Somewhere Listening for Their Names

Amidst the AIDS crisis and mass homophobia, the annual OutWrite conference gave LGBTQ writers a community in the 1990s. 
AIDS activists join hands as they block the Golden Gate Bridge. A police officer tries to remove one of the activists. Behind them, police cars and traffic wait.

OutWrite: The Speeches That Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2022) collects the transcripts of 27 speeches and performances selected from almost a decade of material presented at the iconic queer writing conference OutWrite. Billed as the first national gay and lesbian writer’s conference in the United States, OutWrite made a unique, profound impression on the queer literary scene of the 1990s and beyond. Judy Grahn opened the conference’s first keynote address in exultation—“We did it!”—before giving her audience some real food for thought:

If there is a gay or lesbian writer who has never done any organizing, that person is taking a free ride. The rest of us have had to devote some amount of time, some of us many years of our lives, to developing an audience. Meaning: to give people something tangible to hope for, to help them identify as gay enough to want to read about themselves. Hope is what entices people to read.

OutWrite was the culmination of several decades of activism by queer writers who endeavored to overcome obscenity laws and the homophobia of mainstream and academic publishers before the rise of commercially viable gay and lesbian presses. When OutWrite first convened in 1990, these presses were thriving, a phenomenon partially responsible for the conference’s existence. This was an era of gay bookstores, tinged with optimism about the progress previous liberation movements had made.

As editors Julie R. Enszer and Elena Gross remind us in their introduction, “The first OutWrite conference was at San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill Hotel on March 3 and 4, 1990, less than five months after the 1989 [Loma Prieta] earthquake.” It was a moment of dramatic local AIDS activism by ACT UP San Francisco (formerly AIDS Action Pledge) and Stop AIDS Now or Else (SANOE), which had successfully, for the first time ever, blocked southbound commuter traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge on January 31, 1989. After preparing for months in strict secrecy, several activists brought Tuesday morning traffic to a halt when they spread a banner the width of the bridge, emblazoned with the message AIDS = Genocide, Silence = Death, Fight Back! In September of that year, SANOE disrupted the San Francisco Opera, which, unlike the Golden Gate Bridge action, was met immediately with a violent reprisal from the audience. When the curtain went up on Falstaff, members of SANOE tried to pass out pamphlets that read, “We are here because we are under attack by AIDS and by the violence and bigotry that has increased with the AIDS epidemic. … We are lesbians, gay men and our friends, and we are all living with AIDS. … We are fighting back. … We want you, as people with access to power and resources, to make changes in federal and local government priorities now.” Opera patrons assaulted the activists, and a SWAT team was called in. On October 6, 1989, after another demonstration that would have been remembered only in the footnotes of queer organizing in San Francisco, police entered the Castro neighborhood en masse and declared martial law in what has been dubbed the “Castro Sweep.” Police beat people bloody with batons.

That the actions of groups such as ACT UP were controversial, even unpopular, within the queer community itself is too easily forgotten. Gay journalist Randy Shilts, for example, characterized the group in The Advocate as “among the forces of death.” Tensions worsened in 1990 when San Francisco hosted the Sixth International Conference on HIV/AIDS, a week of events directed mostly at medical professionals and health care specialists. In a show of nerve, the organizers of the Sixth International scheduled their conference to overlap with San Francisco’s Pride weekend. Pissed-off activists flew in from around the world to protest the conference, and ACT UP San Francisco provided daily digests of the conference’s proceedings along with its own counterprogramming. Pride marches became protests, and the ranks of ACT UP swelled over the following weeks. For a group that had made decisions using a consensus model informed by the practices of earlier civil rights, feminist, antiwar, and anti-proliferation movements, this ballooning of the ranks was unsustainable. ACT UP fractured into two groups: one focused on treatment and working with the medical establishment; the other committed to centering the most marginalized populations. The split into ACT UP Golden Gate and ACT UP San Francisco respectively was mirrored in other places as well, including New York City.

Primarily driven by a staggering death toll and its subsequent exhaustion and despair, the AIDS activist movement rarely again reached the intensity of the years leading up to and including OutWrite. Most of the speeches Enszer and Gross collect reflect both the high stakes for—and the shifting on-the-ground conditions of—queer people imperiled by inaction and hopelessness before protease inhibitors were introduced in 1995. It is also evident that the conflicts animating the dichotomization of AIDS activism were present at OutWrite, which attempted to work out, in the form of a literary conference, contemporary queer activists’ struggles around issues of race, class, and gender. This was part of the conference’s genetic makeup too—the event was initially organized as an outgrowth of OUT/LOOK, which Enszer and Gross describe as a “glossy, national gay and lesbian magazine that published from 1988 until 1992” and as a “co-gender publishing project with a commitment to racial diversity.” As this description suggests, OUT/LOOK amplified the urgent call for artists and writers to also be activists and to build their artistic and political aspirations through coalitions. Much like ACT UP, OUT/LOOK and OutWrite were not always successful at building such coalitions—more on that later—but the conference’s schedule suggests a limited achievement of this ideal, which had been rarely upheld during the previous decades of political and literary organizing.

Within a few hours of the first conference, queer literary history was made with a one-two punch from keynote speakers Grahn and Allen Ginsberg, followed by the plenary panel “AIDS And The Responsibility Of The Writer,” moderated by Roberto Bedoya and featuring outstanding speeches by Sarah Schulman, Essex Hemphill, Susan Griffin, Pat (now Patrick) Califia, and John Preston. The symbolism of this moment was primed when Grahn and Ginsberg, two icons of the gay and lesbian avant-garde, yielded the stage to emissaries of the queer future. Indeed, Schulman gave her speech less than three months after ACT UP interrupted mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Speaking about her most recent novel, People in Trouble (1990), Schulman spoke directly to the ouroboros of art and activism during this moment:

In People in Trouble, I imagined a small demonstration by AIDS activists outside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Two and half years ago, I imagined forty nervous men cautiously standing up to disrupt a religious service. By the time the book was published, there had been a real-life demonstration of seven thousand angry men and women confronting the cathedral. In this case, the community I was writing for and about made the boundaries of my imagination obsolete.

The charge for writers was to make both literature and activism adequate to the crises of their moment. Felicitously prefiguring a phrase of Robert Glück’s from his essay “Long Note on New Narrative”—“a language does not yet exist to describe the present”—Schulman goes on to say

There is no existing vocabulary for discussing AIDS. To expect one would be unreasonable, since this is an event that we will be spending generations trying to understand and define. In order to discuss it in novel form, I needed to identify a series of words that were generally resonant. This is a challenging task in a culture that does not acknowledge truth and a community that is emotionally overwhelmed.  

These challenges—the emotional barrage of the present combined with, and exacerbated by, a culture hostile to the truth—are all too familiar. Schulman counters these difficulties by trying to “identify a vocabulary” for the sprawling catastrophe of the present, an enumeration of the particulars of this moment:

I started out by making lists of hundreds of details pertaining to the crisis. Rock Hudson at the airport being whisked off to Paris. Watch alarms going off in public places reminding their bearers to take their AZT. Men with teddy bears. Friends spreading AL721 on their toast in the morning. People spending their life savings on [a]mpligen or [d]extran [s]ulfate. Finding out later that those drugs were worthless.

I encourage everyone to watch the recording of Schulman’s speech, currently available on YouTube, along with the rest of the panelists’ speeches. Hemphill’s speech, “Does Your Mama Know About Me?,” was partially reprinted in the collection Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (1991), which he completed following the death of editor Joseph Beam, but his vocal delivery is indelible. Like many of the writers presented in OutWrite, Hemphill speaks the name of his beloved fallen comrade: “Beam articulated one of the primary issues Black gay men are faced with when our relationships with our families and communities are examined. We cannot afford to be disconnected from these institutions, yet it would seem that we are willing to create and accept dysfunctional roles in them, roles of caricature, silence, and illusion. In truth, we are often forced into these roles to survive.” Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle following the first iteration of OutWrite, David Tuller remembers Hemphill’s stirring words: “In an eloquent and emotional speech that drew a standing ovation, black writer Essex Hemphill, his voice breaking at times, exhorted those attending to acknowledge and fight against racism within the gay community.” Though this is not an inaccurate portrait, it misses the point of Hemphill’s volta, which, slyly adapting the famous first lines of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” pivots from a third-person description of Black gay men to a plural first person:

The best gay minds of my generation believe 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. We are communities engaged in a fragile coexistence, if we are anything at all.

In what was likely an exceedingly beige room, Hemphill focused his words on another (potentially hypothetical) queer Black man: “I ask you, brother, does your mama really know about you? Does she really know what I am? Does she know I want to love her son, care for him, nurture and celebrate him? Do you think she’ll understand? I hope so because I am coming home. There is no place else to go that will be worth so much effort and love.”

Hemphill also pointedly critiques Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Black men, collected in Black Book (1986): “Though his images may be technically and aesthetically well composed, his work artistically perpetuates racial stereotypes constructed around sexuality and desire.” Such critique was especially fraught at this time, when Republican senator Jesse Helms was making headlines for attacking federal arts funding. Many speeches reflect on the connection between unfolding culture wars, which, in practice, focused on the representation of sexuality. With an estimated budget of $30,000, OutWrite would have benefited from even a modest pledge of support from government sources. However, the latest federal restrictions made that impossible. OUT/LOOK’s archive includes a copy of National Endowment for the Arts revised guidelines from November 1989, with the relevant paragraph circled: “None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for the [NEA] … may be used to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which in the judgment of the [NEA] … may be considered obscene, including, but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Instead of federal dollars, OutWrite was financed through a combination of ticket sales, advertisements, and community fundraisers. Independent bookstores and performance spaces across the Bay Area—including City Lights, Modern Times, Old Wives Tales, and A Different Light Bookstore—found ways to make OutWrite a reality, ultimately drawing an estimated 1,200 people to the conference in 1990. When activists were still using phone trees to get out the word about demonstrations, publicity for the first national conference of gay and lesbian writers spread from coast to coast, often by way of gay media and local alternative newspapers.

As Enszer and Gross detail in their introduction, when OUT/LOOK ceased operations in 1992, the organization of OutWrite was handed over to “activists from the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation, better known for its leftist journal, Gay Community News (GCN),” based in Boston. OutWrite remained an almost annual event in Boston until the final iteration in 1999, and what began as an explosion of queer fury at the start of the decade seemed to gradually mellow into a simmer of nostalgia and practical advice for writing and publishing. Exhaustion and the weight of the dead were everywhere; by 1998, when the penultimate OutWrite ended, more than one author whose keynote address is collected in the volume had died. John Preston, the only person represented twice in this anthology, died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. There’s a profound shift between his first speech, “AIDS Writing,” and his second, “An Exceptional Child.” Preston opened his 1990 speech by calling on all writers to represent AIDS in their work, despite the impossibility of doing so accurately: “The emotions are too raw. And the scale is too great. Modern writing tends to want controlled feeling that has a narrow scope.”

In 1993, his speech was more contemplative, weaving together memoir with a burgeoning permissiveness for queer writers across the second half of the 20th century: “I became one of the first waves of people who worked to establish a community out of the rubble of our personal experience.” Along with several other writers in OutWrite, Preston explicitly links the growth and controversy of queer writing to the singular career of Toni Morrison: “She created writings breathtaking and so finely wrought that it could not be denied. That should be our goal. That certainly was the gift that Morrison has given to this world—to give what had once been dismissed as anecdote and folklore a new label, to force it into the ranks of literature, as though it had never been.”

Cheryl Clarke’s memorial lecture on the poetry of Audre Lorde reminds us that Lorde, too, died (of cancer) during the early years of this conference, a monumental loss that was followed by those of Terri L. Jewell and Toni Cade Bambara in 1995. “I wish to give no advice about what in Audre Lorde’s life and legacy we must emulate and carry forward,” Clarke writes, “only that we must do something. I find my own answer in the poem with which I began, ‘On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge.’” Clarke then quotes from Lorde’s poem:

And I dream of our coming together
encircled        driven
not only by love
but by lust for a working tomorrow
and the lights of this journey
mapless          uncertain
and necessary as water.

Melvin Dixon’s March 1992 speech, “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” anticipates his imminent death that October with an unforgettable and haunting exhortation:

As for me, I may not be well enough or alive next year to attend the lesbian and gay writers conference, but I’ll be somewhere listening for my name. I may not be around to celebrate in the publication of gay literary history. But I’ll be somewhere listening for my name. If I don’t make it to Tea Dance in Provincetown or the Pines, I’ll be somewhere listening for my name. You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision, to remember us.

In “Voices from OutWrite,” a series of short testimonials about the conference included at the end of the book, the subject most frequently commented upon is the unspeakably vast loss of those years. (The second most-popular subject: the action in the bathrooms on the conference’s closing night.) Reflecting on the intersections of the past and present, contributor David Halperin writes, “There is a canon of queer lit, but it is increasingly unknown; my students have never heard of the writers I admire. [Y]et their best books and poems speak to our situation today: the queer canon may belong to its time, but it is not dated. It deserves a large audience, and perhaps more to the point, queer folks need the great literature they already possess.”

In 2017, the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco exhibited a retrospective dedicated to the legacy of OUT/LOOK and the OutWrite conference, OUT/LOOK & The Birth of The Queer: Today’s Artists & Writers Respond. Thirty years after OUT/LOOK ceased publication, the GLBT Historical Society published a new volume with contributions from artists, writers, historians, theorists, and activists. Gross contributed an essay to that project, a reverie sparked by the possibilities of OutWrite: “Discovering OUT Write ’90 within the pages of OUT/LOOK had a powerful and revelatory impact 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,’ OutWrite underscored the intensely political, and affirming act of naming oneself, one’s life, one’s history, and one’s desire(s) in print.”

A later essay in the 2017 volume, Julian Carter’s “Sex Time Machine for Touching the Transcestors,” zeroes in on one of the biggest deficits of OUT/LOOK and the OutWrite conference—and thus Enszer and Gross’s OutWrite: the lack of representation of trans authors and experiences. Trans representation is not completely omitted from OutWrite but found mostly on the edges; the oppression of trans people is often tallied up toward the end of a list, a way of rounding out the political situation of gays and lesbians, who were so numerous in the pages of OUT/LOOK and on the panels of OutWrite. For Carter, the archives of OUT/LOOK—as fraught as they are—nevertheless can inspire time travel. He writes

Time travel is not simply fun. Relics of early 90s San Francisco crackle with intense affect, unresolved and irresolvable. In 1991 it seems like everyone is stimulated, everything is urgent, we’re too young to die and we never thought we’d make it this far, we are angry and hurt by the straight world and we don’t always know how to stop fighting when we try to get close to other queers. … Diving in, I confront how lonesome I was at the interface between erotic territories defined and defended by gender. Leather helped protect me from the friction burns. Holding on tight with my thighs, my teeth, I braced against the fear that even queer wasn’t big enough to hold me. Rememory is hard. It brings back the full force of my gratitude [for] the company I found there in the gender DMZ. The love. The lessons in survival.

Using the language of harm reduction that informed campaigns for safer sex—as opposed to the impossible standard of an entirely safe sex—Carter suggests that the archive might never be a completely safe space for all people. Still, it might be made safer: “We knew safety wasn’t possible. That’s why we developed social techniques to take care of ourselves and each other. Simple things you could whisper to a stranger, like cum on me, not in me … a Dionysian statement, at once an invitation and a battle cry.” The example Carter gives for a safer historiographical practice is drawing, specifically drawing “to document the reality of fantasy” of a Lou Sullivan multiverse. Sullivan, a transgender gay man, was an important activist and a historian in San Francisco; he died in 1991. “Drawing gave me a way to develop a physically engaged interactive relationship with Lou, who is otherwise unavailable to touch,” Carter writes. Today, it is all the more interesting to consider Carter’s essay, given the publication of Lou Sullivan’s diaries, We Both Laughed In Pleasure (2019), edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, the latter of whom features prominently in Carter’s essay. Much like Schulman first imagining the St. Patrick’s Cathedral action in the pages of People in Trouble, Carter first glimpses something—a book? a time machine?—connecting Ozma to Sullivan in the pages of his essay.

Trans people were involved in OUT/LOOK and the OutWrite conferences, even if Enszer and Gross’s anthology doesn’t showcase them. OutWrite: The Speeches That Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture represents only one path through the archive of OUT/LOOK and OutWrite, and I hope there are more to come. Could the voices and experiences of trans people who held space at OutWrite be brought into the center? What would that volume look like? In her review of the 1991 OutWrite conference published by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, journalist Louise Sloan quotes a refrain from a speech by the nonbinary writer and artist Kate Bornstein, who was presenting at the conference: “My culture is not your culture. My culture weaves through eons with your culture and at times we … kiss.” For Sloan, this kind of kissing was what the conference was all about. Riffing on a remark by the lawyer and activist Urvashi Vaid, who spoke from the audience, that there must be an interrogation of the “politics of etc.,” which, historically, has violently ejected the most vulnerable from conversations of repair and social justice, Sloan reflects on Bornstein’s comments at OutWrite: “She speaks, then, only for herself. But as I see it, in writing of her own very specific identity, experience and world view, of the very particular, real, non-universal pain and politics of living and recording her life as both a transsexual and a lesbian, she eloquently captures truths about language and identity; about what it is to be etc.; what it is to be an artist, or simply a human, in a society so relentlessly insistent on the fixed, the stable, the dichotomous or the homogenized; the ‘norm’ that is an excruciating impossibility for most of us.”

Who is responsible for this queer literary history? Who is the steward? As part of my research for this essay, I went to the GLBT Historical Society archive to examine its OUT/LOOK materials. Alongside the folders, I was happy to find a (mostly) complete collection of audio recordings from the OutWrite conferences. What an incredible resource! Here, for example, was Dodie Bellamy giving a presentation on New Narrative in 1990. It’s mostly been men who have written the history of this demimonde, so I wondered what Bellamy would have to say. I put the tape in the machine like I was back in middle school. Wobbly and slowed down, the tape was corrupted somehow. Every fifth word was slurred. Then every third word slurred, spreading like a sonic puddle. Then, finally, the poor machine had had enough and turned itself off with a loud click. Not all of the tapes were degraded, but, given the hundreds of hours this cache of audio cassettes presented, the emergency was clear. Something was in danger of being lost—something imperfect, even odious in certain regards. But I think, too, about the figures, experiences, and truths on the edges of OutWrite: the ancestral queer savants who might still be brought into the center of the conversation and recognized for their achievements.

OutWrite helps activate these memories and curiosity about a world that feels vanished and yet familiar. Enszer and Gross’s anthology is an excellent, timely example of queer literary stewardship, and it must be said that the transcription of so many speeches from the OutWrite archive is a boon to everyone hoping to ignite activism with art—the kind of fire most people desperately need these days. Will there be more? More anthologies, fires, art, and activism: may it be so. Let’s remember who led the way.

Originally Published: June 27th, 2022

Eric Sneathen is a poet and queer literary historian living in Oakland. He is the author of Snail Poems (Krupskaya, 2016), Minor Work (MO0ON/IO, 2021), and Don't Leave Me This Way (Nightboat Books, 2023), and he co-edited the selected fictions of Camille Roy, Honey Mine (Nightboat Books, 2021). His essays...