Audience members at OutWrite 1998. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation records at Northeastern University Library’s Archives and Special Collections
How did OutWrite, the annual conference of queer writers come to be?
Let’s time travel for a moment to back to the late 1980s and early 1990s and try to see the world through the eyes of queer people. AIDS is raging. In 1989, 14,646 HIV-infected people died; in 1990, 27,311. The number of deaths from AIDS increased each year until 1995 when more successful treatment regimens would become available as a result of the activism of radical queer protests spearheaded by ACT UP.
Beyond this pandemic disease, there is little funding for gay and lesbian (as they fashioned themselves at the time) organizations. The 1987 March on Washington was for gay and lesbian rights, but by 1993, a vibrant group of bisexual activists engaged with the march planning committee added the “b.” And they only used the word “bi,” not “bisexual” for fear of inferring s-e-x. Transgender people were organizing, too, garnering increasing visibility during the 1990s, and not inconsequentially, adding the “t” to the alphabet identity.
Despite a robust number of queer bookstores in major cities, mainstream, or as the lesbian-feminists called them, “malestream” publishing houses have little interest in queer work, deeming the audience too small and not of interest to non-queers. Periodicals, like The Advocate, a glossy national magazine that called itself “The National Gay Newsmagazine,” and a myriad of local and regional gay and lesbian newspapers are supported mainly by 1-900 phone sex advertising. Consumers pay a fee per minute to use these premium rate telephone services. Gay phone sex booms as men use phone jacks and rotary dials for jack-off services.
In this chilly climate, a hardy band of activists in San Francisco said: Hey, let’s plan a national conference for gay and lesbian writers. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
It was hard—and their brainchild, OutWrite, was delightful, heady, and transformative.
The conference was, in fact, not just a random idea, but the unruly spawn of a new, glossy, national queer magazine for men and women calledOUT/LOOK. In the spring of 1988, the first issue of OUT/LOOK featured a painting of Gladys Bentley hailed as “The Bulldagger Who Sang the Blues.” It asked in another cover line “What Was Wrong with the March on Washington” (plenty, as it turned out). It promised advice from Joann Loulan, the maestra of lesbian sex, and a piece by Robert Glück, one of the founders of the New Narrative literary movement.
According to the editors’ opening letter to readers, OUT/LOOK fancied itself as a “national ‘town meeting,’” positioned to “hear a wide range of voices engaged in serious dialogue about the issues that touch our lives as lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people.” A quarterly, it boasted beautiful, eclectically designed covers, bold interior layouts, and big, provocative ideas that sparked conversations among queer activists and intellectuals.
But in 1989, the editorial team realized to keep producing OUT/LOOK, they needed more writers. Meeting that need was the genesis of the OutWrite conference, which first convened in March 1990.
San Francisco and OUT/LOOK hosted the first two conference; then, OutWrite moved to Boston and added Gay Community News as a co-sponsor. The last conference was held in 1999.
Organizing a conference in was not an easy task for a small organization then. Few people used the internet, so speaking invitations were made primarily by telephone or mail. Before social media or the searchable web, organizers promoted the conference to potential attendees through advertisements placed in the vibrant grassroots queer media, letters to friends, and numerous phone calls.
Then there was the expense of getting everyone there. Travel to San Francisco, booked through travel agents by telephone, could be done by airplane, but many people preferred cheaper bus and train services into the city, as were ad hoc arrangements to stay with friends and friends of friends rather than pricey hotels.
In spite of organizing challenges and the sheer trust required to travel across the country for a new conference, people gathered in 1990 and the conference thrived until 1999, first in San Francisco and then in Boston. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer writers converged to talk, strategize, dance, laugh, and fuck.
And in the process, OutWrite reinvented what we know today as LGBTQ literature.
Why? Because something special happens when queer people gather together in community. As Elena Gross and I listened to speeches from OutWrite, reading and transcribed essays for our new book OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture (Rutgers, 2022) we were in COVID-19 isolation. But we imagined gathering in hotel ballrooms with hundreds of other queer writers, the buzz of the hallways, the energy of people meeting one another, swapping books, newspapers, phone numbers. We reveled in imagined flirtations, meaningful glances, shrugs, eyeballs, and laughter. We listened to audience hoots, heckles, affirmative grunts, and applause. We remembered the power of these queer assemblies—and what was lost when they stopped.
OutWrite, like many queer gatherings, featured a program that was chockablock: keynote speeches, receptions, panels, workshops, affinity groups, dance parties. Organizers packed every minute of the long weekend. In Boston, OutWrite featured public conversations in which two or more writers talked together publicly and intimately about their work. Although none of these conversations are included in the book, we listened to tapes of events between Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg, early in their partnership; or Sarah Schulman and Larry Kramer, reveal the passion and fire that these occasions offered audiences.
But beyond the formal addresses, papers, and panel conversations were equally important informal, and serendipitous connections that created a national community of writers: the warm greetings between old friends, and the flash of introduction between new ones; chance meetings at hotel bars, and shared moments waiting for an elevator; and meandering conversations walking urban streets. These moments of sparkling human kinship often go unrecorded, but they percolate behind the archive.
As importantly, by enabling writers to form larger networks, OutWrite lit a fire under queer literature. Magazine and journal editors met writers at the conference and solicited work. Agents found clients. Publishers signed books. OutWrite also nurtured previously isolated writers with ideas and camaraderie. At OutWrite, they discovered new books, shared ideas, built alliances, forged friendships, began relationships, and enjoyed chance sexual encounters.
These human relationships endured. As Carole DeSanti, a legendary editor at Dutton and later at Viking/Penguin, writes, OutWrite was “an expression of our fierce, vivid, colorful defiance and hope as a community, a seedbed of creative ideas, an arena for conflict and the airing of truths (including trauma and grief), and a source of support and encouragement.”
Lives, and history, were changed at OutWrite too. The conference solidified continuing partnerships between queer women and men, contributing to the forging of an acronym—LGBT—that we recognize today. OutWrite panels also highlighted emerging tensions between a welcome, new recognition of queer people and a more troubling commercialization of queer identities. Queer independent publishers stepped into the gap, and during the 1990s, independent LGBT publishers like Alyson, Seal, Cleis, and Firebrand thrived, and OutWrite provided inspiration for the founding of independent publishers including RedBone Press.
Through OutWrite, writers and editors connected to a larger queer movement. As the legendary editor of Firebrand Books, Nancy K. Bereano said at OutWrite 98, there was “a community that we say we’re a part of . . . that is tied to, on the one hand, being queer and, on the other hand, being concerned with the writing, the thinking that is expressed in the writing, the activism that is behind the intent of doing the writing, that ties us all together.”
But the act of producing the conference was part of that activism. Organizers have clear memories of the arduous labor that it took to bring everyone together—last-minute cancellations, travel challenges, and particularly in the first half of the 1990s, scheduled speakers dying of AIDS before they could actually speak at the conference. Raising money was also part of the job. Although there were a few scholarships, participants generally bore the expense of traveling to San Francisco or Boston themselves.
In fact, it was the twin realities of time and money that finally put an end to OutWrite.
There have not been dedicated public conferences for queer writers since the early 2000s—and our literature and our communities are diminished by that. There are, however, vibrant local and regional queer literary events. Beginning in 2002, Fire & Ink, a conference for LGBTQ writers of African descent, convened periodically igniting queer Black writers; Detroit hosted the fourth and most recent conference in 2015. Saints & Sinners, a wonderful LGBT literary festival each spring accented by the food and atmosphere of New Orleans, prepares for its twentieth anniversary in 2023. Lesbians have a vibrant community of genre fiction readers organized as the Golden Crown Literary Society, which sponsors a national conference and an awards program every year. In Gulfport, Florida, the annual ReadOut Festival, organized by the LGBT Resource Center at the local public library, celebrates lesbian literature. Regional book fairs and festivals are thriving, including New York’s Rainbow Book Fair and the OutWrite conference sponsored by the DC Center for the LGBT Community in Washington, DC.
And OutWrite, although we have not experienced that special excitement in over two decades, has descendants. Our national LGBT literary organization, LambdaLiterary.org, sponsors several important programs for queer writing communities. The Lambda Literary fellows are a vital set of connections and resources for emerging writers, who receive guidance and mentorship as they embark on their work. Recently Lambda Literary sponsored a queer book festival in Los Angeles as well.
Something extraordinary happens when people, writers, queer folk gather together. These gatherings, both the formal programs and the informal connections, cultivate and nurture queer literary work. Without a national LGBTQ literary conference, we lose both practical elements—contacts, networking, new ideas, relationships with agents and editors, and more—as well as something more ephemeral: possibilities of new, unexpected friendships, chance encounters that might alter a life trajectory, camaraderie that lightens loneliness perhaps driving someone forward to finish their book. OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture captures the sexy passions, the searching intellects, and some of the frivolity of OutWrite, but to really understand it all, we need other national gatherings.
I wonder who will recognize the importance of gathering queer writers together again and organize another national conference? My secret hope is that some folks reading our book will take that leap of faith and plan another national conference. If they do, I will be among the first to register online and buy my plane ticket.
Julie Enszer has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. She edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for The Rumpus and Calyx. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.