Politics around the LGBTQ+ community have been tense at best throughout the country, culminating in recent threats of book bans, language bans, and repealing laws that protect LGBTQ+ rights. OutWrite, D.C. Center’s LGBTQ+ annual literary festival, back August 5 to 7, proves a space where people can come learn and understand why LGBTQ+ stories matter — how they’ve been here all along, and how they’re not going to go away.
An annual celebration of LGBTQ+ authors, books and stories, the festival is transitioning, saying goodbye to Marlena Chertock and Malik Thompson as Co-Chairs. Chertock reflected on her five-year tenure, assessing how the festival has helped serve the LGBTQ+ community in D.C.
OutWrite pivoted during the past couple of years due to Covid-19, and Chertock was there to see it through. She worked to broaden their reach to different authors who don’t live in D.C. due to new virtual opportunities. She made the festival more accessible, providing captions on YouTube and ASL interpreters for live events, to continue their ethos of a welcoming space for all. She and Thompson connected with local bookstores for different community events. They added a youth-led panel to inspire writers of the future.
“A lot has changed for me in five years,” Chertock says. “I identify as lesbian, and coming into knowing who I am has coincided with my leadership at OutWrite. It’s a very safe space for that exploration.”
The city of D.C. plays a role in this safe space.
“It’s a very literary friendly community,” Chertock says. “We have so many indie bookstores — a lot of them are women-owned, Black-owned, Black-queer-women-owned — a lot of people know each other, but not in a clique-y way.”
Chertock says the queer literary community affirms all kinds of realities, and without LGBTQ+ books, people can’t understand their perspective. While movies and T.V. shows often portray LGBTQ+ characters in a lovable light, like the gay best friend for instance (“Like in “Seinfeld,”” Chertock says. “‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that…’”), but they tend to leave out other multifaceted aspects of these people’s personalities. Books by queer authors bridge that gap, showing the good, the bad, the ups, the downs, the likable, the unlikable — the human story of their existence.
OutWrite provides many different ways for these stories to be told. The festival hosts panels, readings and workshops, and they also have an annual literary journal where local writers can submit their work. Last year, the journal focused on Black LGBTQ+ stories under the theme “Black Writers on Imagination, Joy and Liberation,” and this year’s theme is “Pandemic as Portal.”
OutWrite 2022 will host events on many different topics, like Chapbooks 101, a Dolly Parton poetry workshop, Black gay men writing about friendship, youth liberation, queer true crime, writing messy queer characters and queer picture books, among others.
“Malik and I really wanted to give space to folks who really deserve the mic,” Chertock says.
And starting this year, Chertock and Thompson will pass the mic to the new Chair, Emily Holland.
Holland has been involved with OutWrite since 2019, after they submitted work to the festival and read at an event. They loved the atmosphere of the festival, seeing the D.C. queer scene come together to celebrate their work and how the festival accepted her work regardless of publication status. The position for Chair opened — OutWrite’s first time paying for the position — and Holland jumped at the opportunity. Looking forward, they want to create more paid opportunities throughout the organization.
Holland also plans to continue to build the festival’s accessibility, and to create more community events that keep OutWrite on people’s minds year-round.
“There aren’t that many other queer literary festivals,” Holland says. “But we’d like to build partnerships with the few that exist, and network to a larger queer community, to see how we can support each other in this climate that looking to hide and suppress our stories.”
OutWrite doesn’t have any access barriers, Holland says. No matter what level of writing or publishing people are at, they’re welcome. For Holland, OutWrite helped them realize there was a supportive community in D.C., ready to help their writing grow in many different capacities.
“I’m excited to be able to help build that support system for other writers,” Holland says. “To keep that level of engagement and openness and that welcoming feeling I felt when I was a baby queer writer.”
A lot of times, queer stories haven’t been outwardly queer, Holland says. They were hidden, coded.
“Any moment we can celebrate our stories and lift our stories and get them out to the world is an opportunity for someone [who needs it] to encounter that story.”
The OutWrite literary festival gives space for these stories to sit in the light, open and accessible to all, for those who seek to understand, seek to be understood or seek something entirely new.
“OutWrite is just one way that we can bring people together for support and hope, in the face of what can seem hopeless sometimes,” Holland says.
The OutWrite literary festival takes place August 5 to 7, 2022. You can view the schedule of events, including panels, readings, plays and workshops, here.
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