'Everybody Has Their Own Mountains.' A Coming-Out Journey Made Easier With Friendship

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 7:27 am

It wasn't until this year that 90-year-old Kenneth Felts told his family that he is gay — a secret he'd kept for more than 60 years.

In July, he spoke with his daughter, Rebecca Mayes, about his first love. Having so much alone time during the coronavirus pandemic, he told her, "drug up all these memories from the past."

Felts recorded another remote StoryCorps interview recently to talk to the person who inspired him the most along his coming-out journey — his friend David Smith.

Felts told Smith, who is openly gay, that before he came out this year, "I was secretly really envying you, to be able to be yourself."

The two first met in 2013 at a local recreation center in Westminster, Colo., when Smith was a substitute teacher for Felts' water aerobics class. Soon after, Felts asked Smith to be his personal trainer.

Back then, Felts wanted to talk to Smith about the possibility that he might be attracted to men, he said, but he just wasn't ready yet.

"Most of my gay I had buried very deep. And it wasn't available at that time, even to me," he said.

David Smith, Kenneth Felts' former personal trainer, at a workout session in 2017.
Courtesy of David Smith

But when Felts started asking questions about his friend's dating life, Smith said he started to "piece the puzzles together."

"I didn't want to kind of put you on the defense, but I wanted to help you learn more about who I was by us going to the kind of places that I enjoyed going to," Smith said.

So Smith, 33, brought Felts with him to some of his favorite local hangouts, including Hamburger Mary's, which Smith describes as "a '50s diner but, like, with drag queens."

Though he was nervous in the beginning, Felts said he's grateful to Smith for helping him venture into "another world."

"I knew I couldn't do it on my own," he said.

Since then, their friendship has only grown stronger.

"When you came out, you know, I thought that was really powerful," Smith told Felts. "Everybody fights their own battles, and everybody has their own mountains to climb. And I think that's the biggest lesson that you taught me."

Since 2018, Smith has been living in Cologne, Germany, where he's pursuing a master's degree in sports science. He corresponds with Felts regularly by email; he has been helping read over parts of a memoir Felts is working on.

"I get emotional when I think of our friendship," said Felts. "But it was very meaningful to me and still is and will always be."

Felts' decision to come out has also paid off in his dating life.

After seeing one of his interviews about coming out at 90, Felts' now-boyfriend, John, reached out to him on Facebook. They shared a first date in October and have been together ever since.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Sylvie Lubow. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it is time for StoryCorps. Earlier in the year, 90-year-old Ken Felts revealed a secret to his daughter. They spoke using StoryCorps Connect.

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KEN FELTS: On March 13, we all went under quarantine, and being alone drug up all these memories from the past. And that's when I came out to you.

REBECCA MAYES: Would you entertain having a boyfriend?

FELTS: Oh, absolutely. Hopefully, they will consider my age as only a number and not a date for the undertaker.

GREENE: After coming out, Ken wanted to talk to the person who inspired him the most, his personal trainer, David Smith. They first met at Ken's local rec center in Colorado.

FELTS: I kind of thought you were gay from having seen you around the pool before. I was secretly really envying you to be able to be yourself.

DAVID SMITH: You asked me, like, a lot of questions about my life, but I knew that you were not comfortable talking about your past.

FELTS: I wanted to talk to you about that, but I just couldn't get myself to loosen up. Most of my gay I had buried very deep, and it wasn't available at that time, even to me. I must have given you some hints, but we never really talked about it.

SMITH: I think you actually asked me what's happening with, you know, my friends and people I'm dating, and so I knew that you're curious. And that's when I started to kind of piece the puzzles together. I didn't want to put you on the defense, but I wanted to help you learn more about who I was by us going to the kind of places that I enjoyed going to.

FELTS: Yeah. I was very nervous. I've never been in any of the gay establishments along that street - or any street, for that matter. And I was afraid somebody might be hitting on me and I wouldn't know what to do.

SMITH: I know you were nervous kind of before. But afterwards, how did you feel?

FELTS: I kind of felt good in that I had successfully ventured into another world. And I felt gratitude to you for having done it because I knew I couldn't do it on my own.

SMITH: That's when, you know, we kind of got close and started really chatting more. And when you came out, you know, I thought that was really powerful. Everybody fights their own battles, and everybody kind of has their own mountains to climb. And I think that's the biggest lesson that you taught me.

FELTS: David, I think you may know that you're really my rock.

SMITH: You're probably one of the strongest friendships I've ever had.

FELTS: I get emotional when I think of our friendship. But it was very meaningful to me and still is and will always be.

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GREENE: Ninety-year-old Ken Felts speaking with his friend David Smith over StoryCorps Connect. And to hear more from Ken, including updates about his dating life, get the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.