The first page of OUT/LOOK that I opened to was the table of contents. I wanted to get a sense of what and who I’d be reading. As I skimmed the list of names I recognized, and many I didn’t, what ultimately caught my eye was in the corner of my vision. An image of a woman, presumably of color, sitting alone at a table in a cafe with long beautiful curly hair, a steaming mug of coffee before her, and pen jauntily hanging between her fingers. At that very moment, I was also sitting and writing alone at a cafe in Downtown Oakland and I immediately felt a sense of recognition. It was like peering at a version of myself, a ghost of myself, thirty years removed. Much the same as it is looking at old photographs of your mother or grandparents from their youth. Your ancestors. Though, this ancestor and I were connected in a very different way, but no less powerful. The image, I discovered, was an advertisement for OUTWRITE ’90, the first national gay and lesbian writer’s conference organized by OUT/LOOK magazine. As a young queer writer of color, I never realized how badly I needed something like OUTWRITE before and the pangs of phantom nostalgia for a time, a place, a people, and an experience I would never experience came flooding through me. I knew then that this is what I should write about for this project. It felt necessary. It felt like communion.
On OUT Write '90
Upon opening my assigned issue of Out/Look Magazine (Issue no. 8, Spring 1990), I am first confronted with a black-and-white photograph of a woman in a gray suit, long curly hair flowing, looking pensively out of frame with a pen clenched in one upturned fist, the other hand thumbing open an empty notebook. She sits alone at a small table in a bustling cafe or diner, steaming mug of coffee as much her writer’s tool as the pen and notebook in her hands. Stamped on the bottom corner of this photograph is a bold block logo: “OUTwrite 90.” This photograph is an ad for OUT Write ‘90, the first national gay and lesbian writer’s conference in the United States. Below the image reads a simple but potent question: “What are the artistic and political questions confronting writers in the gay and lesbian communities?”
The words “artistic and political” immediately stand out as the central themes of this conference, perhaps even more so than gay and lesbian. The inclusion of “artistic and political” recognizes a necessarily intertwined relationship between the creative output of artists and writers and the sociopolitical context with which they find themselves creating within. This was especially true for gay and lesbian creative communities, whose very identities exist along the contested borders of the personal, the political, and artistic terrains. These battles were often waged on the canvas, in the photograph, on the stage, and in the pages of periodicals like OUT/LOOK magazine. In eighth issue, writers ask and confront difficult questions like “Gay Lib vs. AIDS,” how black lesbians cope with homophobia within the black community, and the need for an intersectional approach with regards to race and ethnicity in reclaiming gay and lesbian histories and narratives. Alongside pages of personal ads and humorous pre-Buzzfeed “listicles” of the bizarre sexual habits of animals existed a world of critical, countercultural exposition. In a 1990 article in the LA Times, Jeffrey Escoffier, co-publisher of OUT/LOOK, says of the first conference, “We are here to mark the coming of age of gay and lesbian literature.”
And surely, OUT/LOOK, and ostensibly OUT Write ’90, did mark a beginning of sorts. Also included in the eighth issue is a short-fiction piece by humorist, essayist, and best-selling author David Sedaris. Of the authors included in the issue, Sedaris is, by now, the most well-known, household name. I can recall seeing Me Talk Pretty One Day on the bookshelves of my friends’ parents long before I would recognize Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories in either the African-American literature or Gay/Lesbian Fiction sections of my local Barnes & Noble.
Later in the issue appears a full-page ad for the conference. The woman from the teaser ad re-appears, this time scribbling furiously in quiet, controlled concentration with a lit cigarette balancing in one hand:
OUT/LOOK: National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly Presents
The First National
Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference
Saturday & Sunday, March 3 & 4, 1990 8:00 am-6:00 pm
Cathedral Hill Hotel, Van Ness & Geary Streets, San Francisco
The largest gathering of lesbian and gay writers in history. OUT Write ‘90 brings together more than 1000 writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, agents, critics, and readers to discuss the latest trends in lesbian and gay publishing, the practical issues that affect writers, and the artistic questions confronting writers and the lesbian and gay communities.
Keynote speakers Allen Ginsberg & Judy Grahn
Registration $40. For more information call 415/***-***
“Ambitious” is the first word that comes to mind after reading this description. The idea of 1000 gay and lesbian writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, agents, critics, and readers seems impossible even now, much less almost 30 years ago when the landscape for public openness around homosexuality and gender non-conformity was vastly different—in the world and in print. Even the audacity of the keynote speakers: Allen Ginsberg who, by then, had long been considered an icon of counterculture and the Beat Generation and Judy Grahn, whose poetic style has always had an avowedly feminist expressiveness. But also, by 1990, both Ginsberg and Grahn represented an older generation of gay and lesbian writers; a generation before Roe v. Wade, before Reaganomics, and before AIDS. That the first year in the last decade of the 20th century would also be the first year of OUT Write suggests the ushering in of a brave, new era of gay literature.
Discovering OUT Write ‘90 within the pages of OUT/LOOK had a powerful and revelatory effect on me: finally, here was the document, the record, the historical precedent that could offer a model and legitimacy for the kind of work and scholarship I am invested in. No longer content with mere gay and lesbian “subtext,” the subtext was now the explicit foundation upon which one could write themselves into existence. I say this not to deny the very real and complex existence of closeted writers, or writers who have been actively de-sexualized and de-politicized by heteronormative literary and societal convention, but to underscore the intensely political, and affirming act of naming oneself, one’s life, one’s history, one’s desire(s) in print.
In an archival video of OUT Write ‘90, the topic of the first panel is “Coming Attractions: The Future of Sexually Explicit Writing.” Among the panelists is Tee Corinne, author, artist, and creator of The Cunt Coloring Book. Corinne had the audience try out a writing exercise in which they were instructed to write out a sexually explicit scenario using a variety of synonyms for common erotic words and terms such as “oral sex,” “anal sex,” “tribadism,” “and manual stimulation” There is some giggling from the crowd and nervous laughter, and ultimately Corinne informs the audience that they are not required to read their scenes allowed (though they are encouraged to share with partners throughout the conference). This exercise reminds me of an essay called “Sex Writing, the Importance and the Difficulty,” in Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, & Literature by Dorothy Allison. In this essay Allison describes attending a lesbian fiction writing workshop with Bertha Harris and finding herself too nervous to talk honestly and without cliché about sex and desire in her own writing. Allison grapples with the constant fear that, as a lesbian-feminist activist, working toward cultural revolution and liberation, writing fiction and changing the world are at ultimately at odds. But it is through forcing herself to write–and to listen to fellow lesbian writers–that Allison realizes the radical potential of openly, explicitly erotic writing. She states, “Some of us have no choice, I am always telling my students. Some of us have to write in order to make sense of the world. Write out your obsessions, your fears, your curiosities and needs […] Writing is still revolutionary, writing is still about changing the world. Each of my students who tells the truth about their life becomes part of that process, and every piece they share with me that challenges my own self-exploration pushes me to deeper work. Sex and lies, I believe, are the core of it.”
Later in the “Coming Attractions” panel, author Stan Leventhal refers to sexually explicit erotic writing (and art) as our own “folk literature, art, photography,” and as the “art of our subculture.” This may seem contrary to the recent defense by gay and lesbian artists that our art, and ostensibly our lives, are about more than just the way we have sex and whom we do it with. But true creative freedom needs to include the space to talk about sex, desire, pleasure, and eroticism as integral to our holistic experience as individuals, and as a subversive act of resistance.
Since the 2016 election, many comparisons and obvious parallels have been made between the current administration and political regime to the one of the late-1980s and 1990s. Once again, the National Endowment for the Arts is under threat of defunding, conservatives are actively trying to limit and restrict the reproductive and sexual freedom of women, and the police state has been actively targeting and murdering black and brown people on live camera. The writers at OUT Write ‘90 speak with a sense of frustration and urgency as they are finding the few rights they have fought for, the few spaces they have carved out for themselves, being encroached upon and threatened by an oppressive government, anti-intellectualism, and cultural conservatism. The Culture Wars was not about the so-called Margin and the so-called Center fighting for social dominance but about those on the margins fighting for their right to exist in the face of suppression and extermination from the center. This was not a war of equally opposing sides but of David & Goliath. And in the steadily growing population of casualties lost to the AIDS-epidemic, the need to leave a record, an archive, and a dent in the social fabric was more important than ever before.
In late-queer theorist José Estaban Muñoz’s introduction to Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Muñoz notes that “queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon. I contend that if queerness is to have any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon.” Queer futurity seems an apt concept to apply to the coalescence of writers, critics, publishers, et.al. of OUT Write ’90—more than a space to celebrate the work that had already been done, the purpose of OUT Write ’90 seemed to be to collectively imagine a future of gay and lesbian (creative) life.
In another panel during OUT Write ’90, titled, “AIDS and the Responsibility of the Writer,” the late-poet and performance artist Essex Hemphill reminds us that “we are not monolithic,” speaking to the very real, concrete racial and class divisions within the gay and lesbian community. Likewise, writer Sarah Schulman used her time at the podium to address the coalition building between lesbians and gay male activists during the AIDS crisis—acknowledging both the inherent sexism within the movement but also the pragmatic need to work together in an effort to collectively address homophobia and curtail the increasing losses occurring within our contentious yet connected communities. Much like the LGBTQIA2 or queer communities of the present, issues of gender, race, and class are still largely left out of the conversation of challenges facing sexual minorities, even though they are inextricably linked to our individual experiences and circumstance. During Schulman’s talk, she claims, “the fact remains that marginal people know how they live and they know how the dominant culture lives. Dominant culture people only know how they live. So, the people with the most power have the least information.” The same can be extrapolated within marginalized identities: those with the most power (white, male, cisgender, affluent people) still have the least information about the most vulnerable members of their group (women/people of color, trans- or gender non-conforming, poor people). Schulman goes on to claim that the writer’s responsibility, addressing the prompt of the panel, is to their work but is also to their community.
“I don’t think that any writer must write about any specific topic or in any specific way. Writers must be free of formal or political constraints in their work so that a culture can grow in many directions. But when they’re finished their work, they need to be at demonstrations, licking envelopes, and put their bodies on the line with everybody else. We live in the United States of denial, a nation 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.”
OUT Write ’90 was as much celebration of gay and lesbian literary voices and the hope for a new queer avant-garde as it was a confrontation and provocation of oppressive, political, and capitalist structures. Writers showed up in person and in print to advocate on their own behalves, to curse the state, the say the names of their dead, to revel in their so-called perversity, and to radically a future beyond the narrow, destructive, and violent constraints of the “here and now.”
Though the conferences only ran until 1999, I wonder if now there is a need for revival. While there are certainly more models for gay and lesbian literary life than there was in 1990, I can still think of no one singular event that confronts the artistic and political challenges facing queer communities presently. Recent reclamations of public intellectuals like James Baldwin and Susan Sontag, and lesbian novelists like Patricia Highsmith and the success of genre-defying masterpieces like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic have shown that queer creative communities have never stopped fighting for visibility in person or in print. During the panel of erotic writing, author LaVerne Gagehabib says of her need to write and her need to read more explicitly gay and lesbian writing, “We will fight to keep it, I’ll fight to keep it. Because I’ve got to have it.”
i In my research, OUT Write ’90 has been written many ways including, “OUT/WRITE,” “OUTWRITE,” and “Out Write.” I am using the spelling found in Issue no. 8 of OUT/LOOK magazine.
ii For the purpose of much of this essay I use “gay and lesbian” or “lesbian and gay” in place of queer as a decision to more accurately mirror the language of the original publication and conference. Later I slip into a more contemporary and theoretical use of “queerness” to emphasize the growing academic and cultural dialogue around sexuality, gender expression, and anti-heteronormative radical politics.
Elena Gross is an independent writer and cultural critic living in Oakland, CA. She received an MA in Visual & Critical Studies from the California College of the Arts in 2016, and her BA in Art History and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2012. She specializes in representations of identity through fine art, photography, and popular media. Elena is the host of the arts & visual culture podcast, what are you looking at?, currently streaming through Art Practical. Her most recent research has been centered around conceptual and material abstractions of the body in contemporary art.