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We Should Engage With LGBTQ History All Damn Year

If there’s one thing I wish more people, especially people outside of movement spaces, would do, it’s engage with the works of movement workers, activists, writers, and artists of the past more frequently than only on the days and in the months we’ve designated as the “time to do so.”

There has not been any better time in history for us to interact with literature, artworks, photographs, love letters, journals, video recordings, audio recordings, and so many other types of materials from the queer people who made our lives possible than right now, and yet it always feels as if many queer people are not or cannot take full advantage of this great privilege. I do think the inability to sift through these materials is more structural and systemic than anything else. And I also fear that like so much of the rest of American and “Western” culture that wants to turn its back on history in favor of moving towards some glittering future, many people — even those of us who owe our existence to the work of so many who came before us — have a difficult time seeing the value in learning from the work of the past. But in order to actually build that bright future we want so badly, we desperately need to.

The work included in the anthology OutWrite: The Speeches That Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture, edited by Julie R. Enszer and Elena Gross, perfectly exemplifies the reasons why it’s so imperative to look back at history with the willingness to be impacted by whatever we learn. The speeches and performances collected in the anthology were part of a short-lived LGBTQ literary conference for writers and publishers called OutWrite that took place throughout the 1990s. The conference first took place in San Francisco in 1990, then made its home in Boston the following year until it was no longer possible to keep it going after the last conference in 1999. A couple of years were skipped due to financial constraints, so they managed to hold a total of seven conferences. OutWrite featured a variety of events, including keynote addresses by famous LGBTQ writers and publishers, panels on various subject matter pertaining to LGBTQ writers, plenary sessions, performances by LGBTQ artists, and other, less formal social events.

Enszer and Gross write in their introduction to the anthology that by 1996, the OutWrite planning committee had outlined the purpose of the conference as “fulfilling four functions: first, as ‘a community-based conference with a strong commitment to a progressive, grass-roots political vision’; second, as a ‘vital site for queers in the publishing industry to meet, deal, network, and do business’; third, as an event that creates space ‘where established authors are celebrated and where new authors are discovered’; and finally, as a ‘forum for political discussion and a venue for the mainstream publishing marketplace’.”

Although OutWrite was open to queer people and publishers of all kinds, it’s described in the introduction — and evident in the kinds of speeches that are included in the anthology — that the conference was an incredibly progressive space, one that not only fostered and encouraged radical and leftist thinking but helped some people discover this kind of thinking was possible in the first place.

The anthology itself is organized chronologically, not thematically, though some themes do come up in nearly all of the speeches, given the fact that progress doesn’t happen nearly as quickly as it should. Of course, all of the speeches address the realities of being queer, being a writer, and being a queer writer in the 1990s, but many of them also address other issues within and outside the LGBTQ community such as racism, sexism, the class divide, HIV and AIDS, surviving as an artist in a capitalist world, the place of the writer in the struggle for liberation, and the community responsibility of queer writers in the late 20th century. Since the anthology includes pieces from some of the most important queer writers and activists in contemporary history, it would be impossible in this review to give a full picture of the genius, righteous rage, and calls to action that exist within these pages but I’m going to at least highlight some of the works that really spoke to me.

Sitting on a panel called “AIDS and the Responsibility of the Writer” together during the first OutWrite in 1990, Sarah Schulman and Essex Hemphill delivered powerful talks on how writers and artists should respond in times of great inequity and injustice. Schulman’s talk discusses how and why she decided to write her 1990 novel, People in Trouble, on the realities of the AIDS crisis and how writers need to move their politics beyond the page in order to actually help create meaningful change in our society. She states, “We live in the United States of Denial, a country where there is no justice. The way we get justice is by confronting structures that oppress us in the manner that is most threatening to those structures. That means in person as well as in print.” In Hemphill’s part of the talk, he directly criticizes white gay men for not doing more to combat racism in the queer community and discusses the damage done to Black gay men by white gay artists, specifically Robert Mapplethorpe, in order to illustrate the fact that the gay community isn’t as much of a community as it claims to be: “The best gay minds of my generation believed that we speak as one voice and dream one dream, but we are not monolithic. We are not even respectful of each other’s differences. We are a long way from that, Dorothy. I tell you, Kansas is closer.”

The keynote addresses from OutWrite 1992 given by Mariana Romo-Carmona and Dorothy Allison address the importance of writing as truth-telling but in their own crucial and extraordinary ways. In Allison’s address, “Survival is the Least of My Desires,” she challenges the idea that queer people must be relegated to mere survival and implores the audience to not gloss over the harshness of existing in a world that is trying to erase LGBTQ voices from the historical record:

“We need our romances — yes, our happy endings. But don’t gloss over the difficulties and rewrite the horrors. Don’t make it easier than it is and soften the tragedies. Don’t pretend we are not really murdered in the streets or broken in the darkened bedrooms of the American family. We need the truth. And yes, it is hard when fighting for your life and the lives of those you love to admit just how daunting that fight can be; to acknowledge how many of us are lost, how many destroyed; to pick apart the knots of fantasy and myth that blunt our imaginations and stalk our hopes for families in which we can trust each other and the future. But if I am to survive, I need to be able to trust your stories, to know that you will not lie even to comfort […] Tell me the truth and I make you a promise, If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine. That’s what writers do for each other.”

Romo-Carmona takes a different approach in her address, “The Color of My Narrative,” and calls on the audience to imagine the colonization of North and South America, reminding them that much of what they know about it comes directly from a purposely distorted view of history. She explains that it is the duty of writers and storytellers to untangle themselves from these distortions and presses the audience by saying, “As writers, we have a choice: to perpetuate the lies or tell the truth. The lies are composed of censorship, exclusion, deliberately twisting history to support the Eurocentric view. As people whose human rights are threatened, it behooves us to support, encourage, and protect in all ways the telling of the truth with the potential to liberate us all.”

As the OutWrite conferences went on, there was more of an emphasis on ensuring there was space for Black writers, writers of color, and antiracist writers and activists to discuss the ongoing divides between the Black and of color queer communities and the white queer communities that were represented at the conference. During her keynote address at the 1995 OutWrite conference, Linda Villarosa confronts white LGBTQ people head-on by explaining some of the ways in which they continuously fail queer Black people and people of color, illustrating some of the ways she’s been involved in the struggle for racial justice. She ends her address with a call to action that feels exceptionally prescient in this current moment:

“I want to encourage you to take your talents as writers and activists and do something and do it right now. Now is the opportunity because we are in the midst of a real life crisis, and to use a medical metaphor, we got a fever. Now there’s a fever, and a fever signals illness, but it’s usually a good sign that the body is trying to fight. The body is trying to fight back, fight for its life. And that’s what we have to do. We have to fight for our political lives. We have to fight now. We have to fight for the lives of ourselves, and we have to fight for the lives of others, and by others, I’m talking about otherness in a very broad sense. That means we have to take these stories that we have, and we have to tell them from the heart and from the gut.”

While they are all worth reading, my absolute favorite piece from the anthology is Minnie Bruce Pratt’s keynote address at the 1996 OutWrite conference. Pratt’s talk begins with her describing a memory of watching a mockingbird outside of her window as a young girl and then quickly expands its view to what it was like growing up in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s. The emphasis of the talk is on the idea that the world around us makes us believe it has control over our ability to use our imaginations and our imagining of what the world should look like but in actuality, our unjust society doesn’t have that much control. Pratt reminds the audience they have the power within them to shape the reality they’re a part of and present that potentiality to others. She explains, “In the grip of violence and condemnation, despite loneliness and isolation, we gather ourselves up and fight back and find each other, to love and be loved. We affirm the human dignity of our pleasures; we bless our gift of crossing man-made boundaries of gender, sex, and sexuality. […] And it’s true — we don’t have a choice about who we love. But we do have a choice about how we live. The writing of our lives visibly, audibly, visually into the daily chronicle of this world does have an effect on the world. We give others an imagined possibility: that there is a way, many ways, to walk through the invisible confining walls and find the others.”

By the end of the anthology, the impact of the OutWrite conference on the world of LGBTQ literature and even the broader category of LGBTQ art is extremely obvious. But beyond that, the speeches and performances in this anthology — as well as the OutWrite conference itself — are vital and vibrant pieces of LGBTQ history that should be experienced by all queer people, especially those of us living in the U.S. This collection of voices from all over the spectrum of queer experiences gives us insight into the struggles of the queer writers and artists who came before us but also helps put into perspective the fights we’re embroiled in now. Although we’ve experienced some significant milestones over the years — such as repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and achieving civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in some states — the truth is that the issues addressed by many of the speakers at OutWrite who are included in this anthology are exactly the same. This collection not only gives us some more wisdom with which to continue our battles against systemic oppression, but it also proves over and over and over again how critical it is for us to face history head on: because we still have so much work to do inside and outside of the LGBTQ “community.” And while the speakers at OutWrite might not have all of the answers for how we can successfully do this work, their perspectives on our duties in fighting these battles are invaluable.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 84 articles for us.

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