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A Queer Idea

What Role Has Literature Played in Shaping Our Community?

By Keith Kahla

I was at the 4th annual Writers & Readers conference (which is hosted by A Different Light Bookstore and held in San Francisco) recently where I was a late addition to the opening panel, "Firing the Canon: Exploding Queer Lit". Having come directly from my sales conference, I had had little time to prepare my opening statement or even to organize my thoughts and the notes I had frantically scribbled on the plane out read as if they'd been written in Finnish (which I don't speak but clearly should learn.)

I rambled through it all just fine, but upon my return to New York, I looked through my notes again and found that a) they weren't written in Finnish after all and b) buried within them was the germ of an actual idea.

At the heart of the panel was the question: "What is queer lit and what role does it play in the lesbian/gay community and the larger world?" Like all discussion topics, this is one that can be debated for years but, unlike nearly any other community, writing is and has always been the basic binding force of modern gay/lesbian culture. Whereas other cultural/social identities -- those based upon religion, race, class, and ethnicity for example -- are nurtured and reinforced by the birth family, church, neighborhood, and tradition as well as the reflected images of the electronic media, a "queer" identity is something one accepts and embraces relatively late in life and without the usual societal supports.

We are all born into another culture, another identity, and must find our own way, if we ever do, to the gay/lesbian community, usually without the reinforcement and support of family, neighborhood, religion, et. al. Ellen DeGeneris aside, gay/lesbian images in music, film, and television are few, far between, and of little help. Since the days of the Stonewall riots and before, words have been the major markers of the road to the gay/lesbian community and they remain our major cultural support.

From the manifestos that appeared pasted to the sides of buildings in the wake of the riots in 1969 to the flurry of 'zine writing that occurs today -- it is through the power of the written word that the gay/lesbian community established itself in the social space, how we establish ties with one another, define and redefine ourselves, pass on our history and experiences to our own and other generations, nourish and attack each other ideas and politics, and communicate across vast distances both physical and cultural.

What we communicate through our writing is nothing less than our stories and ourselves -- all the stuff of culture.

The written word -- of which "literature" is only a small subset -- has been for over twenty-five years the major building block of the gay/lesbian community. The manifestos which formed the rallying points of the early gay and lesbian political groups (from the Mattachine to the GAA and GLF) to the brilliant oration of Larry Kramer (out of which came the political/social action group ACT-UP), from Christopher Street magazine (which encouraged and fostered the first generation of gay writers) to the thousand of 'zines and e-zines (which reflect the changes in modern gay life and challenge the shape and perceived orthodoxy of the established gay culture), words have been the life-line which has lead many to the gay/lesbian community and force which has kept it vital, even central, to our existence.

Books, of course, are a part of this continuing dialogue within the community and they continue to shape and reflect our culture. In the twenty years from the time that the members of the Violet Quill first actively began trying to establish a gay literature, the amount and range of lesbian/gay fiction has simply exploded.

Growing from perhaps a dozen books a year to close to 2,000 books a year, queer literature has flowered along with the queer community, each inspiring the other. Ranging from simple entertainments to complex cultural studies, these thousands of books are nothing less than the strength upon which we draw our history, our identities, our community and our culture. A culture made of words.

Keith Kahla is the senior editor who calls the shots at Stonewall Inn.


Previous "Having Our Say" topics:

Why Don't Gays and Lesbians Read?
The Case for Gay Books

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