We are not separate from our history; our history surrounds us. Even as it trails behind us, we create it and are part of it. As a young dyke I felt separate from just about everyone and everything, yet gay authors formed me and are part of me. At the same time, they prepared me to, in my small way, pass on what they created.
It was a shock when I realized there were less than twenty years between the publication of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and my birth. The same for Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and Richard Meeker’s Better Angel and John Henry Mackay’s The Hustler. When I read the two lesbian books, in 1960, they seemed like ancient history to me. Today, I can see that the lesbian and gay male books of the 1920s were no more than a hop, skip and a jump to James Baldwin, Gore Vidal and Jane Rule’s books, and another short leap to Judy Grahn and Isabel Miller.
I’ve lived a minor gay miracle, having had the honor of bridging gay generations and, sometimes, of hearing or meeting or exchanging a few emails, and sometimes becoming friends with the great writers and publishers of the past 100 years. My gosh, I have walked along Patchin Place, where Djuna Barnes lived in New York City, and left an admiring note in the mailbox she emptied every day with the hands that wrote her strange and quite lesbian books.
Once, I sold books next to the “Sinister Wisdom” table which was staffed by Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff. I managed to stutter my way through a brief conversation with Adrienne, whose poetry I’d been reading since high school. In high school, I read Valerie Taylor’s books, marketed as lesbian pulp novels. Much later I not only met this tiny, loving woman, we became fast friends and, as our birthdays fell two days apart, we had a quiet celebration at her home one year. It’s impossible for me to describe the thrill it was to be on the same planet with one of these writers, much less in the same room.
I heard John Rechy speak in San Francisco. His book City of Night wowed this nascent writer. If he could fashion a whole novel out of clandestine gay male encounters, wasn’t I free to write a whole lot more circumspectly about lesbians? He carried the flag of openness and I marched behind him. That he became a respectable university faculty member stunned me. How could there be room in one’s life for both extremes?
James Baldwin and Jane Rule taught me, through their books, that gay fiction could be beautiful and have a moral dimension I admired. I needed the wisdom of their novels. I was privileged to correspond with Jane, and spend time with her and her partner in Seattle one enchanted weekend. What did I do to deserve these beautiful connections?
Judy Grahn is an old acquaintance whose powerful readings and speeches I’ve heard. Katherine Forrest, Karin Kallmaker and Cate Culpepper came later and became writing pals, as did Terri de la Peña, Sasha Alyson, Terri Jewell, and Joan Nestle. I once met John Preston and I’m Twitter buddies with gay Amish poet James Schwartz. When we moved last year we should have left a plaque: “KG Macgregor slept here”
Renee Bess, Greg Herren, and Ellen Hart are significant figures in contemporary gay writing who I call friends. If this sounds like I’m bragging and name dropping, I am. Having these women and men in my life in person or through their words is beyond anything this kid from Queens dreamed when I started writing. Heck, having a comprehensive literature of our own is my tenth wonder of the world.
This mingling with the greats is not limited to established writers. Every year at The Golden Crown Literary Society (goldencrown.org/) conference I meet more authors. And I get to see those who have become old friends. Ann Bannon, who I first read at age 15, and first met in the early 1980s, will be this year’s Special Speaker. Lori Lake, author of over a dozen books and one of our greatest promoters and champions, will give the keynote speech. At Golden Crown, I connect with writers like Jewelle Gomez, Elizabeth Sims, Marianne K. Martin, and Radclyffe.
I also meet the reasons I write: the devoted, enthusiastic readers and the fledgling writers. I watch the millennials, some unaware they are treading in Radclyffe Hall’s footsteps, as they develop. Rachel Spangler, Nell Stark, Dillon Watson, Trinity Tam, Gabrielle Goldsby—the conference is practically a warehouse of literary lesbians.
Speaking of shock, imagine if Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde could see us now!