Take a quick look at Kenneth Felts’ Facebook page and the first thing you’ll notice is the bright, rainbow-colored sweatshirt — and the smile — that he’s wearing in his profile picture.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Felts, at 90 years old, recently came out as gay to his family and friends. After pretending to be straight for nearly a century, he’s finally able to be himself.
Those who love Felts are thrilled to see him embracing his true identity after years of quiet pain and suffering.
“He’s just so brave and he doesn’t even realize that he is, but it’s extraordinary,” said his daughter, Rebecca Mayes.
Felts never planned to come out — he planned to take his secret to the grave. But while isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, Felts began working on his autobiography, which brought back a flood of memories.
Perhaps most important, writing down his life’s story caused him to reflect on his one true love, a man named Phillip. The two men fell in love in California in the late 1950s, but Felts ultimately decided to live as a straight man; it was just easier that way, he thought at the time.
While chatting with his daughter a few weeks ago, Felts let slip that he has always regretted leaving Phillip. It was the first time he’d mentioned being gay to Mayes.
Felts searched for Phillip, but has never been able to track him down. Mayes, Felts’ only child from a marriage that ended in divorce, tried her best to comfort her heartbroken father.
The moment was especially poignant for this father-daughter pair. More than 20 years earlier, the roles were reversed. Not long after graduating from college, Mayes came out as a lesbian to her father. And though it took some getting used to at first, Felts quickly accepted and supported his daughter and her wife, Tracie Mayes, despite his own internal struggles.
After coming out to his daughter, Felts decided it was time to let everyone in his life know that he was gay. He sent emails and posted a message on Facebook, explaining that he’d always felt he had two personalities living inside him: Ken, a straight man, and Larry, a gay man. After years of suppressing Larry, it was time to set him free.
The response was overwhelming. Almost instantly, positive emails and Facebook comments started pouring in. Of course, Felts had been anxious about revealing his life-long secret, but he pressed “send” anyway.
“I’ve been in the closet all my life — deep in the closet, behind rows and rows of clothing. I’m way back there,” he said. “Opening that door at the front, I had great trepidation as to what people would say. I was very concerned because I needed people and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing them just because I decided to finally be who I really was.”
These days, Felts is enthusiastically out and proud. First, he bought a rainbow flag to hang behind him on the wall for his virtual LGBTQ senior coffee group meetings organized by the Center on Colfax. Then he ordered the rainbow hoodie, which he wears most days. He’s also raising money for and participating in events to support the LGBTQ community, including an upcoming virtual 5K.
Plain and simple, he’s done hiding and he wants to make a bold statement that can’t be ignored or misinterpreted, he says.
“He just really seemed to take it and run with it,” said daughter-in-law Tracie Mayes. “He seems to be making up for lost time and really is owning it, which is fantastic.”
Felts was born in 1930 in Dodge City, Kan., and spent most of his childhood moving from place to place as his family followed his dad’s railroad job. Always being the new kid at school, coupled with Felts’ natural introverted tendencies, made him a frequent target of schoolyard bullies.
Felts was 12 when he first realized he was gay. Throughout high school, college, graduate school and his nearly 30-year career as a counselor and supervisor for the Colorado Division of Rehabilitation and beyond, Felts kept his secret locked inside. He doesn’t regret being married to a woman, however, because without that relationship, he wouldn’t have his beloved daughter Rebecca. That’s a point he’s tried to make crystal clear to her since coming out.
He’s also glad that society has generally become more accepting of the LGBTQ community and that people coming out today have more support and resources available.
“Coming out in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was horrendous,” Felts said. “That was part of the reason I didn’t ever consider coming out (before). There was no gay community, there really weren’t gay organizations or anything. People who came out came out on their own, without support. And I guess I didn’t have the courage to face society at that time, so I just went ahead and buried it.”
Today, Felts enjoys writing, gardening at his Arvada home and spending time with Rebecca, Tracie and his two grandchildren. He says he hopes his better-late-than-never approach to coming out inspires other people, even if they’ve spent years pretending to be someone else.
It’s never, ever too late to be yourself, he said.
“Don’t underestimate your friends and family,” he said. “You might be surprised at how they react if you were to decide to come out. Enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it, because you’ve only got it once.”
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