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The first time I saw Bill Brent in person he was in Chicago for the Book Expo of America. He came down to my neighborhood to a little coffeehouse around the corner to eat cake and talk. We hit it off instantly. I didn’t think, then, about how rare that sort of ease can be, and I certainly didn’t think, “I’m going to work for that man someday,” or “I have finally met my mentor.” I thought, “nice guy! We’ll stay in touch.” And we did.
The last time I saw Bill Brent in person was at the end of a spoken-word show this spring. Bill had founded Perverts Put Out!, now the longest running spoken-word series in San Francisco, back in the early 1990’s—about the same time as we first met in Chicago—as a fundraiser for his pansexual sex zine Black Sheets. Ten years or so later, when his publishing company, Black Books, went bankrupt and he moved to Hawaii, he turned over stewardship of PPO! to Simon Sheppard, Carol Queen, and me; it became a fundraiser for Queen’s Center for Sex and Culture instead. Bill was invited to read in the spring now that he was back in the Bay Area, but declined. Maybe next time, he hinted.
After the show, he came up and we exchanged a long hug. He was looking gaunt but handsome, and he seemed a bit subdued, but the embrace was not at all tentative. It was solid and reassuring and heartfelt from both sides.
A few months later, we were talking on the phone and exchanging e-mail, making plans. I wrote to him late on a Friday night, and he wrote back—nothing of consequence, just some e-mail list troubleshooting. On Monday, August 20th, I got a call from a friend. Sometime over the weekend, Bill Brent had chosen to take his life with one last dramatic gesture, by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Between and around those two moments, the first and the last, Bill Brent published six editions of a landmark national resource guide for alternative sexualities, called the Black Book. From there, he launched a sassy, sexy little zine called Black Sheets. That, in turn, spawned Black Books, a tiny independent publishing house. Black Books and Black Sheets were pansexual. The company’s tag line, for a time, was “Kinky. Queer. Intelligent. Irreverent.” Truth in advertising. Black Books published Bill’s how-to guide on self-publishing called Make a Zine! It published a series of erotic anthologies including the Best Bisexual Erotica series and two collections of Internet erotica. It published Paul Reed’s last novel, Vertical Intercourse. Bill’s own writing appeared in Best Gay Erotica 2002 and 2004 and Best American Erotica 1997. He was also the author of The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men for Cleis Press. But he concentrated his efforts on his own small press, whose pages saw the likes of Carol Queen, Simon Sheppard, Jamie Joy Gatto, Bob Vickery, Peggy Munson, Hanne Blank, Marilyn Jaye Lewis, Alison Tyler, Patrick Califia, Larry Townsend, Kate Bornstein, Midori, Thea Hillman and S. Bear Bergman, just to name a few.
Bill gave me my first three book bylines. I came to edit the Lambda award-nominated Tough Girls like this: Bill had decided to put together an anthology of rough gay sex stories and call it Tough Guys. He came into the office one day and said that he thought it would be great to have a companion volume for dykes – and did I want to edit it? It was that simple. When Tough Girls and Best Bisexual Erotica 2 were both nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2002, Bill and I escorted each other to the ceremony in New York.
Black Books closed up shop in the mid-naughts after distributor SBC went bankrupt, taking an entire year’s worth of our profits with it. The company limped on for a bit longer but the economics were simply too dire to ignore. Bill closed the shutters, declared personal bankruptcy, and when the opportunity came to move to Hawaii with his longtime partner Puma, he took it. He cleared out the office, bequeathed the office computer (and the contents of its hard drive) to me, and gave away large swaths of office supplies, zine archives and unsold books. Once in Hawaii he deliberately kept online contact to a minimum in order to focus on his writing. We corresponded off and on – most notably when Perverts Put Out! briefly held the attention of Fox News – but our contact, while always warm, was sporadic.
Bill loved Joni Mitchell and Janet Jackson. He loved flannel and famously wrote an entire essay testifying to its sexiness. He was convinced that the Meyers-Briggs personality test was onto something big. He was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 90s thanks to what he once described as “the world’s wimpiest case of Kaposi’s Sarcoma.”
I can’t remember what kind of cake he liked.
In 2002, for his company’s 10th anniversary, Bill articulated his case as a sex publisher. I hesitate to make these words his epitaph, but as a capsule description of his work, I cannot do better. “Literature aspires to describe the human condition, and sexual literature in particular aspires to describe many of our most intimate and profound moments,” Bill wrote. “Moreover, not just to describe them but to communicate much of what constitutes our essence, our core, our species’ drive to survive and to thrive. You cannot work in this field for long without developing an appreciation of the great conversation around human behavior and interaction. To have a voice in that conversation is one of the greatest privileges I can imagine.”
Or, as he put it more bluntly in a bio note from 1998:
ON WHY I DO BLACK SHEETS:
Because I can’t resist it. It’s a challenge. It’s a confessional. It’s a way of talking to the world about a difficult subject and getting it to talk back.
Because sex is under-discussed, and we all need to discuss it.
(Because the zine actually makes some money, believe it or not.)
Because it makes an impact.
Because it’s fun.