A new book captures the rousing speeches of LGBTQ writers

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Before the Internet and social media, LGBTQ people who wanted to find their tribe and share ideas went to gatherings: Not just bars and protests but conferences and symposiums such as OutWrite, which spanned watershed years in which our community struggled to rise from the ashes of the AIDS pandemic.

OutWrite: The Speeches That Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture edited by Julie R. Enszer and Elena Gross (Rutgers University Press) now gives readers who weren't there a front-row seat to a pivotal moment in LGBTQ literary history with 27 of the most memorable speeches from the OutWrite conferences, including talks from such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Essex Hemphill, Patrick Califia, Dorothy Allison, and Edmund White that cover diverse and hot button issues pertinent to our community.

Running from 1990 to 1999, the annual OutWrite conference played a pivotal role in shaping LGBTQ literary culture in the United States. OutWrite provided a space where established trailblazers such as Edward Albee, for example, rubbed shoulders with a new generation of queer writers like Tony Kushner.

This collection gathers some of the most memorable speeches from the OutWrite conference, including both keynote addresses and panel presentations. These talks are drawn from a diverse array of contributors, including Judy Grahn, Allan Gurganus, Chrystos, John Preston, Linda Villarosa, and many more.

We caught up with one of the editors, Julie R. Enszer, publisher and editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and the author of four poetry collections, including Avowed, and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989. Enszer worked on OutWrite with Elena Gross, an independent writer, curator, and culture critic living in Oakland, California.

How and why did this project with Elena come about and what did it involve for you?

Julie Enszer: When I was doing research for my dissertation, someone gifted me a few cassette tapes from the original conferences. The speeches and panels were all recorded by a commercial recording company for a number of the conferences, and participants could purchase cassette tapes and bring them home for plenaries or panels they might have missed—or ones that were particularly enjoyable.

I always had in mind that these speeches would make a great book. I met Elena at the Queer History Conference in San Francisco. She was a part of a wonderful project that E. G. Crichton organized that celebrated OUT/LOOK and contemporary writers & artists responded to the magazine.... Elena and I talked a bit after her presentation and batted around the idea of a book about the OutWrite speeches. She was game and so we began working on it.

We researched the conference through the archives at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco and Northeastern University in Boston. Conference programs provided a basis for who spoke and from there we worked to track down the speeches. Some of them are transcribed from audio tapes, others from printed sources. We worked on it throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was thrilling to imagine people gathering at large conferences while we were sheltering in our homes.

Are there any favorite speeches you would like to highlight - particularly any by women - that you think resonate with Women's History Month?

Enszer: The book includes a diversity of voices, just like the conference. From the outset, the conference was imagined as a bi-gender endeavor and the keynote speeches, conversations, and panels reflect that commitment to gender parity. (Of course, today with our changing ideas about gender and contemporary challenges to the gender binary a different configuration of parity would certain emerge.)

There are many wonderful speeches from well-known writers and from some writers who are lesser known. Mariana Romo-Carmon’s speech is incredible occurring during the 500th anniversary of Columbus and she challenges the audience to grapple with colonialism and its effects. Janice Gould’s panel presentation reminds the audience of the power of words and representation, particularly for lesbians of color. Cheryl Clarke delivered a gorgeous speech celebrating the work of Audre Lorde and claiming a lineage of Black queer writers. There are many great speeches for women and men to read in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Out of the massive struggle of our daily lives, we emerge with a unique and specific intelligence. Because we are bound together as sexual beings, because we have had to struggle through oppression just to touch another’s hand, just to hesitantly voice one word or two about our sexual desire, we have developed, as a people, a brilliant self-consciousness about sexuality, about how people live out their variations of sex and gender. We know these secrets; we are these secrets. we know all the queer details of everyone’s life. And our gift to everyone is that we tell. This is the gift of revolutionary queer imagination.

From “Imagination and the Mockingbird” by Minnie Bruce Pratt in OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2022), p. 223.

Speaking as a poet, I can say that if you breath out bitterness, your audience will breathe bitterness back to you; if you breathe out sarcasm, your audience will breathe sarcasm; if you breathe out humor, humor; if anger, anger; and if you breathe out love, your audience will breathe back to you love. . . .As a feminist, I am not so much interested in taking back the night as I am in taking back the world. And this world keeps coming back to us itself as we recover our history.

From “Your First Audience Is Your People” by Judy Grahn in OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2022), p. 25-6.

You can order OutWrite: The Speeches That Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture here and for more info go to outwritespeeches.com.

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