Institutional Queers & LGBTQ Literary Journals: A Provocation
Author: Julie R. Enszer
February 13, 2023
In early September, Tammy Lynn Stoner, author of Sugar Land and publisher of Gertrude Press announced that after twenty-four years, “the time has come for us to say goodbye.” The end of the incredible LGBTQ journal Gertrude and its affiliated projects, including book publishing, a book club, reviews, and a podcast, is sad. The ending of any queer cultural project is sad, and because outlets dedicated to building LGBTQ literary culture are limited, every loss feels more than sad. It is tragic.
I understand the need to go “into the night” as Stoner described the decision to end Gertrude. Publishing is relentless, expensive, and time-consuming. Many days it is tough to tell if the luminous moments are worth the slog and moments of despair. For small, independent publishers, and community-supported publishing without institutional affiliation, these dark moments are frequent and emotionally challenging. Sustaining a community-based publishing operation is grueling.
The end of Gertrude arrives more than fifty years into the contemporary LGBTQ liberation movement, a movement that has been instigated, sustained, and inspired by literature. Yet, despite the centrality of literature to the LGBTQ movement, of queer literary arts to the sustenance of our spirits, our intellects, and our souls, there is not a single literary journal dedicated to LGBTQ voices with institutional support including a permanent institutional home and dedicated editorial staff who receive a salary for their work on the journal.
Just absorb that fact. In the United States, there is not a single LGBTQ+ literary journal that has a sustained, formal relationship with a university or other cultural institution.
Literary journals have a long tradition of publishing under the auspices of universities and, particularly during the past fifty years, creative writing programs. Callaloo, the premier journal of African-American writing, is based at Texas A&M University; Prairie Schooner is based at the University of Nebraska; Agni is at Boston University; the Georgia Review is at the University of Georgia. These are only the tip of the iceberg. Michigan Quarterly Review. Southern Humanities Review. The list goes on. And on. And on. An array of literary journals with various missions have support from universities, but no LGBTQ+ literary journal has a foothold in the university system.
Institutionally support is not a panacea, of course. The other day, I was on a call with a passel of lesbians and the conversation turned to grant support for lesbian organizations. Someone from the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA), the oldest and perhaps most august of lesbian institutions, piped in and said, we don’t take any government money at LHA. I wanted to stand up and applaud. I support that position, but not all lesbian organizations make that choice. To thrive, queer literary culture needs many different types of organizations to build long-term, lasting cultural change.
Institutional support, of course, is not without constraints and does not guarantee longevity. Often university-based journals are the result of dedicated labor by one or a few individuals, who are themselves overworked and underappreciated, like their brethren and sistren at independent literary journals. Given the economic realities of higher education today, this lack of institutional support for LGBTQ journals may seem a gift, but, in reality, the absence of long-term institutional support means that many independent LGBTQ+ literary journals fail and fall into obscurity before they can grow and develop a history to have a lasting impact on our literary communities.
Of course, LGBTQ writers find support for their work in mainstream journals, and queer people do amazing things to publish our own work. Independent literary journals are a lifeline for queer writers, even if they are short-lived. Gertrude is one loss among many: Lodestar Quarterly, Assaracus, Bloom, Christopher Street, Chroma (in the UK), Argot Magazine, Blithe House Quarterly, Vetch. The list goes on. And on. Despite these losses, it is a vibrant moment for queer publishing with great journals like Foglifter, Nepantla, Impossible Archetype, and Lavender Review, among many others (including Sinister Wisdom which I edit and publish). I do not want to minimize the extraordinary achievement of our queer independent journals. We need to support them in every way possible.
We also need to demand that institutions and the institutional queers working within them imagine new possibilities for LGBTQ literary culture with institutional support. With so many queer scholars and queer writers at universities and with literally decades of work bringing LGBTQ literature and arts and scholarship to the university, it is striking that there is not one journal sustained by an institutional affiliation. What is the value of achieving institutional power, of securing access to university resources if it does not open new possibilities for future queer writers, scholars, and creative folks?
What might have happened if Gertrude or Assaracus or Bloom or Blithe House Quarterly (the list could go on) might have migrated to any one of the extraordinary universities with LGBTQ writers—Northwestern, NYU, UT Austin, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan? There are so many out, queer writers at top universities, it is mind-boggling. What if there were pathways between community-based publishing and institutional homes? What if institutional queers helped create institutional homes for LGBTQ literary journals?
Why does it matter that there is not a single LGBTQ literary journal associated with a university? Having institutional support, having an editor who has some compensation for their time and editorial work, having a sense of a horizon that reaches beyond the next issue, having a vision for queer writing that builds on a long history and a cultural expectation of future contributions, has extraordinary consequences for literary communities and literary cultures. The absence of these labors and visions from LGBTQ literary culture diminishes it, making it more fragile and requiring a reinvention of skills, people, and ideas with frequency rather than the benefits of sustained output. LGBTQ writers deserve better. We need an institution—and an individual within an institution—to step up and make it happen.