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.
Jan Felshin was born in 1931 and grew up in New York City. Her father was a rabbi and her mother worked in a hospital diaper service. Her family lost much of their money during the Great Depression. Jan’s parents gave her a lot of freedom — she explored the tunnels under buildings, stole food for underprivileged friends, and thoroughly knew her way around the streets. At the same time, she felt neglected at home and her sisters “terrorized” her. Jan graduated high school at 16 and went on to earn a bachelor’s in physical education at Boston University and then a master’s at Wellesley.
Edrie Ferdun was born in the late 1930s and grew up in rural northern California among vineyards. Her father was a work-oriented craftsman and builder, and her mother was a housewife. Encouraged by her mother, she started dancing at 4 years old and remained deeply involved in her school communities dancing, singing, and leading student groups. Edrie went to UC Berkeley to earn her bachelor’s in dance.
When Edrie was a freshman at Berkeley, she attended a tumbling workshop that Jan was leading. They did not cross paths again until Edrie’s senior year, when Jan returned to Berkeley to teach after finishing her doctorate at UCLA. Up until that point, Jan had been out as a lesbian for years and had started regularly visiting queer hotspot Greenwich Village as early as 14, while Edrie had only dated men but had not pursued a serious relationship with any of them. Edrie felt immensely strong feelings for Jan, and described that her eyes “lit up” every time they met. After Edrie’s graduation, the two women met for dinner and then spent the night together, moving the relationship from platonic to romantic at last.
Right after they got together, Edrie spent some time in UCLA earning her teaching credentials and master’s. Jan and Edrie then both took teaching jobs at the University of Nevada in 1959, for physical education and dance respectively. While they filled their time with adventures in bars, casinos, and mountains, they remained deeply dedicated to their students and did not miss a single day of class. During their 6 years in Nevada, they considered adopting children, but the legal barriers they experienced as a lesbian couple, including not being able to sign their own mortgage, stood in the way. After Nevada, Jan went to teach at Ohio State and Edrie returned to LA to finish her PhD in dance. The couple then moved to Temple University to teach together once again, and have been teaching ever since.
At Temple, Jan and Edrie remained politically active, often involved in student groups and participating in marches whenever possible. Going strong for well over 50 years, the couple are well known as role models for students and younger queer mentees. Throughout the interview, Edrie fondly recalls her love for exploring queer and art circles through dance, as well as how dance has guided her life journey and empowered her relationship with her body. Jan shares how her principles of living without regrets has created a fulfilling life with Edrie: “I just always felt that you gotta go for it, whatever it is.”