By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)


During the last week of November, I sat down at my desk, microphone set up and ready to record a discussion with my friend Ken Felts for NPR’s StoryCorps podcast. Being my first ever podcast, the premise was for Ken and I to talk about our friendship and impact on each other’s lives. Flashback to the Spring of 2020 as the Coronavirus Pandemic was starting to cause major worldwide disruptions to everyday life. Ken Felts a 90-year-old man living in Colorado posted a Facebook message that would forever change his life. For the first time in his life, Ken came out as gay.


Initially his post only gained minor attention from his Facebook network, mostly family and close friends who showed their love and support to Ken for his remarkable act of self-acceptance and courage. Shortly thereafter, his daughter in-law shared the story with the Denver Post who did an in-depth story and photoshoot with Ken and his daughter Becca. Once the story was published, the internet did its thing and before you know it, Ken’s story was going viral. Soon, Ken was getting contacted by tv channels, news anchors and publications from all over Colorado, the United States and from all over the world. During a time when the world is gripping with a viral pandemic, economic instability and political incompetence; Ken’s story offered an uplifting and wholesome change that the world needed. Receiving messages of love, support and personal coming out stories; Ken’s story has inspired people all over the world, many of whom are young LGBTQI people who are struggling with the same kind of struggles that Ken had been living with for 90 years.


During our StoryCorps podcast, Ken and I reflected on our friendship that has been going strong since 2013. We met in September of 2013 when I taught an aqua fitness class as a sub that Ken was a regular participant at. I was employed at the pool as a lifeguard, swim teacher and aqua fitness instructor. I had just graduated from college with my degree in exercise science and was working to get my career and business (Stonewall Fitness, now Stonewall Performance) off the ground. I had been working at the pool for three years at that point, but swimming at it for a few years longer. My passion for pursuing this career path and business came from my own personal experience of how swimming and exercise helped me to find the strength and confidence within to be myself. So, when I strutted out onto the pool deck to teach Ken’s class in my speedo, I was owning every bit of it.


I normally taught a different class at the pool which was much more intense; so, Ken’s class was not my usual group and honestly, I was a bit nervous about teaching them. Ken’s group was a bit too… chatty and not enough sweaty for my normal style of exercise. For subbing that class, of course I brought the level to be more appropriate to their style, but  I think by the end they were relieved it was finally over (and more appreciative of their usual instructor when she returned). However, one of the men in the class approached me afterwards and shared how much he enjoyed the class and asked what my normal teaching schedule was so he could come to my normal classes. It was a nice surprise and a great compliment for me, but I had to warn him that my normal classes were a different style; with music, sweat and water in the hair. He said he was still interested and the next evening, he was there!

I certainly did not hold back during that class; my own personal philosophy in teaching and doing exercise is to inspire everybody to challenge themselves at their own level of best effort. Everybody is different in that we all have different goals, different experiences, different levels of conditioning and different motivations. I trust that people know their own bodies and limitations best, so they are the best judge of themselves to determine what their limitations are and what is most appropriate for them. To inspire and challenge people to put forth their best effort, regardless of how they perform compared to others, is the most important element to my career and personal philosophy. In doing this, I always put forth my best effort level in every class I teach and everything I pursue in my life, because if I don’t live by example; how can I expect to inspire others to put forth their best effort.


By the end of the class, Ken and I chatted again and while he definitely agreed it was a much tougher class than he was used to, he shared with me that he was interested in the challenge and that he appreciated the energy that I brought to it. When I coach and teach fitness, a sure sign that I am doing a good job is when my participants keep coming back. Well, true to his word, Ken kept coming back. After a few weeks Ken had told me he was noticing a difference in his physical capabilities, that he felt stronger and that he was losing weight. He inquired about doing personal training with me as well. So, we set a date and time at my gym in downtown Denver to make it happen.


Our first session together was definitely memorable. Ken told me it was his first workout outside of the swimming pool in almost 40 years to that point and thus, Ken didn’t really have any kind of normal workout clothes, so he arrived in a t shirt and loose pants. As a young, fresh college graduate I still had a lot to learn about coaching and training; so, with Ken being 84 years I was nervous that I would mess things up. However, before I could think too much about it, Ken stood up and his pants promptly fell down. We both started cracking up at the unintentional but good comedic timing of it as he reminded me that since he lost weight from taking my class, he hadn’t had the chance to buy new pants yet.


Our first few sessions were a bit rocky, for a man who hasn’t worked out on dry land in a long time we were definitely starting with the basics. During one of our first sessions, Ken took a tumble and fell during an exercise, which scared the crap out of me. Unfortunately, falls are the leading cause of death among seniors and the last thing I wanted to do was to contribute to that statistic! However, Ken thankfully was uninjured except for a bruise that healed up quickly, but it still rattled my inexperienced self a bit and of course adjusted the training program to reduce the risk of that happening again. Ken’s reaction to the fall helped to reassure me as well in which we later joked on about it and the humor put me at ease that I thankfully didn’t kill him nor that he was going to tell everybody I was a bad trainer. Later on, he’d tell people I was trying to kill him, but that had less to do with the fall itself and more to do with the squats, pushups and other strength exercises I put him through. I had much less sympathy for his pain as he pushed through the final few squats in the set.


Even early on in our training, I knew Ken wasn’t just there for all the fun of squats, pushups and other exercises. We became fast friends and if my schedule was open after our training sessions, we would often go out to lunch. While Ken lived primarily in the suburbs, I had just moved to downtown Denver and was training at a private gym in the area where we would go. So, we would visit some of my favorite restaurants nearby, the first primarily was a creole restaurant called “Lucille’s” given my recent introduction to Cajun/Creole food from a recent trip to New Orleans. At our lunches we’d chat a lot about ourselves and our lives, Ken knew I was gay, and I am fairly comfortable talking about my personal life, so I’d tell him stories of my dates, guys I was dating, trips to events like Gay Games and other gay sporting events. I wanted to learn more about Ken’s life too, I mean a man of his age certainly has amazing stories to tell, but he never seemed to be willing to share many details. I knew that he grew up in Dodge City, Kansas and moved around, that he served with the US Navy in the Korean War, got married and divorced and had a kid who later came out as lesbian and who got married. It was the basics of Ken’s life, but he was never interested in going into much detail.


During my own life at the time, I was training heavily in competitive swimming and triathlon to get ready for the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. I had competed and been very successful at the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne, so I was eager carry that over in 2014. Ken had never heard of the Gay Games or realized that the LGBTQI sports community was so big. I shared with him my story of growing up as a competitive swimmer, but I quit the team when I was 14 due to homophobic bullying from teammates. Even at such a young age I knew I was gay and despite the risks of bullying and harassment from others, I wasn’t going to live my life pretending to be something I was not. Throughout high school I was one of only a couple of gay kids who were out and open about it. I was bullied, harassed and even physically assaulted on several occasions. Like every teenager, I was struggling with trying to understand *who* I was, but one thing I never questioned was my sexual orientation. By the time I turned 20 in 2007, my mental and physical health hit a low point and I knew I needed to make a real change. The sport that I felt so rejected from for being gay when I was 14 became my solace 6 years later when I sought out my local LGBTQI swim team called the Squid Swim Team. Even though I was secure in my own sexual orientation, I had never really been involved with any kind of LGBT community things. Never been to a gay bar or even Pridefest. I had exchanged a few emails with the coach of the Squids but I remember driving to my first practice feeling so nervous because I had no idea what to expect. My first venture back into competitive swimming and I quickly became part of the team, welcomed into a new community. The 2010 Gay Games was the first big event I started training for, I never even knew that there was a “Gay Games” before. As I learned about it and realized all my teammates were training for it, I realized that this is something greater than myself. Training for this even and being part of the team gave me a sense of purpose where I could be an athlete without the discrimination and harassment often so seen in sports. This was very empowering for me and it made me a better athlete; it inspired me to pursue a career in exercise and sport because I knew that this could help others the same way it helped me. When I met Ken, I didn’t know then what this would mean to him as well.


I shared with Ken my journey of training for the 2014 Gay Games, in 2010 I came home with three gold and three silver medals, so I was motivated to achieve something similar at the 2014 Gay Games as well. In many ways, Ken’s fitness training paralleled my swim training in that we both motivated each other to push ourselves and expand the limits of our abilities. The Squids and the Gay Games offered my first real exposure to the greater LGBTQI community, and now Ken was able experience this journey vicariously through me as well. At the time I didn’t know this, but I think my stories and experiences I shared with him helped him to open the cracks a bit about his own sexual orientation. Ken was very supportive of my own journey and was a big cheerleader for me as I prepared for the 2014 Gay Games, even going so far as to sponsor me when I needed a new competitive speedo to race in. He quickly became more than just a client; he was a good friend.


That summer I flew to Cleveland and took part in the Gay Games where 7000 athletes from all over the world came together for a full week of sporting events and parties. Ken had just signed up with Facebook to connect with friends and family, including me so he was there to follow my journey at the Gay Games with every like and comment as my cheerleader. Even though he wasn’t there with me, his support helped me stay motivated and by the end, I came home with three gold, two silver and three bronze medals. Sharing my Gay Games experience with Ken that fall, for the first time I started to realize that Ken himself certainly had more to share with me.


The fall of 2014 we had changed gyms to a new facility that was still in downtown Denver but much closer to my own neighborhood, as well as close to one of my favorite restaurants, Hamburger Mary’s. Hamburger Mary’s is a nationwide chain of restaurants that are very popular and commonly opened in urban LGBTQI communities. The Hamburger Mary’s in Denver is well known for its drag shows, drag queen bingos, fundraisers for LGBTQI organizations and other events. My initial motivation for taking Ken to Hamburger Mary’s was of course to have lunch at my favorite restaurant and possibly to run into some of my other friends to meet. Lunch time at the restaurant wasn’t as busy since they usually did their events in the evening, but the timing worked out really well for our sessions plus a lot of the drag queens also worked at the restaurant as servers, bar tenders and other roles both in and out of drag. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that Ken had ever visited a gay bar/restaurant such this.


During this time was the first time Ken had let on to me about his gay past; because of our conversations about my life, he mentioned that he once had a gay lover as well. I asked him what it was like during this time (around 1950s) and he responded that it simply wasn’t something one shared or talked about. He told me a little about Phillip and that they would usually go camping, away from society and judgmental people, where they could express their love for each other openly. His first admittance to me about his secret gay life wasn’t surprising for me as I’ve learned in the past when “straight” people are curious about my gay life, a lot of times it’s because of their own vested interest in the same sex as well. To me, Ken has always been loving and supportive of me from our first met and that part of that was because of my frank openness about my sexual orientation.


In training, my biggest goal for Ken was to keep him mobile, functional and independent. When you age, your health generally deteriorates and a lot of people who are inactive as they get older tend to deal with a lot of physical ailments as a result, including degenerative diseases of the bones, muscles and brain. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for seniors to stay active and independent while also increasing the risk of injuries due to falls and other issues. Doing cardiovascular exercise, strength training and mobility training are all important things to keep up with as you get older to help slow the effects of this aging and keep everything strong and resilient for a longer time. For Ken, my first priority was always his physical safety and helping him continue living as the strong, independent man he’s always been. When Ken started to open up to me about his big secret, I started to realize that Ken needed more than just friendship and physical support to keep him safe, he needed someone that he could express himself too and share some of the emotional pain he’d been dealing with for so long.


After every one of our sessions and lunches, we would always end with a hug. I am generally a hugger, so it merely started out of habit. Ken, however, was not a hugger, but he would indulge me with a solid bro hug the type that straight guys generally tend to give. I noticed that this started to change however when Ken started opening up about his gay past. It was like a faucet of dripping water, where the water flow would gradually increase, and the dripping would become more frequent. During this time, I noticed that Ken’s hugs were less “straight guy bro” hugs and more real personal and embracive hugs. The kind of hugs where you know someone who really needs a hug is finally getting one. These hugs always meant the world to me as much as to Ken, because in a lot of ways his hugs would help me feel better about my own struggles in life that, even if Ken had no direct involvement too, would still be there to support me.


The fall of 2014 into the spring of 2015 became a very important time for me as I had embarked on my most challenging competitive swimming season yet. Energized after my success at the Gay Games, I had hired a private swim coach to help me prepare for the upcoming United States Master’s Swimming Spring Nationals. Two hours of intense swim practice per day, plus teaching various formats of group fitness and doing a separate strength program plus commuting by bike easily equated to five to six hours a day of exercise. Often times my hugs with Ken were also to literally be holding myself up, but he was there to motivate me as much as I motivated him and helped to sponsor me and support me during my competitive swim season, including dealing with burnout. By the time Spring Nationals rolled around, I had one of the best competitions of my life when I surpassed my personal records I set at the Gay Games and became a national champion for the first time when I took home two gold and one bronze medal in the event. Ken was there throughout the struggles of that journey as well as to help me celebrate the accomplishments.


As we continued with our training, I had encouraged Ken to try and get more involved with the LGBTQI community. His social group at the recreation center simply wasn’t enough for the kind of connections Ken needed. For the first time he had volunteered at the Denver Pride Festival as one of his first real ventures out into the LGBTQI community. While he would tell people, he was there to support his daughter and her wife (which was very true) I know that for him it was also a way to deflect anybody who might have any questions about his own sexual orientation. While he was willing to be out in support of his daughter, the underlying fear still resided within him. I later read in a draft of his upcoming autobiography that he had also went down to Charlie’s Nightclub one night, a local gay bar that I used to frequent myself and would often tell Ken stories of the fun adventures I had there. That he got as far as the parking lot and sat in his car, trying to build up the courage to go inside. He was by himself (and sadly didn’t call me as I only lived a couple blocks away and am always up for dancing) so the fear of taking that step and going inside a place full of what you spent all your life trying to deny, was simply too much. He went home.


For a while I had been encouraging Ken to attend a local LGBTQI seniors’ group at The LGBT Center of Colorado as a way for him to connect with some people his age who are also LGBTQI and meet some new friends. He did attend their weekly meeting a few times which was right before one of our training sessions and he arrived at the gym afterwards. I asked him how it went and laughed when he said, “it was boring, they all like to talk about the past; I want to talk about the present and the future!” I definitely appreciated this level of forward thinking for him, it helped me understand why he was more interesting about hearing about my adventures than sharing his.


Our friendship continued to develop over the years and Ken got to know a lot of my other clients and friends at the gym, as well as my family. Including my mother for whom I share a passion for fitness with. She teaches classes at various local recreation centers in the area where Ken lives. Ken would always give me a hard time for beating him up with my challenging workouts, but he stopped complaining so much after he attended one of my mom’s classes and realized just how hard workouts can get. Often times my dad would also come down and join us for lunch at Hamburger Mary’s as well, joining us for a big gay and merry lunch served by some of my favorite drag queens (both in and out of drag).


When I was growing up, my dad made a concerted effort to bring my sister and I to visit various neighborhoods in the city that represent the true diversity of our society. It was his way of helping us learn that we’re all the same people and that we should embrace our diversity in race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and age as a mark of strength. He once took us kids and my mom to a local gay coffeeshop in Denver just to have some coffee, my mom realized it was gay when she noticed some of the other guys checking my dad out. My dad is straight, but I think he still liked the attention and joked that “he knew that this place was” and laughed about it. So, when my dad would join Ken and I at Hamburger Mary’s, he liked to pretend he was out of his element and in this way, it was my way of helping him embrace the diversity as much as he taught me too as well.


Following my accomplishment at the Spring Nationals, I started to slowly become dissatisfied with my career growth, I was struggling to find growth and stability in my career. The places I was working and teaching at I realized had started becoming increasingly toxic, both from the management and general work culture. I could never seem to achieve any growth and felt like I was having to constantly justify myself to keep a job despite bringing in strong performance evaluations and a steady income stream of clients and class participants. At one point I even had a boss tell me that the gym wouldn’t help pay for me to take part in a training workshop they suggested to get my USA Weightlifting Coaches License, despite laying out all the advantages I listed in having a certified USA Weightlifting Coach on staff for the gym that I “wasn’t worth investing in.” It was this moment I realized that my current career trajectory was simply unsustainable. Despite working 3-4 jobs at various facilities teaching classes and training clients, it was clear that my employers did not feel like I was worth the paper they were paying me on. The gym was a small, local gym that was run like a 24-Hour Fitness. It was all about the sales and manipulating people to sign up for predatory memberships and training packages that were designed to lock them into contracts where they would pay regardless if they used the gym. For my own training, thankfully I stayed as an independent contractor where my clients would pay me directly and use a bare-bones membership to use the gym. Thus, my clients, including Ken, were never quite subject to the predatory sales tactics of the management’s own system. This also meant that the value was placed more on the short-term profit gains rather than the long-term stability and viability of the business.


This realization of the kind of toxicity that plagues the fitness industry, both in management style as well as economically only became clear to me in hindsight after I left it. Constantly being gaslit by own bosses promising that if I work harder, it’ll lead to better raises, promotions, benefits, hours and so forth only to be met with a whole lot of nothing. I did my job well, very well, but the hard work I put in didn’t matter at all until they realized what they had when I was gone, and everything fell apart. It was like a toxic relationship where you don’t fully understand the scope of abuse as you become increasingly desensitized to it because you keep thinking that at some point things will get better. With constantly being underpaid, told I wasn’t worth investing in altogether and also somehow constantly expected to help sell memberships rather than focus on delivering a quality fitness program that would better aid in client retention. Applying for different jobs and every opportunity I could was met with radio silence. Despite paying hundreds of dollars for new career certifications, trainings and continuing education (nothing supported by my employers of course), the only opportunities I could get were unpaid internships. It was at one of these unpaid internships, with a very well-respected strength and conditioning coach and facility where I experienced another one of my examples of homophobia that is ever so prevalent within this field as well. The incident came down to the internship supervisor and some of the athletes who stated they felt “uncomfortable” with “someone like me” based on how I dressed (wearing shorter shorts than the average straight guy) and sometimes wearing one of my rainbows “Fit with PRIDE” t shirts when I came to the gym. It was made clear to me that the facility “was a family environment with children and I needed to address more appropriately” as if to insinuate that anything not completely “straight bro” type was somehow not “family friendly.” I took the implication that I was too gay for their facility and simply walked out at the end of one shift, never came back nor did I give them any notice. It was a facility I did not feel safe being in, nor learning from.


Sadly, this wasn’t the only homophobic incident in my career either. As a swimmer, I’ve had several incidents in locker rooms with people who would often say “be careful, the gay swim team is here, they’ll probably {insert homophobic thing here}. So sadly, I was no stranger to homophobic bullshit. In my professional career, I had coached various summer league kid swim teams, including the summer of the 2014 Gay Games and the summer following 2015 Spring Nationals. I always loved coaching these teams because the kids were fun, the practices were fun, and it was always great to go to the meets and see the kids be successful in their own competitive swimming goals. I never hid the fact that I was gay, and it was fun to be a little extra flamboyant because the kids liked it, my fellow coaches liked it, most of the parents liked it and it made the 6am practices a bit more fun. Some of the parents though of course didn’t like it. My behavior has been and always will be professional, but even the sheer sense of being gay was enough to make some parents come after me to be extra critical in my own coaching. There were several times where at practices that I had to run by myself with the other coaches unable to attend the day, some parents would take it upon themselves to use the opportunity to come after me verbally and criticize my behavior as being “too flamboyant” and “too gay” around the children. Of course, they only brought this up when all the other parents, children and witnesses who had no problems with my coaching style had gone. As a coach, I dealt with team issues as they occurred, and it was always related to the task itself. I was there to learn from the swimmers as they were to learn from me. With no justification for their own homophobic attitudes toward me, some parents would use any small incident as an excuse to criticize my being gay as a threat to them and the stability of their family. I never told any of the other coaches nor the swimmers nor anybody else about these incidents. But that is why I quit the internship and why I chose not to continue coaching those teams. As much as I was confident in myself as a gay man, it was clear that would also be a barrier for me in gaining any meaningful growth and happiness in my career.


I had started to realize that my career wasn’t what I envisioned it to be, rather it became what I most feared it could be. It felt like this whole field that was such a solace for me when I needed a purpose was not what I hoped it would be and I felt like I really had no place here, that perhaps as a young, motivated, gay coach, I wasn’t worth investing in. The field is still quite hostile to gay people, and while things are progressing, there is a lot of resistance. It was around this time, in the fall of 2017 that I started to think about attending graduate school and moving on. With the political situation in the US looking increasingly hostile and toxic, which not surprising that the management of the gym also supported said political administration, I thought about a childhood dream I had of traveling and living abroad. I needed a fresh start.


Despite this existential crisis and increasing unhappiness in my career, I made sure to continue doing my job and helping to use fitness both as a way to help me deal, but also teaching my classes and training my clients including Ken to help remind me of why I entered this industry in the first place. By this point, Ken had been able to achieve so much in his training, not just in losing weight but his performance in various exercises and overall endurance and strength. Exercises he never would’ve been able to do a couple years prior he was now able to easily conquer like a professional. This is what kept me inspired and helped me move forward despite the increasing toxicity I felt within my professional life. As we continued training, I started submitting applications to graduate schools in Germany, always having an interest in German culture, language and of course, my experience from the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne. My first-choice school, the German Sports University of Cologne, which happened to host the sports events from the 2010 Gay Games, accepted my application and it was just before the 2018 Gay Games that I learned I would be moving to Germany.


Even with how unhappy I was with my own life and career at that point, one of the few highlights was my continued friendship and training times with Ken. So, I really felt bad that I would be leaving him behind as I moved to Germany. Ken, while sad I would be leaving, was also very supportive of my ambitions. We had talked a lot about the struggles I was facing working for some truly shitty bosses and toxic work environments; he felt how unhappy I had become overall and one of the only reasons why I kept going was our training sessions together. Ken’s friendship was and is an important source of emotional and support for me.


So, by the fall of 2018, I was quickly putting everything I needed together to prepare for a move across the ocean for grad school. Ken and I did one last lunch at Hamburger Mary’s two days before I got on a plane following our last training session together. He handed me a very sweet card with some extra cash to help me get started on my new adventure. While our time training together was over, our friendship continued to grow. I had encouraged Ken to continue training with the exercises we had been doing, as he also had been attending the aqua fitness classes at the recreation center; but I knew that without being able to come down to meet me for our sessions at the gym, it wouldn’t be the same. One of the only regrets I have about leaving is that I knew it wouldn’t be easy for Ken to lose such an important source of social and emotional support; I was one of the very few people that knew the real Ken.


When I left, the Gym Uptown had to hire someone to take over my fitness classes as I managed the bulk of their group fitness program. All my clients left as they were there only to train with me, most of the class participants left as well for the same reasons as we built up a strong working relationship over the years. The person they hired to replace me quickly realized what a mess the whole place was, and their entire fitness and personal training program collapsed. Less than a month later the gym was listed for sale by the owner and after six months of no-bids it officially closed down to no fanfare. It was validation for me that such a toxic place I had unfortunately contributed too and for whom did not realize just what kind of value I brought to them had to learn the hard way that yes, I was worth investing in.


My field of study for graduate school is Psychology in Sport and Exercise, I chose this topic based on my own experiences as an openly gay athlete, trainer and coach. I had personally experienced how homophobic discrimination in this field can drive a person right out of it, as many people who’ve had similar experiences of me. Ken’s whole reason for staying in the closet for most of his life because he knew how hard and brutal it can be to live so open and different. To this day, my research interests involve how LGBTQI discrimination affects athletes and coaches, what the roles of LGBTQI sports events like “Gay Games” are in building physical, mental and social health, the science of motivation and how it can lead people to success or to giving up. So many opportunities in this field driven in part by my own personal experiences being an openly gay athlete, coach and fitness trainer facing an industry that wants to deny me these opportunities but yet, also offers so much potential in building the social, physical and mental health of individual’s like Ken and even whole communities.


As I was settling into my new life in Germany and graduate school, Ken unfortunately started to have some health problems of his own. Issues that I worry may have been attributed to the sudden change in his daily physical activity following my move. For the next year he had to contend with cancer and a whole host of other issues that things were not looking to optimistic. Ken and I had regularly email exchanges where we would tell each other all about what was going on, the struggles we faced, and things were happening. He kept me up to date on his own medical issues and often times, with the 8-hour time difference, if he wasn’t able to sleep, he knew he could reach out and I would be there, eating breakfast, ready to chat. In December of 2019 I came back to Denver for a visit for Christmas and went over to Ken’s house to catch up. He looked a lot different than the last time I saw him; a year’s worth of hospital and doctor’s visits and stress does not help. I was worried about him as he was struggling with his own physical and mental health. Unfortunately, when I flew back to Germany, things would get much worse.


As the Covid-19 pandemic spread and the world was gripping with a whole new reality, the shutdowns and quarantine did not bode well for any of us. The recreation center itself, which was Ken’s last major place of social support had to shut down. As a gathering center of an at-risk population, it was understandable of course. But the new reality of staying home 24/7 with limited contact and left with only our own thoughts was not helpful. For years, I had been encouraging Ken to start writing his own story down, he had written an autobiography about a trader in the Colorado Southwest, so I knew that Ken had the writing skills to share his story. He always brushed it off though thinking nobody would care about his story.


When the lockdown hit, he finally took me up on my suggestion and started writing out his story. This process led him to finally confront some long-held demons in his life that he had tried to hide and ignore for so many years. As you read Ken’s story, he explains it way better than I could ever. As he was writing, the process wasn’t easy for him. A lot of late nights (for him, breakfast for me) where we would talk a lot as he struggled with some old feelings for Philip and his life that could have been. It was very heartbreaking to watch and only wish I could’ve been there to support him in person as he supported me. As he worked on his book, he asked me to read his drafts and provide feedback. The one constant comment I always had was that I wanted to have more details. He articulated his feelings and his memories so well, that to really put me in his shows I wanted to know more and more, despite his own misgivings, I found his story to be very interesting.


At one point, Ken hit a bit of an emotional low point. I did my best to connect him with some of my other senior LGBTQI Denver friends to help him as well. It was during that week then I saw his Facebook post where he officially came out as gay! At this point, if you have been following Ken’s story, you’ll see that he went viral and that his coming out story soon became a hot topic for local, national and worldwide publications. Even being here in Germany it was surreal to see Ken’s face on the front-page news knowing that the rest of the world finally gets to learn about the real Ken that I’ve known for years. As his story was shared around the world, Ken was doing interviews and tv spots, wearing his bright rainbow hoody and talking about the sense of relief he felt in finally coming out.


I couldn’t be happier for Ken; it was like a huge emotional weight being lifted off of him and knowing that he is happier than he had ever been. I could immediately see a different in the way he talked in our email correspondences and seeing him on television and all over the internet. It was a huge relief to me as well, knowing my own guilt about leaving Ken behind and worrying so much about his health. He was turning over a new leaf and living his life as his true self. Just like when he supported me during my own struggles and difficult trainings as I prepared for Gay Games, I could share with his moment of triumph as, as he puts it, could finally be free. One year later, Ken is much different than when I last saw him, he has that strength and spirit now that he had when our friendship began. Ken is owning it now with his story as much as I was owning it when I strutted out on deck the first time we met. He is inspiring millions of people around the world as much as he has inspired me. For that, I am forever grateful that Ken is my friend.