The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Coming Out in the Time of COVID: A 90-Year-Old Man’s Moving Conversation with His Daughter During the Quarantine

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings wrote in his magnificent forgotten manifesto for being unafraid to feel. It takes especial courage to “go the way your blood beats,” to borrow James Baldwin’s lovely phrase from his liberating advice on coming out, in which he observed that “loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”

But what we call courage — the courage to face the danger and rise to the responsibility — is so much less a function of character than a function of conditioning, a topographic feature of the landscape of permission and possibility in which a personhood forms.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Ken Felts was born in Kansas at the outset of the Great Depression. The son of a railway worker, he was raised in an unrelentingly religious community. In the late 1950s, Ken moved to California, where he met the man who became the love of his life. It was an enormous love — and an impossible love within the landscape of permission and possibility Ken inhabited, closer in psychosocial space, even if further in time, to the landscape of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love than to ours.

More than half a century later, at the age of ninety, Ken used the StoryCorps Connect platform during the COVID quarantine to speak with his daughter for the first time about his experience and what lives on the other side of his lifelong heartbreak.

Complement with Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, the love of her life, and the pioneering LGBT rights advocate Edward Carpenter’s extraordinary letter of gratitude to Walt Whitman for dignifying same-sex love, then revisit this animated love letter to how libraries change lives from StoryCorps’ living archive of human experience.

Published September 6, 2020




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