A Sense of Belonging: Feeling Pride in Work & Spirit

As an LGBTQ+ author, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to attend fairs or large-scale events until today. I was invited by Leopard Print Books as a local LGBTQ+ author to sell and sign copies of my poem collections at Great Lakes Bay Pride in Bay City, MI. The sticky, 90 degree heat did not deter anyone from getting out and taking in the scene. Wenona Park, nestled cutely next to the Saginaw River, welled with music, vendors, vibrant colors, and self-expression celebrated.

Great Lakes Bay Pride Festival Entrance

Overall, the past two years have been incredibly surreal for me as an LGBTQ+ author. During the height of the pandemic, when Carbon Footprint (2020) was released, I did not anticipate the level of response to my work I’ve had. While I never aimed for this, I had the honor of being nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and once for Best of the Net. Having been celebrated by the humanities learning center at the college where I teach, I just received the Humanities Scholar Award for my creative work. Despite these successes, I always circulate back the question of: how do I deserve anything? Throughout my life, I’ve always struggled to take pride in success because it always felt so far away. In fact, in many ways, I still feel that I’m experiencing some sort of fever dream. Thankfully, paying heed to my mental health and attending regular therapy sessions has allowed me to unpack that deep rooted childhood trauma which conditions me to always tell myself: “Donny, you’re invisible, don’t deserve anything, and don’t belong.”

After attending Great Lakes Bay Pride today and being able to see each individual celebrating, I was reinvigorated by a synergy. I was reminded that I’m not invisible, that I’m deserving, and that I do belong. I was reminded that the reason why I wrote Carbon Footprint (2020) and Feats of Alchemy (2021) was to illustrate the various challenges LGBTQ+ people face prior and post coming out. We spend much of our lives unlearning erasure, self-deprecation, and minimization. Poetry became my vehicle for mapping out this trauma and plotting coordinates toward a sense of recovery.

#SayGay – My table, fully assembled!

One of the many highlights of Great Lakes Bay Pride for me was meeting current and reuniting with former students – talented LGBTQ+ individuals and allies reconnecting with their writing. The most wholesome moment for me happened when one of my former students, clutching a copy of a poem collection said: “You’re the reason I pursued a degree in creative writing.” As a writer and a teacher, knowing that I can infuse my passion for this artform in another person makes all the vulnerability, discouragement, and uncertainty along this journey worthwhile. If anything, it was an educational moment for me; it served as a reminder that we’re all representation for one another. Our actions and words linger in ways we often don’t imagine. Sometimes, my students teach me with the same excitement I strive to enter my classroom with and it’s a full-circle moment I’ve never quite grasped until now.

When people ask, “why is Pride important?”, I believe it’s more than us celebrating who we are or the histories of our communities. Both of those are crucial, but I also believe that it’s a celebration of the belonging we’ve all worked toward creating. It’s a celebration of the connection we strive for despite all the forces that still continue to work against us. Pride is more than flags, buttons, bandanas, and commercialism. It’s a grove, and we’re the seedings springing beneath weather-hardened trees, connected by the root systems, mycelium, and the sustaining air we share. The darkness we see doesn’t compare to how solar we are in the way we celebrate our belonging.

–Donny Winter

Confessions of an Anxious Writer (Pre-Book Release)

The day before a book release is often an exciting time for writers. Considering my second collection of poems, Feats of Alchemy, is coming out tomorrow, this is only the second time I’ve experienced this strange mixture of euphoria and anxiety. To add to this, the pressure of releasing a second book after a successful first book ups the expectation level, which inadvertently fuels even more anxiety. Of course, despite this mounting euphoria and anxiety, another feeling is creeping from the shadows: solace.

Looking back and looking forward simultaneously (because that’s what we anxious people do), there is a peculiar comfort setting in with the knowledge that my work has finally been released into the world and that it’s being well received. Considering both of my collections deal with LGBTQ+ challenges, life experiences, successes, and trauma, having shards of my history being explored and celebrated has created the most wholesome catharsis I’ve ever felt. Thankfully, this catharsis has allowed me to set aside much of this “success-pressure anxiety” and find the joy in this process.

This new collection, Feats of Alchemy, is a book I feel even more confident about when it comes to quality. As a poet over the years, I’ve grown considerably and this collection is the culmination of that growth. Plus, with the success of Carbon Footprint, I now feel more confident in my ability to experiment in my poetry, which readers will discover.

Anyway, as I continue to ride this hype-train leading into tomorrow’s release, if you’re interested in learning more about my collection, Feats of Alchemy, feel free to visit the videos below. Thank you all for the support, and thank you to Alien Buddha Press for giving my poetry a home. Keep writing!

–Donny Winter

Donny Winter introduces his collection, Feats of Alchemy, and discusses some of its themes.
Donny Winter performs the poem “Serizawa” from Feats of Alchemy, which is a Godzilla inspired piece.
For National Coming Out Day, Donny Winter performs the poem “Cyberpunk [Un]dead” from his collection, Feats of Alchemy.
Donny Winter performs the poem “The [Un]salvaged Body, Biotic and Broken” from his collection, Feats of Alchemy

Storytelling | Churning the Covered Pot on the Back-burner

My name is Donny Winter and welcome to my official website and blog. I have finally done it. I have finally created a website and blog that will act as a conduit connecting my YouTube channels to my writing, activism, and music. Regardless what expressive medium I use, activism is the blood that flows through each. It’s the sustenance that inspires my storytelling, the quiet, yet powerful undertow ebbing and flowing through each message.

I have always enjoyed blogging, ever since I was an angsty teenager diligently typing at 2:00 a.m. every morning on LiveJournal. A decade ago, I was finishing high school and transitioning out of one of the most difficult points in my life. Being bullied, for me, became as commonplace as brushing my teeth in the morning. The difference back then was that I chose to reflect on my bullying experiences through the privacy of my closed LiveJournal, not publicly here or on YouTube.

Around 2009, when I was midway through my undergraduate college career, I began to look back with a critical eye on my experiences in both high school and college. I never fully grasped the extent of my story until an individual organizing Pride Week asked me to tell my coming out story in a public setting. I ended up telling it and found that sharing my experiences helped me resolve some unacknowledged pain. This was the first event that lead me to eventually creating my YouTube channel in 2011, where I began my storytelling journey.

Before transitioning into speaking publicly on YouTube, I was an extremely shy, insecure individual who feared speaking out. A lot of this had to do with my high school bullying experiences which centered around the softness of my voice, and how it emasculated me. The severity of this emasculation-fueled bullying ranged from being shoved into walls to being hit in the locker-room, among other things. The insecurity still sticks with me today and it has drastically interfered with my ability to speak. Thankfully, that changed when I subscribed to the YouTube channel Drstrangelove17, which happens to belong to my dear friend, R.E. She introduced me to v-logging, and weekly, I’d watch her bravely discuss sensitive subjects. I’d watch her confront her insecurities, respond to controversy, and philosophically reflect on life’s nuances. Immediately, I recognized how courageous she was for telling her stories and I realized that I had the power to do it as well.

Reflecting back on 2007, I created a YouTube channel but it never lifted off the ground. It was a smattering of disjointed funny videos and profane rants. It wasn’t until I found Chris Crocker’s YouTube channel that I understood how important it was to discuss more serious issues – like LGBTQ rights. Chris was (and still is) an individual I look up to as one of the foundation-layers of what I now call social justice education on YouTube. Over the years, he and I eventually spoke on numerous occasions, which inspired further confidence in my speaking ability. With both R.E. and Chris Crocker’s examples churning my inspiration, I knew it was almost time to set out on my biggest adventure.

Some time later, in 2011, I mustered the gumption to create a channel that allowed me to be funny, but also reflective. That was the moment when I realized that storytelling was easier than I originally believed. The seed R.E. planted eventually sprouted when I recognized the bravery of other friends telling their stories across different social networking sites and message boards. My friends Cyndi (streamofawareness) and Tiffany Gray (Tiffany Gray Music) also played pivotal roles in building my speaking confidence. They encouraged me to be myself and were some of the first who embraced me as an openly gay man. Now, together, all three of us have become storytelling activists. We strive to help bullying victims become survivors through the Affirmations For Bullying Victims movement and we create awareness about other topics many never discuss. Also, thanks to their musical prowess and encouragement, I’ve been empowered to create a YouTube channel dedicated to my own poetic and musical passions. (Donny Winter Music)

Despite YouTube becoming my outlet, I never recognized myself as an activist until I met actor, activist, and musician, Ace Lundon. After having watched some of my videos, he eventually approached me to be a guest co-host on his show, Lundon Calling. This lead to a friendship I deeply cherished. Over the years he would always tell me, “Donny, you are who you’ve been becoming,” a signal that I’m always shifting, growing, becoming something more. I kept his words close to my heart as I continued to speak out with greater intensity. Eventually, our friendship led to him asking Sean Chandler and myself to be a co-hosts on the The Lundon Bridge talk show, where we bridge the gaps between three generations of gay men through discussing current events. Recently, Ace passed on, but his words and his impression of my ability to speak out will always resonate throughout my life.

In 2014, I made the choice to return to school for my M.A. in English. During that time, my mentor and friend, Dr. Rose Gubele, helped me reclaim my creative voice, which helped me find the confidence to discuss even deeper subjects on YouTube that I would have originally feared to address. She helped show me that there is one thing more important than being a social justice warrior, that is being a social justice educator. With the experience of college-level teaching under my belt, I realized that activism and social justice on YouTube are even more powerful when they are complimented by the passion to educate. That passion made me realize that teaching in the classroom and on YouTube is not just about speaking out, but also about listening.

Overall, I am moved by the incredible opportunities and strengths YouTube has given me. One simple act of storytelling opened me up to so much more. In late 2012, two of my videos went viral after I chose to publicly stand up for my friend, Whitney Kropp, who was being bullied at the high school I once attended. In 2015, I branched out further and started the Universal Journeys show with my beloved mentor and friend, Dr. Brenda L. Bates, who helped me find the confidence to explore activism and its connection to spirituality. Eventually, also in 2016, I was asked to partner with Outspeak, a YouTube network that would give me further opportunities to speak out on specific subjects centered around politics, depression, bullying, and LGBTQ issues. Shortly after that, my choice to reveal my survival of sexual assault on YouTube allowed me the opportunity to present at a national conference in Houston, TX themed around social justice. Most baffling of all, I was told upon meeting one of my biggest celebrity inspirations (Adam Lambert) that he recognized me from my videos. That showed me that what I say really does get out there. Now that I look back on how far I’ve come, I realize that the small choice of telling a story helped me heal in ways I would have never imagined. It helped me reclaim the voice I was robbed of in high school. It has revealed to me that I can take all of that pain and transform it into something more powerful: storytelling.

Storytelling isn’t always sitting around campfires reflecting on good times. Sometimes, it’s dumping a bucket of ice-cold water over ourselves. It puts out those old embers that burned in us for years and allows us to feel the refreshing chill of acceptance. I cannot begin to explain how much my family, friends, teachers, and followers have empowered me on this journey. All I can say is that I’ll continue to do this. I’ll continue to listen, speak out, share stories, and show people that even the most quiet, insecure, bullying survivor can find the voice he thought he never had.