The Rise and Future of a Queer Polity of Literature in Six Scenes (part two)
Polity of Literature (48/51)

The Rise and Future of a Queer Polity of Literature in Six Scenes (part two)

In part two, the purposes and ambitions of queer literature change in the ‘80s with the rise of AIDS and a punishing, homophobic backlash. These cultural conditions birthed a new political awareness—one that linked queer communities to other historically marginalized and oppressed people.

In part one of Michael Bronski’s memoir of a queer polity of literature from the 1960s through our time, he described the many ways by which “queer consciousness, which had become public and embodied by the post-Stonewall activism of the 1970s, began to gain its material infrastructure.” From books passed hand-to-hand, to open public discussion about the books—and about “gay liberation”—to the first “gay and lesbian bookshops” helping mainstream publishers see a queer market they could exploit, to the proliferation of proudly “gay and lesbian” businesses of all kinds, Bronski writes, “a world was built that could become a home: the so-called ‘gay ghetto.’” Part one closed with a warning: “But this home, especially its commercial outposts, was also a target.”

Now in part two, from the 1980s until today, Bronski recalls the transformations forced by the AIDS crisis and homophobic backlash during the Reagan years (and on into the new century), pressuring disparate queer communities to unite, not only with each other, but with brethren victims of systemic oppression—the poor and the working class, Blacks and People of Colour, and others. His story culminates in the heady ambitions of the OutWrite conferences of the 1990s and their bountiful, confusing aftermath. Bronski concludes with a personal bibliography of works that provide a more detailed overview of queer literature, “including older ones that are themselves a part of the history.”

Scene IV

The Word Made Flesh: The Rise of Gay Publishing (1971-1995)

With the demonstrated effectiveness of new distribution networks in the ’70s and early ’80s (and LGBTQ book sellers sprouting up from shore to shore) American mainstream publishers soon saw that profits could be made from LGBTQ novels and nonfiction. They viewed the opportunity through marketing strategies predicated on sex and class—soon enough a market for white gay male titles was strategized, and that is where the money from New York publishing went. This shift opened a deep and damaging divide between gay and lesbian writers who, hitherto, had been sailing in the same small boat. Now that mainstream publishers invited some of the men on board their luxury cruise ships (and notably, those invited were mostly bourgeois white men who could tell their uplifting stories of “coming out” to find acceptance in the new gay ghettos), other queer writers were left to drift or capsize in their wake. 

In 1971, Gordon Merrick’s gay romance novel The Lord Wont Mind was published by Bernard Geis Associates (BGA), a New York trade publisher often less interested in quality than in sales. And sales they had. The Lord Won’t Mind was marketed as titillating fluff, not (in the manner of Grove Press with Jean Genet, for example) as “serious literature.”  Merrick’s novel appeared on the New York Times top-ten best-seller list for sixteen weeks in 1970, quickly went through numerous printings, and was translated into several languages—enough to make commercial publishers take notice. BGA used aggressive Hollywood-style promotional campaigns, focused on gossip columns and talk shows, not only on book reviews. Earlier they had published Jacqueline Suzanne’s The Valley of the Dolls, which (despite lukewarm reviews that mocked its style and soap-opera content) was a New York Times best-seller for 65 weeks. The Lord Wont Mind enjoyed a four-month run on the Times’ best seller list despite that paper’s review complaining that “this love story focuses on boudoir paraphernalia” and “may set homosexuality back at least twenty years.” By the end of the ’70s, adventurous, socially aware, and financially astute editors at a few mainstream presses began to acquire gay titles (almost entirely by white men) which were soon to define the post-Stonewall gay literary market.

Armistead Maupin’s folksy collection, Tales of the City, was published in 1978, the same year as Larry Kramer’s incendiary Faggots and Andrew Holleran’s F. Scott Fitzgerald-inflected Dancer from the Dance. Also that year Edmund White published his erudite gay fantasia, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, a follow-up to his well-respected 1973 debut, Forgetting Elena. One clear marker of the invention and flourishing of commercial gay male publishing came in 1982 when White—hitherto a heady, experimental Nabokov-approved author—had a critical and financial success for trade publisher E.P. Dutton with his popular coming-out novel, A Boys Own Story. The well-established and respected St. Martin’s Press soon became, essentially, a leading “gay male press” marketing a paperback series of gay-themed work. In 1987 they instituted Stonewall Inn Editions which included fiction, non-fiction, humour, and photography books. The gay romance-novel days of Gordon Merrick were swiftly giving way to a plethora of new titles that mainstream publishers marketed through the usual establishment book reviewers and cultural gatekeepers. No more Hollywood-style gossip campaigns. The literary mythology cast White and Holleran and four of their contemporaries as “the Violet Quill” a salon of gay writers meeting in New York in the 1980s—even as they insisted it was much less a “salon” than casual brunches—an image that placed gay literature as another chapter in the long history of literary movements.

Mainstream publishers marketed these books as representations of a beautiful, sexual, and loving (post-Stonewall) life. Some cover images were forthright photographs, others more artful and “evocative.” But mainstream publishers built gay markets using their own sanitized versions of the glossy soft-core pornography images that had roots in pre-Stonewall porn—suggestive, friendly, and seductive; not very different from the models in gay male publications who also sold lube, travel guides, or videos. The implicit message was that the reader could have or be the image. (The contrast with pulp-fiction covers of the same period is interesting. The pulps mostly featured anguished faces under maudlin cover copy, such as “The Story of a Doomed Passion”). 

Two figures look at a book titled "Model Relationship" with an attractive person on the cover. The book is on a shelf labelled "Of Gay Interest."

The circulation of these books was vitally consequential for queer communities. To be represented—brought to life—in a novel, even a popular novel of little literary worth, was very different from being in a glossy publication on a magazine rack. Aside from their value as commodities, books from mainstream publishers confirmed broader changes that no grassroots collective could adequately reflect. In the logic of capitalist culture, the market success of gay male literature was also a political validation of queer lives.

Mainstream publishers, with their ability to pay writers big advances, did not conceive of markets for lesbian fiction until the late-1980s, when authors such as Sarah Schulman and Dorothy Allison were published. Even then the disparity in pay between lesbian and gay writers was egregious. Meanwhile, smaller lesbian presses, such as Naiad Press, Spinster’s Inc., and Seal Press, enjoyed tremendous sales of their genre fiction: romances, detective mysteries, and science fiction. Lesbian and feminist presses also often prioritized works by lesbians of colour, who had little chance of being published by the mainstream. By the end of the ’80s a small space—a niche market, really— in the trade presses opened to women of colour, largely through the politically-driven feminist houses.

With rare exceptions, queer men of colour had no presence in mainstream publishing in the 1980s. This was in stark contrast to the enormous amount of vital work then being published by small presses, and especially by journals that were founded by queer men of colour (by necessity as they had no other outlets). When Good Gay Poets Press published Black and Queer, a collection of poems by Adrian Stanford, in 1977, it was an outlier. Isaac Jackson founded the journal Blackheart in 1982, and in 1986 the Other Countries Collective was founded. Both of these produced an astonishing amount of vibrant writing and laid the groundwork for the increasing visibility of Black gay male writing that followed. They were also vitally important for nurturing new writers and building communities that, if they couldn’t give writers a paycheck or fame, provided crucial political and social support. By the 1990s, New York’s large mainstream presses began to publish a small sampling of these writers, including Melvin Dixon and Essex Hemphill. While this was a welcomed change it never included most of the writers in this growing writing community, and created some of the same disparities as had the presses’ earlier embrace of a small number of white gay male writers.

The groundswell of mainstream and small press publishing—with all of its inequities—continued through the 1990s, and it formed the foundation of what we call “contemporary queer literature.” Some titles were brilliant, some important, some uninteresting, and many were merely average examples of middle-brow popular culture. They were hugely important to their readers. These books shaped queer lives and communities for three decades. These are also the books that my LGBTQ students in 2000 had not heard of, and for which they had little interest in reading.

Imagining alternate realities, or making alternative realities vibrantly alive—what some have called “imaginary politics”—is the radical potential of fiction. It is a kind of lucid, shared dreaming. Norman O. Brown wrote (quoting Charles Lamb), “The poet dreams being awake. He is not possessed by his subject but he has dominion over it.” Much of queer literature—pre-Stonewall, the folk culture years after Stonewall, and later—is a process of dreaming while awake. The new scale of visibility that came with mainstream publication of gay and lesbian writers in the ’80s and ’90s catalyzed new communities eager to consume even more of themselves and their dreams—in the form of mass culture.

A man sleeps in a bed, with multiple thought bubbles above his head containing a sketch of the male body.

Markets grow, or they die. This cannibalizing urge is also a powerful engine of assimilation. When “fringe” communities grow into mass-marketable numbers and representations they inevitably become less disruptive, less “fringe.” Their radical origins recede as the image of “who they are” is neutered and digested by themselves and others. It seemed as though every queer life was headed for “a place at the table”, however inequitably or slowly those seats were coming. It would take a major shift in American politics and a pandemic to completely overturn this fate.

Scene V

After Such Knowledge: AIDS and the Transfiguration of Queerness (1981-2000)

“Douglas Bessette” was the first name I saw on a panel of the Names Project AIDS quilt at the Boston Armory in 1988. It was a shock, not because I didn’t know he was dead (the sheer number of oh, he died? friends was uncountable), but because I hadn’t thought of him in a decade. Douglas was an artist whose work—delicate, meticulous pen-and-ink drawings of men’s faces and bodies—was frequently featured in Fag Rag. I remembered he moved to San Francisco, as so many gay men did in the 1970s… or was it Santa Fe? His memorial quilt featured an outline of Vermont, where he was born; or maybe he moved back there when he was sick? For several minutes—immersed in the disturbing blur of loss displayed on this seemingly endless quilt hanging overhead, blanketing the floor, and still growing—my mind wandered…to where had Douglas moved? who were his lovers? had he continued drawing? had he been happy? did he keep the old issues of Fag Rag his work was in? when did he first become ill? who was with him when he died?

A figure looks at a large rainbow quilt with the name "Douglas Bessette" written on it. Above the figure is a large question mark.

My ruminations could have served as plot lines for many of the AIDS novels published in the 1980s and 1990s. There was an outpouring, which publishers marketed as “AIDS writing.” AIDS writing differed from the gay novels marketed in the 1970s and ’80s, first of all, in subject matter. No more heroic coming-out stories. No more happy endings in the gay ghetto. Second, AIDS touched all queer lives, and disproportionately those who had been excluded from queer literature by myopic publishers—people of colour, the poor, transgender people, and others. Like the AIDS quilt itself, this new demographic of AIDS writers was more open and inclusive than published “gay writing” had been. This sea-change would bear fruit in the 1990s, when queer writers who gathered at the community-run OutWrite Conferences (beyond the gatekeeping of mainstream publishers) claimed their places in the queer polity of literature, and fought about it. The audience also diversified. AIDS writing brought attention to a topic ignored by most mainstream media. Anyone with a sick friend or relative—if they didn’t disown them—would be able to turn to the witnessing of queer writers to learn what was happening to their loved ones.

The first diagnosed AIDS cases were in 1981 (initially called GRID, for Gay-Related Immune-Deficiency), three years into a wave of right-wing religious attacks on the queer community in America. Famously led by former Miss America second-runner-up and orange-juice industry mouthpiece Anita Bryant, and supported by the Reagan presidency, attacks on queers portrayed us as child molesters, cultural subversives, and religious heretics. AIDS became, for many bigoted Americans, literally the physical manifestation of the sin of homosexuality. AIDS writing was in reaction to this, as much as it was to the medical condition itself.

As AIDS cases multiplied—not arithmetically but exponentially—queers responded with self-organized resistance: community health and education initiatives; emotional and financial support for people with AIDS; legal aid against discrimination, almost entirely started and funded by private citizens. These lifesaving networks were augmented by an outpouring of writing about all aspects of AIDS. First was the grass roots news reporting, most of it in gay and lesbian newspapers, such as San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter and New York’s biweekly, The New York Native. Editorials and think pieces in the LGBT press were in sharp contrast to the indifference or misrepresentations of the mainstream press. As important, there were obituaries to write. Many who died of AIDS had been abandoned by their families. It fell to their queer comrades to write words of remembrance. This quotidian writing was the groundwork, a kind of resource base for the AIDS novels, poetry, and plays that began to be published in the mid-1980s. The words, the basic information, the social and community frameworks, the emotional grammar—all of that evolved as lives were lost. This was especially true for queers of colour whose communities were hit hardest by the epidemic. The Other Countries’ anthology Sojourner: Black Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993) and the work of Assoto Saint, Craig Harris, and Roy Gonsalves, are testimony to these losses and our paradoxical gains.

Until AIDS, gay literature mostly bore witness to the gospels of Gay Liberation, the sexual and emotional freedoms born with the public visibility of the queer body politic. It was at heart announcing a new social, moral, and legal claim to citizenship in the face of increasingly powerful right-wing attacks, much of it fanatically religious. With AIDS—and as documented in AIDS writing—celebrated queer bodies suddenly faced corruption and death. Multiple critics, within and outside of the queer community, claimed that the celebratory post-Stonewall culture actively contributed to the AIDS crisis by focusing “too much” on sex. Yet it was those very structures of a sexualized community that allowed the political organizing and grass roots caretaking projects to manifest so quickly after the first signs of AIDS appeared in the population.

AIDS writing flooded the same infrastructure that had been developed to circulate liberating stories of gay coming-out. First the myriad community publications and small press outlets, and later the mainstream publishers, prioritized writing that could carry this news to audiences that had few other sources for it. The sheer bravery of these writers and publishers cannot be underestimated.  Much was written by authors who were already infected, often seriously ill, writing against a deadline of death. Some was written by people who were also caretakers, doing difficult community work to support people with AIDS, or raise awareness through protest. How do you make art in the face of mass death?

The queer community had always dealt with death: death by queer bashing; death by suicide; death by medical and psychiatric malfeasance; death by police brutality; and deaths caused by aggregated animus and hatred. These deaths were historically seen as individual, even isolated, never as a collective trauma. AIDS changed that. Fran Lebowitz noted that the enormous effect of AIDS on the arts was not just the deaths of writers, painters, choreographers, designers, and composers, but the death of their audience. Art only exists in relationship with an audience; without that audience what happens to a culture? What transpires when the unimaginable happens to an imagined community that has just become real?

In clear and very particular ways, AIDS writing manifested qualities traditionally thought of as religious or sacred. Pre-Stonewall writing had also acknowledged physical harm, even death, often employing religious analogies to Christ’s Passion. Post-Stonewall literature celebrated physical and emotional bodily pleasures (and, though much less often, death), using the religious language and imagery of the divinely exalted body of a William Blake poem or drawing, or the ecstatic language of St. Theresa of Avila. AIDS writing embraced the depleted, sick body as the site where mortal life confronts its need for spiritual redemption. The major project of AIDS literature was to reclaim, in secular terms, the holiness—and spiritual and ethical wholeness—of the gay male body. This was vital in a political and religious world that increasingly categorized that body as physically and morally corrupt.

Two male figures taken from a painting are collaged over a gay pride flag. One is saying "Pre-Stonewall!" and the other is saying "Post-Stonewall!"

The human body takes a dangerously ambiguous place in philosophy. Plato’s dualism of body and mind (which Christian theologians would later identify as the soul) implicitly denigrated the material body and saw death as an end to it. Christian theology held that the body would survive a temporary death, and eventually be reunited with the soul. Norman O. Brown argues that “[I]n the last analysis Christian theology must accept death as part of life or abandon the body.” AIDS literature faced a similar problem. If the queer body were sacred, worthy of respect, honour, and full citizenship, then it would have its redemption after death—not necessarily the life-ever-after of Christian theology, but by being remembered by the community, being memorialized, even venerated as a life that had meaning.

Representations of the venerated body (often rooted in Roman Catholic traditions of canonized saints) have become entangled with Christian imagery and are deeply embedded in European cultures. These representations comprise a visual rhetoric of martyrdom (people who died of AIDS were martyrs for gay liberation, murdered by an intolerant society), as is evident in AIDS writing and visual art. The “Man of Sorrows” and Christ’s passion imagery recur throughout the period, often as a direct rebuke to the animus of the religious right. What is the Names Project quilt but a complex, endlessly refracted secular version of the Stations of the Cross, in which the faithful walk—station by station, on a ritual pilgrimage—with Christ, from his condemnation to his burial in the tomb? Much AIDS writing—for instance, Assoto Saint’s poetry and Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body—builds on this tradition.

AIDS writing also employs more profane tropes of queer redemption. The diseased, spotted, bruised body of the person dying of AIDS—still vibrant, still feeling—invokes and sometimes poses as the sexually desirable body of the post-Stonewall years. The relationship is not imitative; it is a vivid juxtaposition of opposites—each stage of queer embodiment a sacred element of the person’s humanity, a claim to citizenship. AIDS writing and visual art—such as the work of David Wojnarowicz or Nan Goldin—documents the suffering of queers to catalyze, if not spiritually transfigure, their political salvation through that suffering.

Marketing AIDS books was complicated—these were stories of gay men dying in terrible and terrifying ways. How do you market that to queers or to anyone? On book covers lithe bodies were replaced by text or, perhaps, images without human representation—empty chairs signifying absence. Sometimes bodies were replaced by art (a Greek statue), or else the bodies were posed “artfully,” abstracted photos of nudes—not bodies but skin. Publishers stretched to balance the palpable reality of loss with an affirmation of gay lives.

There was also the primary problem of how to write the books. If one wasn’t sick oneself, there were scores of friends and lovers dying. The purely practical problem of writing fiction during a deadly epidemic—an epidemic so resolutely ignored by the nation’s political leadership that community care was, for many, their only care—had no easy solution. A 1983 safe-sex pamphlet (two years into the crisis) was titled “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic.” No one was circulating “How to Write Fiction in an Epidemic.”

The literary problems posed by AIDS—of plot, language, and representation—were enormous. How do you tell the story of a virus that threatens to wipe out a vast sexual subculture? The gay sex-radical writer and literary theorist, Samuel R. Delaney, publishing early in 1985, chose to add a third volume to his ongoing Nevèrÿon series, using science fiction and the conceit of a distant planet to convey the facts of a plague that was ravaging Delaney’s own friends and neighbours in New York’s gay community. Delaney’s Flight from Nevèrÿon told the world the news of AIDS. Susan Sontag’s short story “The Way We Live Now” appeared in the New Yorker the following year and reached a broad, mainstream audience. Some small presses began issuing novels and memoirs—Paul Reed’s autobiographical novel Facing It was published by Gay Sunshine Press in late 1984, a few months before Delaney’s novel. But it was gay journalist Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On that became a best seller. While Shilts’ book shed light on the struggles of people with AIDS and the deadly impact of government indifference, it was also highly polemical in its attacks on gay male culture, and willfully misrepresented the history of the epidemic with the fabricated story of a “Patient Zero.” Shilts’ book was highly sensationalized. Could it have gotten the mainstream attention it did if it were otherwise?

It’s tempting to invoke Theodor W. Adorno’s famous interdiction, that “to write poetry in the wake of the Holocaust is barbaric.” But that insight, and similar ones from W.H. Auden and Bertolt Brecht, are so specific to the unimaginable suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust as to not  apply here. More relevant, I think, is Frantz Fanon’s idea of a “national culture,” what he called “the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remained strong.” Read in conjunction with Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist Achille Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics,” Fanon offers a more fruitful way of conceptualizing AIDS literature. Necropoltics—the way that decisions of social, political, and medical power (often by the state) determine who may/will live or die—accurately describes the terror governmental inaction and delinquent health response to AIDS imposed on the communities most affected by it.

Viewing AIDS literature as a surge of national culture (that is, a queer nation’s culture—a queer polity of literature—which in two short decades had formed from the rich, fragrant soil of its self-invented folk culture) and as resistance to the deadly animus that emerged in the wake of AIDS—places it in an accurate historical context. In her 1940 essay, “The Iliad or The Poem of Force,” the French writer and mystic Simone Weil defines force as “that x that turns anyone who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense; it makes a corpse out of him.” The force of indifferent governmental and medical agencies turned many gay men, and others, into things. Necropolitics is the background reflected in all AIDS literature. AIDS literature bore witness to necropolitics by representing the individual suffering, in all its variety, that was caused by it.

A skeleton sits at a desk typing the word "AIDS" repeatedly on a typewriter.

The legacy of AIDS literature is complex. As a cry of outrage, it continues to be vital. In the last two decades HIV has become manageable, not a death sentence. AIDS literature—when it is read at all—is now more of a memory than an outcry, In her 2003 After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust, Eve Hoffman charts how response to the Holocaust went for moral and political outrage in the years following the war to a project of memorialization: “…the Holocaust has entered public consciousness and the public sphere through the extensive and growing cultural of commemoration” (p. 156). The memory—the afterlife—of the early years of the AIDS epidemic lives on in writing today. It is mostly covert or implied, a half-seen spectre of the past glimpsed between the lines and the pages. Collective memory, acknowledged and unacknowledged, is a form of memorialization and of commemoration, but is that enough?

The most enduring legacy of AIDS writing—its sacredness—came from those vast, crowded margins of the queer polity of literature where mostly-unpaid queer writers found ways to reach communities of queer readers who still did not see their lives reflected in the narrow band of commercial queer and lesbian (by then, LGBT) writing. It was not only AIDS that brought these multifarious, articulate queers into visibility. It was also time—the inevitable result of a community that was in the first place birthed by committing to make the invisible visible and did not shirk. While lucrative advances to white gay male writers, and even to a few white lesbians, increased and the Lambda Literary Awards provided promotional stickers for the bright glossy covers of mainstream publishing’s growing roster of LGBT titles, something else was changing. A far broader array of writers—writers of colour, women, intersectional writers, poor and working-class writers, writers who lived on the outskirts of acceptability but who knew their centrality to a queer literature—began to gather at a national conference series called OutWrite. Here is another reason to mourn Douglas Bessette: he might have enjoyed it—and I would have liked to see him there.

Scene VI

OutWrite: Discipline and Panache (1990-2000)

The first OutWrite conference in San Francisco, Spring 1990, was a burst of energy and light, a much-needed affirmation of psychic and emotional resistance in difficult times. AIDS had cast its unrelenting shadow for almost a decade. Illness, death, and mourning permeated every aspect of queer life. Sickness dominated relationships, conversations, mundane interactions with friends, and our writing. Worse, the country was still held in thrall of extreme religious conservatism. Reagan was gone, but now Bush Sr. was in office, with no end in sight. Then suddenly this—a great gathering of queer voices in a city that for decades had been a gay mecca. I scraped together the money for plane fare (my writing for the gay press rarely paid) and found a friend to stay with in San Francisco.

The conference was the brainchild of the left-leaning journal, OUT/LOOK, started in 1988, and it was led by one of OUT/LOOK‘s founders, Jeffrey Escofier. OutWrite drew inspiration from long standing queer activism in the community-based press, ACT-UP’s recent history of AIDS street activism, and the newly emerging academic field of Queer Studies. The alliance between the “amateur” world of community organizing—which carried with it the irrefutable authority of lived experience—and the odd, but real, “institutional authority” of academia, was a principal element of OutWrite’s remarkable chemistry.

The energy was astonishing. There were 1,200 participants at the first OutWrite, including many well-known names from across a wide range of queer writing and publishing. Along with the keynotes, plenaries, and exhibits, there were scores of panels on a huge range of topics. Having been a part of this queer polity of literature for almost three decades, I knew, or had at least been in touch with, many of the panelists, and know at least some of all of their work.

Eight open mouths contain the letters that spell "OutWrite."

While most community events concern specific, local communities, OutWrite felt to me like a national event—a gathering of a “queer nation” based in writing and reading. The conference radiated the fervor of the invisible becoming visible in sheer numbers, a sea of faces filling large auditoriums, a physical confirmation of community. The idea of community was omnipresent, if often undefined. OUT/LOOK’s political orientation was progressive left-to-radical, anchored in gay liberation and Feminism. Contributors such as Cherrie Moraga, Allan Burebe, Masha Gessen, Marlon Riggs, and Jewell Gomez fell far to the left of most LGBT people in their mainstream lives. At OutWrite it was assumed—sometimes articulated, often not—that queer writing was, by its very nature, political. Queer writing was active resistance to power.

OutWrite’s “queer community” was resonant with Benedict Anderson’s imagined community, in that we relied on empathetic imagining to identify with one another—across our considerable differences—and as a way to pursue common goals. These included allyship with a long list of progressive causes from outside the worlds of gender and sexuality. The position was not new to us; it echoed arguments made by Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Jane Addams, and James Baldwin. As the gathering place for every part of the queer polity of literature that had not been offered a place at the table of mainstream publishing, OutWrite also functioned as a stage-set for incipient tensions and fissures. These came with our community’s tremendous diversity. As it grew, from year to year, the tensions became more visible, and the participants became more skilled at conflict. We learned the complicated practice of negotiating power with no easy buy-out in sight (none of the lucrative prizes or publishing contracts were in our hands) and of using writing and reading to site our politics.

Lesbian poet and visionary Judy Grahn gave the first keynote: “If there is a gay or lesbian writer who has never done any organizing, that person is taking a free ride.” We cheered and clamoured our approval. Grahn’s words were not spoken in a vacuum. The AIDS epidemic was entering its second decade. The policies of the Reagan administration had targeted a wide range of progressive and specifically LGBT causes. The United States Congress, provoked and prodded by Senator Jesse Helms, was dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) because four queer/transgressive artists had received grants for their work, and the funding of museums that had displayed Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Perfect Moment” exhibition, featuring images of gay male sado-masochistic activity, was threatened.

Grahn’s words were echoed in a plenary session on AIDS where Essex Hemphill, Patrick Califia, Susan Griffin, Sarah Schulman, and John Preston all spoke of the need for—the responsibility of—queer writers and thinkers to confront the AIDS epidemic, not only in their writing but in grass-roots political activity. For me, their discussion acknowledged my years in publishing and activism, but also the important work of unnamed others, the huge volunteer resource of a queer community that first of all had to invent its own literature. The OutWrite conferences were host to every part of that community.

The conference was no love fest. OutWrite contained multiple imagined communities. After Grahn, OutWrite invited the award-winning playwright Edward Albee to give one of 1991’s keynotes. Bravely (perhaps heedlessly; many in the audience vehemently disagreed with him), Albee declared that he was not a “gay writer”, merely “a writer who is gay.” His sexual desires were not the basis for broad political alliances, nor could they be. Albee was heckled by many in the audience, and he responded by affirming his right to his own views.

The question of a “gay writer” versus “a writer who is gay” went deep. It dominated the rest of the 1991 conference, with partisans (some vocal, some silent) on every side. It was at the heart of discussions about the purpose of art, and the role of the artist. In a world that still took anti-homosexual sentiments for granted, any statement by an openly queer artist can be understood as political resistance, even Albee’s disruptive declaration. Such acts are disruptive simply by dint of existing in a hostile world. Within such a framework it is impossible for any progressive person to not be a gay artist. 

This ambivalence was always present in queer writing, in which the endless tension between assimilation and acceptance—between merely resisting the injustices of the world and speaking out against them—is ever-present. There have always been queer writers who see their sexual desire and art as distinct from a politics founded on identity. Tensions erupted at OutWrite because the idea—and the physical reality—of a community was irrefutable in that room.

The fights that flared at OutWrite continued the rest of the year, and in years to come, in the editorial meetings and staff rooms of many LGBT newspapers and publishers. With OutWrite, the queer polity of literature evolved from simply coming into being as a body politic, to the all-consuming task of self-discipline in that same body. OutWrite was, at heart, anti-canonical, a revolt against the narrowness of the canon of pre-Stonewall writers—Capote, Vidal, Renault, even James Baldwin (elevated “literary” figures quite distant from the new communities of queer readers)—and the wave of white gay male writers newly promoted by the mainstream press. OutWrite was the occasion for correctives, for ridding the body politic of its sins of injustice.

After two years in San Francisco, OUT/LOOK asked Boston’s Gay Community News to host the next conference and help plan it. Thus, I became involved in leadership of the subsequent conferences. It was a perfect fit. GCN had politics similar to OUT/LOOK, and Boston was home to many independent queer publishers and magazines. It was also geographically closer to the trade publishing centre of New York. The conference stayed in Boston until it ended in 1999. As in San Francisco, the Boston OutWrite conferences staged the political struggles of an increasingly diverse and divided queer polity of literature. Some of these fractures centred on commercialization. The “gay book boom,” as mainstream media called it, was both celebrated and viewed with suspicion.

Many writers drew sharp lines between community-based cultural production and what they saw as the recent appropriation by hostile markets. Losing the privileges that white gay men had enjoyed to the conflicts, compromises, and self-discipline that found a voice at OutWrite was not a loss so much as it was an evolution, one long overdue. This was vividly clear in the keynotes and plenary sessions. Over the years Melvin Dixon, Chrystos, Jewelle Gomez, Linda Villarosa, Samuel Delany, and Mariana Romo-Carmona, among many others, spoke or were featured, confirming and expanding the place in the queer polity of literature for those who had been excluded from the mainstream. The conference staged an ever-expanding world of queer writing, showing where we were at that moment—year to year—and where we were going. The Secret Museum was now fully open, and it appeared to be hosting a carnival.

The last OutWrite was in 1999. By then the queer world had changed so radically that younger OutWrite attendees had no experience of fearing AIDS as a death sentence, nor the illicit excitement of having to find a gay bookstore to buy a queer magazine, nor of the affirmation on first seeing themselves represented in a serious literary novel, no longer as a minor character in a Hollywood film. Yet, those past realities had profoundly shaped their lives, mostly for the better.

Ironically, the world, in many ways, had not changed that much. The intensely multicultural and intersectional world of the OutWrite conferences (and the new millennium) was an uncanny echo of the decades when I started my public life as a homosexual. These young queers were as loud and crazy as the first GLF meetings in 1969 or the contentious and passionate Fag Rag collective meetings soon after. It was the energy of emergence, with all its friction and rough edges still raw, the squall of the future being born.

A literary canon is intended to help past work survive, and the idea of survival in a hostile world was an undercurrent through all of the conferences. Dorothy Allison addressed this in her 1993 keynote:

I was asked to speak about survival. The difficulty for me is that survival is the least of my desires. I am interested in a lot more than mere survival. And I do not feel old enough or smart enough to be able to tell other lesbian and gay writers how to survive, much less to send everyone out of this place feeling inspired, provoked, challenged, and determined; to convince people that we, as a community, are capable of so much more than endurance. What I do know is that we must aim much higher than just staying alive if we are going to approach our true potential.

 Survival—even as a limited goal—is highlighted by loss.  

At OutWrite’s opening night we always had a ceremony: the calling out of names. This tradition of memorialization, rooted in African-American churches, began with a speaker reading the names of people who had died during the past year. The audience, in a hushed and semi-dark ballroom, was asked to then call out names of people they knew who had died. Many had died of AIDS, some not. Each name shouted out became sacred, and the silence between them, the resonant and palpable absence of sound, even more sacred. There was crying, and frequently laughter. Some names were familiar to the entire room some not at all. In the dim light, it was unclear who had shouted out which name. It was a deeply religious moment, manifesting a group connection that emerged from our collective shock at the scale of our loss. Psalm 137 begins “by the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept,” as the Israelites mourn their exile. OutWrite was a reverse of that exodus; people felt they had come home. During his keynote at OutWrite ‘93 Melvin Dixon spoke of having AIDS and he exhorted the audience to “remember my name” at future conferences. It was a time to consider the future, hold onto the past, and savour the present. In this solemn ceremony, differences and tensions within queer communities were set aside for a time. In many ways that space and time—like the quilt—was a meditative, embodied manifestation of our belonging together.

Epilogue (2021): Queer Thriving/Queer Polities

A year after the last OutWrite conference I accepted Dartmouth’s offer to teach Gay and Lesbian Studies. There I discovered that most of my LGBT students had only a passing sense of the writing I felt was central to a queer polity of literature.  What possibly could have changed? OutWrite had felt like the culmination of decades of literary and cultural growth and community building—both imaginary and actual. We viewed it as a success, even a triumph. Yet, I see now, that it was also, in a critical sense, the exposure of a limit—the beautiful apotheosis of a specific time and history that was ending. Even as the history I had lived, and that I recollect here, formed a foundation for queer culture, it would be shed, displaced by the future already growing from it. The queer literary culture I knew came out of a specific experience: post-World War II economies; the liberation movements of the 1960s; Vietnam; and the ongoing effects of racial prejudice. The literature it produced was reflective of all that. And it didn’t speak to my new students who grew up in vastly changed material, social, and imaginative realities.

In 2000 the Internet was relatively new. Bill Clinton’s eight-year administration was about to give way to George W. Bush. 9/11 would happen in just a year’s time, followed by the still-ongoing series of violent U.S. interventions in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Vibrant discussions of same-sex marriage were percolating everywhere, and in November 2003—after most of my students graduated—the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriages. The AIDS epidemic was now widely understood as a pandemic, and in the U.S. relatively effective treatments for the virus were available (if unevenly distributed, with the usual biases).

A sketch of multiple figures wearing graduation cap and gowns. The front two figures are wearing rainbow coloured caps.

My queer Dartmouth students were mostly at ease with being LGBTQ—as we said then—and they were happily engaged with the world in any number of activist projects. It took me several years to stop worrying about their loss of history or the “demise of queer writing” and to come to recognize that these young queers—with their political savvy, their nuanced discussions of race and heteronormativity, their restless play with gender and sexuality, and their advocacy for transgender rights (plus a far more manageable AIDS crisis)—were catalyzing new forms of queer literature and creativity. Now in their 40s, many have become the gatekeepers who shape the economy of publishing: publishers, editors, publicists, reviewers, and booksellers, as well as writers. The industry abounds with queerness and a social and ethnic variety that was unknown in my time. Amidst the inarguable gains it can be tempting to look upon the past as “lost,” and to be haunted by it.

How should we—who desire the future—hold on to our past? In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook” Joan Didion wrote:

I think we are all well-advised to keep on nodding terms with people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering in the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

How do we keep on nodding terms with a collective queer history? Do we revisit it in memory or mourn it as a past adventure that is no longer available? Is it a dream that comforts (or frightens) us with its vivid report of what once was possible, or seemed possible; or is it a skin to be shed as we grow into a new one? My history here—personal and selective—is one attempt to hold the past in view with the hope of seeing what the future will make of it.

Reciting the names and titles of forgotten books is important as an act of remembrance or mourning, and there’s no end to the surprises that the past hides, brilliant pieces of the future that were written and published too early to be understood, but which will come back to serve us if we don’t forget. But writing has also moved on, as it must. In blogs and social media, in poems of 280 characters, or in longer ones published as chapbooks on homemade paper and bound by thread, or declaimed at spoken word festivals or shouted at parties, in stories and novels on their keyboards and in smartphones, queers are creating a whole new literature. Whether or not a polity forms from it has yet to be seen. Could there be an OutWrite 2022? If so, who would convene it and who would show up? And what would it mean? These questions are meant in earnest. My story is not lapsarian, not the sad loss of a mythical golden age of queer writing; it is redemptive. We wake to a brand-new world.

A Personal Bibliography

The uncovering of queer literature—in themes, narratives, and characters—has long been a preoccupation of LGBTQ bibliophiles. Readers interested in more queer titles, as well as their historical context, have a wealth of sources to consult. Here is a short, briefly annotated list of ten books, including older ones that are themselves a part of the history of queer literature:

Jeannette Howard Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature (Naiad, 1985) was one of the first studies to look at images of lesbians in literature. First published in 1958, it has been reissued several times, most recently in 1985.

Lesbiana: Book Reviews from The Ladder, 1966-1972 by Barbara Grier (Naiad, 1976) collects all of Barbara Grier’s book reviews from the lesbian journal The Ladder. A librarian and voracious reader Grier’s often-brief reviews are brilliant snapshots into the books and the publishing industry in the volatile years around Stonewall. She discusses many popular books of the period that have since fallen into obscurity.

Roger Austen’s Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (Bobbs-Merrill, 1977) was one of the first attempts to locate queer themes and authors in the larger context of American literature. His study was a template for much of the work that followed.

The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography (Scarecrow, 1982) by Ian Young, is an astounding bibliographic feat that charts over four thousand titles with major and minor gay male themes in literature, popular fiction, and pulp.

Bonnie Zimmerman’s The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989 (Beacon, 1990) gives the reader an excellent insight into twenty years of the worlds of post-Stonewall literature, focused on political organizing and community building, as well as the writing.

Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (Routledge, 2003) by Anthony Slide. The British writer and film critic wrote these chatty, informative essays on fifty mostly-gay-male-themed novels from the first half of the 20th century,  most of which are relatively unknown to contemporary readers.

Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps Paperback by Michael Bronski (St Martin’s 2003) is my collection of excerpts from both literary and popular titles that were deemed “pulp” with contextualizing introductions and a full bibliography of queer-themed books published between 1945 and 1969. 

Katherine V. Forrest’s Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965 (Cleis, 2005) is an anthology of excerpts from lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and ‘60s, with insightful introductions and a bibliography.

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Twelve, 2012) by Christopher Bram is by far the best book on how gay male literary and popular writers influenced and profoundly shaped the American literary scene. Nuanced, comprehensive, and continually insightful, the book illuminates queer literature and its influences. 

OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2022) by Julie R. Enszer and Elena Gross collects many of the keynotes and major talks that helped make the series of OutWrite conferences stand as defining moments in queer writing and community building. This collection is indispensable for understanding the role that queer literature plays in shaping and building queer communities.

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