Dan Lopez and his friends had arrived early at the comedy reading, and it was already standing room only, at the back of the house. Lopez saw this as a plus: he’d helped organize the event as part of 2017’s inaugural Lambda LitFest Los Angeles, which tapped into an appetite for a queer literary community in L.A.
LitFest L.A. is one of many spaces where LGBTQ authors, readers, and publishers find one another. Whether it’s at a fully costumed extravaganza like New York’s annual Flame Con queer comics convention or via a hashtag like #OwnVoices, book lovers are bringing the full force of their identities to the stories they love, in person and online.
For the next LitFest, which opens Sept. 29, Lopez will serve as event producer, helping to organize a week’s worth of community-driven and professional programming. “The goal is to celebrate the diversity of LGBTQ voices” in the L.A. metro area, he says, and to be an event on par with AWP or Saints and Sinners, an annual LGBTQ literary festival founded in New Orleans in 2003.
That mission has attracted varied participants, including Bryan Fuller, executive producer and co-showrunner on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; poet Richard Blanco, who read at Barack Obama’s second inauguration; and the writers who presented at a reading and q&a called “We Are Chicanx: A Brown Queer Revolution.”
One of the most successful events, Lopez says, was the Queers Who Submit workshop, produced in collaboration with the Women Who Submit collective and aimed at guiding new writers through the submission and publication process. Such practical skills are especially valuable, he says, to marginalized writers who don’t know how and where to submit their work.
“An older woman who had been writing but had never really been publishing, when she submitted her first thing during the workshop, she was in tears of joy,” Lopez says. “Everybody was celebrating it. It was a really positive and encouraging space.”
Ruth Sternglantz, editorial and marketing consultant at LGBTQ publishers Bold Strokes Books, recognizes the importance of that sense of community. “Queer activism and queer publishing have always been inextricable,” she says. Bold Strokes Books releases some 120 titles annually, and actively focuses on developing new authors.
One major Bold Strokes project is its semiannual authors’ retreat. The ninth one just wrapped up in Nottingham, U.K., in conjunction with the publisher’s annual book festival. Some 30 authors joined editors and the publisher for large group sessions, small writing workshops, and social events. One new author had attended the Bold Strokes U.K. Book Festival many times as a reader and was overjoyed to finally participate in the publisher’s retreat as a writer; another got to see her book in person for the first time at the festival.
Sternglantz emphasizes the importance representation for LGBTQ writers and readers. “If you don’t see yourself, at least in fiction, having experiences, how do you know you exist beyond the four walls of your brain?” she says. “Everyone deserves to see themselves in stories.”
And while “queer books belong everywhere,” Sternglantz says, there remains a place for LGBTQ-specific publishers. “A lot of the works that a queer press is going to publish will not have the kind of mainstream appeal that a mainstream press needs for their business model. That’s why we still have a role and a place that’s distinct.”
The Picture of Diversity
For writers and others trying to break into the industry, discoverability can be one hurdle to getting published. MariNaomi, a comics artist in Los Angeles, learned this in 2014 while researching an article about creating comics whose characters are of a different ethnicity than one’s own. The fact that she couldn’t find a directory of cartoonists of color surprised her. “I didn’t grow up with the internet, really,” she says, “but I took it for granted that everything’s online, and that’s absolutely not the case.”
MariNaomi understood the need for a publicly available database and soon after launched Cartoonists of Color and a second database, Queer Cartoonists. “CoC was a no-brainer, whereas I wanted to be more careful with the latter,” she says. “I didn’t want to out anyone, and I tried to figure out how to gather information respectfully. Ultimately, it made more sense for QC to be opt-in per the creator, whereas anyone could submit any creator’s info to CoC.”
MariNaomi got the word out on social media, and via her website and Patreon platform. As of May, Queer Cartoonists has 775 entries; it’s searchable by identifiers such as pronouns, ethnicity, location, genre, and production role, and it’s already helping creators find work.
“There’s strength in numbers,” MariNaomi says. “When you realize how many people crave these stories, it makes you a lot bolder to actually tell the story you want to tell. I’ve heard from a lot of people, particularly the younger cartoonists, who’ve gotten their first gig off there. That’s one of the main points of having the database—to help people.”
The project is important to MariNaomi personally as well as professionally. “It was a while before I figured out my sexuality, so it’s exciting to see super-young people who not only identify very strongly as queer, but think hard about it,” she says. “It gives me a lot of hope for the future.”