In Orality and Literacy, the late Walter Ong called writing, “commitment of the word to space.” Opposite of our speeches and gestures or the arguments of the Agora—which disappear in the moment of their making, as does all sound—writing claims space and changes it permanently. Writing has as much in common with the design and construction of the public square as it has with the speeches that are given there. Uniquely, it enables both. Writing and reading site politics, and at the same time leave behind a material residue that can be put to future purposes, as yet unknown.
A gay man, born in 1937, Charles Shively sited his politics in the realms of writing and reading, in part, as a matter of safety. Much of his radical, proto-Queer, pro-sex agenda—along with the sexual encounters that he enjoyed (and enjoyed writing about)—could have landed him in jail, as he saw happen to many others. Undeterred, he founded Fag Rag, Good Gay Poets Press, and Boston Gay Review. Shively’s literary activism linked him to a burgeoning international community of “Gay and Lesbian” liberationists whose production of news circulars, magazines, zines, newspapers, and books would eventually fill Shively’s three-story Boston home, and survive him.
In 2010, when Alzheimer’s forced the 72-year-old Shively into a care facility, his colleague and friend, Michael Bronski, packed it all up to be made available in the archives of the Beinecke Library at Yale University. In doing so, Bronski had a revelation: the mountains of pages were filled with poetry. In the midst of radical political change and the most urgent threats, from pre-Stonewall jailings through the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, the polity of literature that Shively and his queer friends relied on was home to an outpouring of poems. In an essay for Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, in 2019, Bronski put it this way, “Poetry—some of it great, some mundane, some clichéd but with streaks of brilliance, all of it authentic and democratized—became the lingua franca both of the movement and of the larger gay community…There was little, or no, acknowledged separation of art and politics.” Bronski has adapted that essay for republication here, with illustrations by Ken Krimstein. We’re grateful to the Poetry Foundation for permission to publish this adapted version of their original publication.
It looked like a scene from Citizen Kane, only in miniature. The would-be Xanadu was a dilapidated, unkempt house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently occupied by Charles Shively, a noted poet, Whitman scholar, and queer activist. Then 72 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, Shively had entered a nursing home. I was his guardian, tasked with managing his life, medical care, and legal details. I had also begun to clear out his house and secure archives for his papers. It was a daunting task, as Shively, a dedicated archivist, was also a hoarder. Aside from his teaching and scholarship—he was an expert on 19th-century American utopian movements—he was a founder, and mainstay, of Fag Rag (the first national gay male cultural/literary publication), Good Gay Poets Press, and Fag Rag Books.
By June 2010, the three floors of Shively’s house were a warrened jumble of bookshelves, filing cabinets, bags, canvas sacks, and boxes containing his papers, correspondence, and collections of books, magazines, newsletters, broadsides, and flyers. Yale’s Beinecke Library had accepted the collection; all I had to do was spend a week sorting and boxing. On the third day—covered in dirt, dust, and the smell of musty paper—I was struck by the enormity of the moment. It wasn’t the task of gathering and packing that was a revelation, but the cultural importance of what Shively had amassed: books, magazines, poems, letters, flyers. He had saved complete runs of nearly every early LGBTQ newspaper and magazine, along with literary journals, small press publications, chapbooks, and broadsides. There were manuscripts of every poem ever submitted to Fag Rag, letters from readers, a file of index cards with the names and addresses of subscribers, erotic drawings from teenagers submitted with heartbreaking notes stating it was too dangerous to keep such material in their homes. He had even saved the layout boards—typeset waxed to thin cardboard sheets to be taken to the printer—for several issues of Fag Rag. There were also letters from almost every gay male (and many lesbian) poets who had published since 1970.
At that moment—my “Rosebud” moment?—amid the cluttered mass of books and papers, I realized that in the years immediately after Stonewall, the outpouring of gay male writing, particularly poetry, was a seismic event that literally, and literarily, reshaped gay male consciousness, language, and sense of self.
If this sounds hyperbolic, it’s not.
The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 gave birth to the Gay Liberation movement, with New York’s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) being the originating group. The main purpose of this movement—as it was for the other radical political and social movements of the time, particularly the Black Power movement and Radical Feminism—was to save lives. It’s impossible to overstate the truth of this. The harm caused by anti-homosexual laws, policies, and policing; by abusive family relationships; by toxic religious dogma; and by psychological and physical harassment ranging from undermined self-confidence to outright murder is incalculable.
The message of Gay Liberation wasn’t that it’s OK to be gay, or that homosexuals should have equal rights (there was scant discussion of legal rights in GLF), but that same-sex emotions, love, and intimacy were worthy of exaltation and celebration. For most same-sex loving women and men, this was an exuberant response to decades of repression, loneliness, and grief. For many, it was even more profound: a lifeline to understanding and accepting who they were.
This eruption of self-assertion manifested in meetings, actions, consciousness-raising groups, and writing that were mapping out – constructing poem by poem – a new political consciousness and plan of action. Nationally, hundreds of queer newspapers, small magazines, literary journals, chapbooks, and broadsides appeared. Some short stories and essays were published, but the overwhelming majority of the work that gay liberation produced was poetry. Gay groups (this was before the acronym LGBTQ) sponsored readings in bookstores, community meetinghouses, church basements, political rallies, arts festivals, college campuses, and public parks.
Cultural studies describes folk culture as authentic voices that emerge unfiltered by commercial interests or traditional gatekeepers; similarly, post-Stonewall gay poetry was the spontaneous explosion of pent-up emotions and desires. The single strongest mandate of Gay Liberation was to Come Out! For many women and men, poetry became the vehicle for self-disclosure. They believed in poetry’s revelatory political power. These lines from Muriel Rukeyser’s “Käthe Kollwitz” are overused but applicable here: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about / her life? / The world would split open.”
Poetry in these early post-Stonewall years defined and transfigured the moment. It often brokered a seamless reality in which text, performance, and lived experience came together in a common language. Poetry—some of it great, some mundane, some clichéd but with streaks of brilliance, all of it authentic and democratized—became the lingua franca both of the movement and of the larger gay community. Anyone could write a poem; the act itself was an expression of selfhood and freedom.
Aside from public readings, the newly emerging LGBTQ press was the venue in which poetry reached the burgeoning queer community. This was not just a literary community but one that was in the process of defining itself by new, far more radical than ever before, political understandings of the world. The few gay male and lesbian publications before Stonewall were produced by early gay rights groups—often referred to as homophile groups, such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis—and they prioritized political and social commentary over poetry. They were also constrained by draconian censorship laws; celebrations of same-sex love or sex were nearly impossible. The exhilaration of Stonewall almost immediately spilled into print. Come Out!, the first post-Stonewall gay newspaper, was published in New York, in November 1969.
Proclaiming itself “A Newspaper by and for the Gay Community,” Come Out! set up the promise and the expectation that these publications would be an authentic voice by and for (echoing the Declaration of Independence) the community. Similar newspapers and magazines quickly appeared across the country, many of them run by volunteer collectives since hierarchy was seen as patriarchal.
The template for many of these outlets was the nation’s flourishing underground press. Counterculture papers—The Berkeley Barb, Cambridge’s Old Mole, New York’s East Village Other—mixed radical politics, cultural critique, boundary-pushing art, sex, and social analysis. They were given away for free, or sold for less than fifty cents, at newsstands and in more bohemian bookstores. The needs of post-Stonewall communities were myriad, but the lack of resources for reporting meant they relied on first-person narratives, occasional fiction, and a great deal of poetry. Some of these publications were produced by both lesbians and gay men. Others, such as Los Angeles’s Lesbian Tide and Chicago’s Lavender Woman, were lesbian-feminist titles. Still others targeted a gay male audience. San Francisco’s Gay Sunshine and Boston’s Fag Rag, started in 1970 and 1971 respectively, spiralled out from their local audiences to become national publications focused on poetry, culture, and politics.
These newspapers and magazines also broke ground for literature. Drawing on the deep tradition of bellwethers such as Poetry and the Paris Review, as well as the more experimental Crazyhorse and the Evergreen Review, lesbians and gay men debuted their own literary journals. Women’s work was featured in Amazon Quarterly and Conditions, and aligned with lesbian feminism. Other emerging journals were gay male-oriented: Manroot (founded in 1969, edited by Paul Mariah); the highly influential, if short-lived, Sebastian Quill out of San Francisco (founded in 1970, edited by James Mitchell); and New York’s Mouth of the Dragon: A Poetry Journal of Male Love (founded in 1974, edited by Andrew Bifrost). These journals set new standards for post-Stonewall gay male poetry and saw themselves as decisively breaking from non-gay journals. When “straight” magazines, such as Evergreen Review, printed explicitly gay material, the political context was different. Queer material was often highly sexualized in these journals: portions of John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), a novel about gay male hustlers, or a chapter from Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites (1948). In an almost entirely heterosexual context, this work would have felt exploitative and culturally adrift. Lesbian and gay writers argued they did not need, nor want, the mainstream literary world (most of which would never print their work anyway). Gay art and literature had to create its own context, they declared. As Steven Riel writes in “How to Dream,” published in Mouth of the Dragon in 1980:
Faggots no longer we’ve begun to paint our own canvases in lavender Shamelessly, at last we mix blue & pink then step into what was once a dream
These poems were not a new way of writing but a new way of thinking about the world and its power relationships, the embodiment of an active polity of literature that shaped debates, confronted doubts, and incited subsequent actions; the poems were the politics and the politics the poems. They also announced a new literary consciousness that demanded gay men and lesbians control the ideas, language, and imagery in their work, as well as the means of production. There was little, or no, acknowledged separation of art and politics; both were interwoven in the conception, writing, and production of a new queer culture.
Simultaneously, and often in conjunction with these publications, the LGBTQ small press movement began. Modeled on publishing enterprises such as Jonathan Williams’s The Jargon Society (founded in 1951 and loosely affiliated with Black Mountain College in North Carolina) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books (founded in 1955 as an outgrowth of the San Francisco Renaissance), these small presses highlighted poets who had appeared in gay male magazines and journals. Good Gay Poets, an offshoot of Fag Rag, began producing broadsides in 1971 and poetry books in 1975, beginning with a volume containing both Salvatore Farinella’s “The Orange Telephone” and Charley Shively’s “Nuestra Senora de los Dolores”. The progressive Crossing Press published the first anthology of gay male poetry, The Male Muse: A Gay Anthology (1973), edited by Ian Young. This was followed by two Gay Sunshine Press anthologies, Angels of the Lyre (1975) and Orgasms of Light (1977), both edited by Winston Leyland. Other presses, such as Calamus Books, Gay Presses of New York, and Seahorse Press, also published gay male poets.
The explosion of gay male poetry following Stonewall was an extraordinary cultural and political moment with deep roots. Just as the journals and small presses found models in the Evergreen Review and in City Lights Press—both of which published gay material before Stonewall, including, most notably, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), put out by City Lights—there were openly gay, or known-to-be-gay, male poets before Stonewall, although few wrote about their sexuality. Some exceptions were Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, John Wieners, Frank O’Hara, Stephen Jonas, Edward Field, Thom Gunn, and Jack Spicer, all of whom were published by small presses. Poets published by more mainstream houses, such as John Ashbery, James Schuyler, James Merrill, and Richard Howard (all known to be gay), were less open in their work until later in the 1970s or ’80s.
The new wave of openly gay, post-Stonewall poets had complicated relationships with their forebears. O’Hara and Jonas were embraced as forerunners of liberation; Fag Rag reprinted Robert Duncan’s remarkable 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society” in an early issue. Ashbery and Merrill, however, were seen as remnants of a pre-liberation consciousness. Some older poets partook in the new movement: Ginsberg spoke about gay liberation politics, Wieners and Gerrit Lansing worked on, or had deep connections with, Fag Rag and Good Gay Poets; Duncan, Edouard Roditi, Robert Peters, Kenward Elmslie, Harold Norse, Jonathan Williams, and John Giorno gave interviews to gay literary journals.
The excitement in post-Stonewall gay male poetry emanated from this constant tension with established cultural hierarchies. Part of the gay liberation project was to look for, and draw on, history while at the same time breaking from the past to establish a new future that celebrated the freedoms of sex, love, consciousness, and ecstasy. If the purpose of Gay Liberation was to save lives, that could only be done by the artistic, cultural, and political creation of a new world. In the words of Adrienne Rich, the “dream of a common language” animated many of these young queer poets.
This brave new world was built on transgression and transfiguration. Poets were balanced, contradictorily, between the world as it is (and was) and the new world then emerging. As Rilke writes in the Book of Hours, “I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough to make every minute holy,” and later, “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.” If there is a key theme in much of this early post-Stonewall poetry, it’s the urge to make every minute holy in an attempt to wash away, eradicate, or banish the decades-long imposition of socially induced guilt and shame. There is a desire in these poems to be with, and to speak to, those who also know secret things.
Such religious, even biblical, imagery is apparent in Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque “Please Master,” from 1968:
Please master can I touch your cheek
please master can I kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes
please master can I take off my clothes below your chair
please master can I can I kiss your ankles and soul
please master can I touch lips to your hard muscle hairless thigh
The poem ends:
& fuck me more violent, my eyes hid with your palms round my skull
& plunge down in a brutal hard lash thru soft drip-fish
& throb thru five seconds to spurt out your semen heat
over & over, bamming it in while I cry out your name I do love you
Ginsberg’s explicit sexual imagery set a standard that many poets followed. His religious imagery—recalling, perhaps, Isaiah 12:6: “Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion: for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee”—and his sense of the sacred propels the poem.
Religious imagery is rife in an untitled poem by Frank K. Robinson, published in Mouth of the Dragon in 1976:
The blonde boy
hair haloed in vaporous light,
The poem ends with the line “an angel in drag.”
Or consider an untitled poem by Richard Ronan, published in Mouth of the Dragon in 1979:
I badly feel
drive my forehead
until it knew
In her groundbreaking Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that all cultures structure themselves by separating the profane from the sacred. What is shocking, and deeply queer, about much post-Stonewall poetry is the refusal to do exactly this. The frequent, casual juxtaposition of the profane and the sacred is a startling gesture, an attempt to heal through eroticism, lyricism, or humor, moving past harm into a narrative of personal and community wholeness. More important, it is a radical rhetorical intervention into how culture is organized.
Much of this poetry is erotic—not surprising since one of the many new freedoms Gay Liberation promised was freedom from sexual oppression. The eroticism is often fired by newly ignited and newly unleashed sexual passion, as in the opening stanza of Salvatore Farinella’s “July 4th Threesome”:
Sperm smeared across your back
we lie breathlessly side by side;
the sliding over sweet
slipping bodies momentarily over.
Then there’s the insistent sexual desire of Walta Borawski’s “Hunger,” which begins:
Paralyzed in heat
the man stroking
his cock does not
see the toilet door
is open, or men
a hole to
come in, a
Other times, the eroticism is whimsically reflective, as in Dennis Cooper’s “First Sex”:
This isn’t it.
I thought it would be
like having a boned pillow.
I saw myself turning
over and over in lust
like sheets in a dryer.
Most frequently, though, the poems reflect a tender lyricism, a rebuke of widely prevalent notions of gay male sex as sordid or squalid, as in David Chura’s “Morning, Asleep (for R.),” published in 1976:
You lie naked across the bed stretched at the tender angles of a dancer, the yellow sheet slacked over you. Nothing moves. Your eyes and mouth are unguarded by sleep and so softness reflects in them both: the calid ease of captured water in hollowed stones the feathered line of field asters on a mountain bluff.
If these poems feel tame now, remember that in 1969, almost all states criminalized same-sex activity, even between consenting adults. These poems are about crimes. Although a series of Supreme Court rulings from the late 1950s expanded the constitutional protection of free speech to include erotic material—often using the “community standards” rubric—depictions of homosexual sex were often still prosecuted as “obscene” in conservative communities. In some circumstances, the poems themselves (not just the activities they portray) may have been illegal.
Given the opprobrium lesbians and gay men faced at the time, and what these writers endured growing up, it’s surprising that there’s so little overt protest in these journals and anthologies. There are poems about growing up lonely, and poems about the hostility of male heterosexuality, but works describing the harsh reality of gay oppression are rare. A notable exception is David Emerson Smith’s lengthy and brutal “Just Some Good Fun,” published in 1975:
/Southie/Boston/equals /murder /equals /cobblestone killing /nigger/equals/faggot/equals/pussy /equals/maggot/equals/Puerto Rican /equals/Jew/equals/you hundreds poured out of two Bay Village Gay bars fifty people witnessed a slaying one hundred eyes are not saying one hundred eyes saw Juan/Puerto Rican /faggot /get stabbed by /five white men chasing /silver sliver flesh /of neck slashing /cobblestone thrown
The lack of overt protest poetry—agitprop is a less kind word—is striking since it was a staple of much Black Power and radical feminist work at the time. Equally striking is how infrequently these poets embrace experimental form. Most of the poetry is fairly traditional and formal. Smith’s poems were meant to be performed aloud, as reflected by the urgent, militant beat of his broken lines. By contrast, Shively’s poetry, gesturing to nontraditional forms, relied on imagist impulses, closer to a minimalist Amy Lowell, as in his “For Steve Jonas: Four Years Gone Green”:
bitter root knots sunk in pine cut nails of stealers muggers killers all over these streets they say wading in your life Beacon Hill Esplanade South End trailing all ways from Georgia entrails
Anger isn’t the motif in these poems so much as a sense of longing: for love, sex, memory, desire, the past. Beau Riley’s “25 July 1966” captures this mood:
I was in Manhattan.
I was looking for you.
I didn’t even know your name.
All I wanted was one great big happy
poet, a way out,
an alternative to death.
Likewise, “ME,” a 1974 poem by Jesse, suggests a longing for human contact:
I have seen you before only glimpses — dark, secret you are a neighbor we share the universe we share a body
Victorian homosexual apologists such as John Addington Symonds harkened back to the homoerotic sexual freedoms of ancient male Greeks, as well as the Greeks of the male form in sculpture, as an intellectual justification for contemporary male homosexuals. Post-Stonewall gay poets displayed a similar inclination, but it was broader and more culturally inclusive. Part of their project was to reclaim the past and to imagine, or re-imagine, a world without the harms of anti-queer animus. Jerry Chadwick’s “Remaking the Myth,” from 1976, rewrites old literary scripts:
Sodom is an empire
that does not end
does not lose
or his life
Jim Elledge’s “At Home in Sodom” quotes Duncan—“certainly these ashes might have been pleasures”—to conjure a more complicated scenario in which safety in the old Sodom is possible:
In time, safety becomes an art like pleasure; like love habitual, even addicting. Daily, each breath is a lesson in secrecy.
Post-Stonewall gay writers drew on a wide range of sources and inspirations. Whitman, Oscar Wilde, and Hart Crane figure prominently; Whitman’s moniker of the “good grey poet” inspired Fag Rag’s Good Gay Poets collective and publishing line. William Blake’s visionary artwork and poetry (rather than his sexuality) were understood as examples of enlightenment and freedom; Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto used Blake’s resplendent image of Albion from A Large Book of Designs as a logo, while the fourth issue of Fag Rag, published in 1972, featured on its cover Blake’s frontispiece design for “The Grave,” as engraved by Schiavonetti.
I wonder if Verlaine held Rimbaud like this, slowly rocking the troubled head, wild with curls (Rimbaud murmured, Verlaine merely smiled as a wind rose to set them walking from the park.
Vincent Fitzpatrick’s “The Boy Rimbaud” imagines the poet as a young, sexually adventurous sprite, reminiscent of a gay hippy in the 1970s:
For a franc
he’ll cocksuck a passing poilu.
For a centime he’ll blow the farmer’s son.
For nothing he’ll read you a pornographic rhyme.
In 1979, Gay Sunshine Press published a volume of erotic poems, many previously suppressed, by Verlaine and Rimbaud under the title A Lover’s Cock and Other Gay Poems.
Even statues get their story, as in Calvin Doucet’s untitled poem, in which the model for Michelangelo’s David recounts:
He found me in the quarry
where the marble he most
liked to work was. I was
seventeen and flattered and
learned my power from him.
But Michelangelo falls in love with his magnificent statue and discards his real-life inspiration, who becomes desolate and bitter. At the end of the poem, the human David, now an old man, returns to Florence and sees the famous sculpture he inspired: “Gazing upon myself as youth I both pray and weep and I praise the man who so abandoned me.”
Some post-Stonewall poets drew on non-western genres and forms. The haiku was a favorite, as were translations and reinterpretations of the Arabic poetry of the Ottoman Empire that praised the love between older and younger—amrad (beardless boy)—men. These poems were often riffs on the ghazal, a poetic form used to celebrate both love and the sadness of loss. Revamped Christian symbolism was also popular. In “Every Boy,” Chuck Ortleb writes:
Every boy I have ever
loved has had
this in common with
Jesus G. Christ
They’re all fey.
Jesus was a fey boy
who grew up to
be even more fey.
In addition to reclaiming gay male desire and gender deviance as holy, this revisionist view rebukes Christian doctrine, often used as a pretext to condemn same-sex relationships and stigmatize homosexuals. Drawing on the past for mythmaking is a bold rewriting of western culture that seeks to heal through imagination. The power of this reimagining was evident in 1977 when noted British poet James Kirkup published “The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name,” in which a Roman centurion confesses his attraction to the crucified Jesus and describes Jesus’s sexual life with men. The poem appeared in London’s Gay News, and the editor was convicted of blasphemous libel.
The explosion of post-Stonewall creativity lasted just over a decade, until the catastrophic arrival of HIV/AIDS in 1981. Poetry became even more necessary during the epidemic, as the social and political context, as well as the personal stakes, changed dramatically for gay men and women, in particular. Reading through these journals and anthologies, it’s impossible not to think about how many of these poets are now dead. The writer Fran Lebowitz has spoken about how HIV/AIDS claimed not only the lives of many artists, but also the audience for their work. With this loss and trauma in mind, it’s staggering how vibrant gay male writing about HIV/AIDS was in the 1980s and ’90s. This was, in large part, because of the bravery, idealism, and vision produced in the decade before.
In retrospect, the decade after Stonewall introduced an exuberant and adventurous vision of a new queer culture—a vision that today feels incandescent and sometimes innocent. It’s also a vision that’s largely lost, not to HIV/AIDS, but to time. Most of the anthologies are long out of print, the journals and newspapers are often unavailable. Critics and scholars have written little about this work. It has become, like Shively’s massive collection, an archive awaiting rediscovery. The afterlife of these poems, however, lingers, even if unacknowledged. No poet writing on gay themes today is unaffected by the legacy of this work. The vision of these scrappy journals, and the energy of the collectives that produced them—conjured out of boldness, anger, and faith in a better world—changed forever how and what queer people could say about themselves, and the future they could create.