dozen times. His story had the power to go far and wide – which it did, and has continued to. The main message was one of equal love and equal rights. I looked up at the sky and shouted ‘OK, I get it!’”
A seed was planted that eventually flowered into the Personal Stories Project. Realizing that there were countless other stories out there, Massey knew he had to figure out a way to, as he puts it, “harness that power,” but also to get those stories to those who needed to hear them most.
“So I reached out and connected with Shane himself, and boy, am I glad I did,” Massey said. “He’s one of the best connections I’ve ever made.”
Recently, Massey was thinking about how the LGBT community had won important legal victories, but many opponents were not swayed.
“Our rapid advances have also increased the bigotry and prejudices against our community,” Massey said. “In other words, we have advanced more quickly than society at large has had time to catch up with us.”
He remembered June 26, 2015, the day that the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation.
“That was on a Friday,” he said, and he reflected that on the Sunday following, it was highly likely that many LGBT young people were sitting in churches across the country listening to their ministers denounce the ruling.
“I also remember reading that there was a nationwide increase in LGBT youth homelessness following marriage equality because young people felt it was finally time to come out to their families,” he said.
Just recently, it was announced that by the spring of 2017, the Ali Forney Center in New York City will open a new 18-bed long-term residence for homeless LGBT youth with funds bequeathed by the late actress Bea Arthur, who learned about the alarming LGBT youth homelessness problem just a few years before her death in 2009.
“These, and a multitude of other reasons, are why we thought the time was right to formulate the Personal Stories Project,” Massey said.
When Massey decided at age 49 to devote all his time to LGBT activism, he had to educate himself about the needs of the community.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but by golly I was going to find out!” he said. The first place he turned to was social media.
“That’s where I made invaluable connections that I still call on for advice,” he said. “In fact, we couldn’t have pulled any of this off without social media – we primarily use Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter, to get our message out there, and we have a loyal group of followers who look forward to our posts and share them with others.”
The stories that the organization hears move them and make them more determined than ever to help LGBT people be heard.
One such story, Massey says, is from a young man named Michael who was kicked out of his home at age 14 because of his sexual orientation. In his short video posted on the site, the boy tells of how he was “found out” by his stepsister while on his first same-sex date. She told their parents, who threw him out and disowned him. Through it all, Michael demonstrates a profound inner strength and fortitude. Determined to prove his family wrong and succeed against the odds, he shared his story in hopes of helping other LGBT kids and letting them know they’re not alone.
“We are all human,” he reminds us. “We all ‘love’ the same – no matter whether we’re gay, straight or whatever we are.” (His video is at personalstoriesproject.org/michael-garcia-my-story/.)
Massey says that anyone interested in sharing their own story with the project can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about how to get it posted on the website. The organization is working to improve its technology so that storytellers can upload their stories themselves directly to the website upon approval.
The most effective and compelling way to share personal stories, Massey says, is when the storyteller is in a comfortable, welcoming, and familiar environment. Eventually, he said, they would like to have a team that could visit those who want their story told through video and record them in their own surroundings.
At the end of each video, he said, viewers can make a donation, a portion of which will be donated to the charitable organization that the storyteller has requested.
“One of the best parts of the website is how we can connect our visitors with charities that are meaningful to those that have had the courage to share their personal accounts,” he said. “That’s why we do this!”
Does Massey find that the stories they receive differ much from age to age or region to region?
“People are people,” he said. “We all need the same things: to live a peaceful life free of bigotry directed towards us; free to live our lives as we wish; to love and be loved. You know, the quintessential American dream.”
Each story they’ve received includes what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
But perhaps the organization’s greatest call to action is best expressed by the website’s banner headline: “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?”
For more information or to share your story, visit personalstoriesproject.org.