Legacy of Voices is an oral history project created in 2008 by Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell, inspired by their realization that to better understand their own lives, they could turn to LGBTQ+ community members who had gone before them. From 2008-2012, Lara and Brian recorded interviews with gay and lesbian elders over age 70 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. Hearing the stories of these elders with their passions and beliefs, failures and successes, and reflections moved Brian and Lara deeply, and helped them chart their own paths forward. Meanwhile, the actual interview tapes sat in a box in Brian’s closet for over a decade, until Brian discovered OUTWORDS—a unique opportunity for these remarkable, nearly-lost stories to be seen, heard, studied, and celebrated by queer people and allies around the globe. OUTWORDS thanks Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell for their visionary work, and for donating thirteen Legacy of Voices interviews to OUTWORDS.
Freeman Thomas Freeman was born on August 27, 1939 in Dover, Delaware. Racism was rampant in the Dover community, and Freeman grew up with segregated schools, restrooms, and community spaces. Freeman’s family was deeply religious and instilled in him the principle to “work hard, laugh hard, and pray hard.” Seeing his family struggle so much financially and socially, Freeman became determined to leave by age 10. He took trips away from Delaware whenever he got the chance, graduated high school, and completed a degree at Delaware State College despite seeing many of his peers drop out. The day after graduation, he moved to Rochester, New York to take a job with Kodak film.
At age 15, Freeman began having sexual relationships with other men. Throughout his teenage and college years, he went to cruising spots to meet older white men. Without him explicitly coming out, his family was able to infer the type of relationships he had, and they were accepting in a non-committal sort of way. Meanwhile, as Freeman worked and traveled with Kodak, he surrounded himself with white people. He valued the Black communities around him but struggled with his fear of returning to a life similar to his childhood. Through the late 60s, he did engage and march with the civil rights movement, and later performed extensive AIDS community work, but grappled with the lack of queer acceptance within the Black community.
Steve Levine was born on April 9, 1942. He had a middle class upbringing in the Jewish community in Denver, Colorado. He attended college in Boulder, where he lived with a Libyan roommate his junior year, through whom he became exposed to the international community for the first time. Steve then set his mind on leaving Colorado to expand his worldview, so he went to live in Tanzania for two years through the Peace Corps shortly after graduating.
Throughout college, Steve had sexual relationships with women but struggled to make romantic connections with them. In Tanzania, he experienced his first sexual encounters with other men and found them scary, exciting, and gratifying. Steve went on to complete a public health degree in the University of Michigan, worked at the State Department in DC, and then pivoted to family planning consulting, which brought him first to California and then to upstate New York.
While both Freeman and Steve were traveling for their respective jobs, they met at a dance concert in 1970. They hit it off immediately and soon began dating as they both returned to upstate New York. Within a couple years, they moved in and bought their first house in Rochester. Working with a team, Steve began organizing sexuality workshops throughout the upstate area. He opened discourses on normalizing queer sexualities as well as sexuality among traditionally marginalized communities, such as disability communities. Freeman eventually left his job at Kodak, earned a degree in social work, and helped Steve run the workshops. The couple has close friendships with many heterosexual couples as well as connections with the gay community in the area. Going strong for 40 years, Freeman and Steve assure us that commitment, flexibility, and effort remain the recipe for success.