Op-ed: Why LGBTQ Literature Matters

By Brenda Knight

Originally published on Advocate.com June 09 2014 4:30 AM ET

The New York Times recently ran an article about the importance of winning over the “pink dollar” and tapping the market of queer travelers. The article reads as a commodification of an identity, and it rubbed me entirely the wrong way. There’s something truly disturbing about LGBTQ becoming just another brand and “queer” just another sales tactic. We get that LGBTQ has become a trending topic as of late, with the incredible inroads made for marriage equality and gay rights in general, but corporations desperately grasping onto a trendy keyword doesn’t quite count as representation. If the only time people seek out queer folks is to sell them something, we have a serious problem.

My company, Cleis Press, has been publishing queer stories for almost 35 years. Like any small business, we’ve had our ups and downs, but it has never been just about the bottom line. We were founded on the core principle of expressing how real people think and feel, and giving them a platform for speaking about the issues close to their hearts.

In honor of Pride Month (though we think every month should be Pride), we wanted to celebrate, in the literal sense of the word: gather people together in one place, and ensure that every voice was heard. And so, #OutWriters was born.

#OutWriters began fairly quietly, as just an idea we kicked around the office. It started with a question: what does it mean to be an “out writer?” Or, put another way, why is queer literature and representation so important? We talked about what it meant to us to publish LGBTQ writers, especially as much of our staff identifies as queer, and then extended the question to our authors and contributors.

We extended the invitation for all writers, readers, publishers, and LGBTQ folks to join us, because we wanted #OutWriters to be actively inclusive. What’s the point of having a conversation if only the only people who speak already have platforms?

This inclusivity is key to our business model, even when it’s financially risky. Just because we’ve decided to take a chance on a book doesn’t mean the market will follow suit. A prime example was Sacchi Green’s Wild Girls Wild Nights: True Lesbian Sex Stories, which just won the coveted Lambda Literary Award for lesbian erotica. The book is highly praised, but we barely got it onto bookshelves. We’ve been calling stores to tell them about it personally, telling booksellers that we don’t want them to miss out on one of the best books we’ve ever published. Even with such a high stamp of approval as a Lammy, people are scared to touch literature that feels unfamiliar. Our job is to push past that, and make sure every kind of love is represented. As Sacchi herself said in regard to the #OutWriters project, “good writing is well worth reading, whatever the theme and whoever the well-drawn characters may be.”

We stuck our necks out in 2011 when we published Paul Russell’s The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. Random House was set to release it but ditched its option when the Nabokov estate was hesitant to have the queerness of Vladimir’s brother made public. The real-life Sergey, who was openly gay as a youth, went on to live in Paris, where he crossed paths with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, and many other Lost Generation noteworthies. His life was cut short when he was interned in the Nazi concentration camp of Neuengamme for the crime of his identity, where he later died. The Nazis silenced him, the estate silenced him, and a “big four” publishing house was intent upon perpetuating that silencing of his voice.

We published the book to great acclaim, with The Washington Post hailing it as one of the five most important books of the year. Russell was also the only two-time recipient of the Ferro-Grumley Award. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t about the recognition. We had the courage that one of the world’s biggest publishers didn’t have. But the awards didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that his voice was finally heard.

The outpouring of responses to #OutWriters has been surprising, but very heartening. Eva Gantz, who has been managing the campaign, says, “We sat in the conference room and just cried, because this is why we do what we do. The response has been overwhelming, with tweets pouring in from every genre you can imagine. It’s this beautiful reminder of why readers and writers don’t just want diverse books — we need them.”

#OutWriters has indeed been home to writers and readers of every stripe and every letter of the rainbow alphabet. Author V.C. tweeted, “I'm intersex. My voice was silent, not anymore. LGBTQI fiction gives ALL OF US a loud, and proud, voice that is read, and heard.” Corey Alexander added, “I write trans folks, & our kink lives & realities into the picture over & over, because I know how much I needed to read them.” ‘Nathan Burgoine points to the importance of representation for young queers, saying, “Why LGBT YA? When you're a kid, you're looking for examples of kids like you. Not every princess is blonde. Or white. Or a girl.” Laura Antoniou points out that “‘this character might have been queer,’ is an afterthought, not inclusion.” Radclyffe reminds us that “we can be the heroes of stories. We can have happy ever afters. Books matter.”

The intention of #OutWriters is very simple — being heard. Queer is not a brand or a product; it is a beautiful chorus of voices, louder and prouder than ever before.

BRENDA KNIGHT, publisher of Cleis Press, is a 20-year publishing veteran, starting at HarperCollins and is the author of the American Book Award-winning Women of the Beat Generation, Wild Women and Books, and The Grateful Table. Knight has worked with many best-selling authors including Mark Nepo, Phil Cousineau, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and Paolo Coehlo. Knight volunteers for the American Cancer Society as a counselor for the newly diagnosed, teaches at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, and leads writing workshops, “Putting Your Passion on Paper.” Follow Brenda on Twitter @LowerHaightBK.