The Pioneering Role of Winston Leyland in Gay Publishing

Charles Kirtley

[This article appeared in Lesbian and Gay New York, Spring 1998]
Cover of Gay Sunshine No. 8
(August 1971)

Winston Leyland, San Francisco, 1976
WINSTON LEYLAND may not be a household name but he is one of the most important figures in post-Stonewall gay liberation. In the battle for gay rights, activists have wielded swords of various dimensions but none has been mightier than the diminutive sword of Mr. Leyland's pen.
Winston Leyland's association with the Berkeley gay lib tabloid, Gay Sunshine, led to one of the most successful stories in gay publishing. By 1971 Leyland (who had immigrated to the United States from England as a boy) was the publisher and editor of Gay Sunshine Journal, which had moved to San Francisco.
Gay Sunshine's twelve year history of intellectual dignity on the cutting edge of the gay experience remains unmatched by any gay publication since. Its pages burst with a cornucopia of gay history, sex, politics and culture. Essays, fiction, poetry, graphics, and interviews with such figures as William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams were grist for Mr. Leyland's literary mill. In Leyland's hands, these contributions provided a flavorful ambrosia for gay readers starved for images of themselves.
In the mid 1970s, Leyland decided he wanted to publish material in a more permanent book format so he founded Gay Sunshine Press as a non-profit corporation in which he served as editor-in-chief. He received several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
"In the early eighties," recalls Leyland, "when Ronald Reagan, of Bedtime for Bonzo fame, took power, those grants dried up." Gay Sunshine Press, however, survived the Reagan years to become the country's oldest continuously publishing book house of varied gay material.
Between Gay Sunshine Press and Leyland Publications, which began in 1984 to publish gay erotica and popular culture, Mr. Leyland has some 120 books to his credit. Recent books from Leyland Publications include My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries. This anthology is a rich mix of joy and heartbreak documenting the amorous emotions of such divergent figures as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky, Countee Cullen and Allen Ginsberg.
Gay Sunshine Press met with unprecedented success in the early 1980s with Boyd McDonald's erotic true stories of gay male sex. Gay men saw their own real lives reflected in these books and responded accordingly.
Always the pioneer, one of Leyland's greatest contributions to gay literature has been in publishing translations from other cultures. Now the Volcano (1979) and My Deep Dark Pain is Love (1983), anthologies of Latin American gay literature, portray the cultural uniqueness as well as the universal experience of being gay. Legendary hot Latin blood runs deep in the gay veins of writers from Argentina, Mexico, Cuba and Brazil, making these anthologies brim with passion.
Partings at Dawn: An Anthology of Japanese Gay Literature (1996), takes the reader from 12th century Japan to the present. It is an awesome journey of Buddhist and erotic writing, some of which is heartbreakingly beautiful and some of which is delightfully naughty. There is a blend of rich fiction/poetry topped by a story by the incomparable Yukio Mishima.
Out of the Blue, a collection of Russian gay literature (1997), is Mr. Leyland's latest addition to this feast of gay internationalism. It begins with 19th century gay-friendly writers including Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. It would be a safe bet that these are stories/poems you never read in school. It continues into the twentieth century with work from the New Russia of the 1990s. The magnificent short story, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," by Vladimir Makanin, is worth the price of the entire volume. In Out of the Blue there is an eclectic mix of prose and poetry spiced with photographs of some very pretty Russian boys. If there are any gay academics out there with a hankering to teach a course in comparative gay literature, Mr. Leyland can supply the textbooks.
Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists (1998) breaks new ground with essays, personal accounts, fiction and poetry about gay sexuality and spiritual life within a Buddhist framework.
All of the above books (and many others published by Gay Sunshine/Leyland Publications) supply a rich blend of erotic spirituality. Any love worthy of its name is deeply spiritual. It is when we dichotomize the physical and the spiritual that we are in trouble. That is a lesson well-known by Winston Leyland. Perhaps that is the reason he is now a practicing Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition.
One biblical saying that Leyland says he has always found "right-on" is: "By their fruits shall you know them." It is by Mr. Leyland's fruits that we can also know ourselves. Knowing what it was like to be gay in medieval Japan, or in Tolstoy's Russia, or in present day Brazil magnifies and enhances the experience of being gay in late 20th century America. I echo what another reader of Gay Sunshine said in 1980: "Thanks, Winston, from the bottom of my balls & heart & soul & mind."
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Winston Leyland writes:

In the tenth anniversary issue of Gay Sunshine Journal (1980) I quoted a passage from Federico Garcia Lorca, which encapsulates perfectly my own views on the support I've received from friends and readers over the past two decades.
Garcia Lorca wrote: "if suddenly I lost all my friends, if I were surrounded by hatred and envy, I could not triumph. I would not even fight. It matters little or nothing to me. It only matters on account of my friends, the ones I left in Madrid and those I have made in Buenos Aires. I know they would be unhappy if one of my works were jeered. I would suffer because of my friends, not because of my work. It is they who have obliged me to triumph. I triumph because I want them not to lose the love and faith they have placed in me. Artistically, I do not worry at all about people who do not love me or whom I do not know."
In that same tenth anniversary issue of Gay Sunshine Journal I published the letters of about twenty writers and artists. They wrote me about the impact of Gay Sunshine--especially on their own creativity--during the preceding decade. In the subsequent decade (1980-1990) and the present decade (1990-2000) there has been a continuation, in published book form, of the kind of creative writing which appeared in Gay Sunshine Journal during that first period. This, then, would be a good place to reprint a few of those letters.
Poet Allen Ginsberg wrote:
Gay Sunshine has been reliable in its presentation of literary history hitherto kept in the closet by the academies. As I read it year after year, I learn why huge areas of literary history were blank in my mind--the exquisite homosexual rhapsodies of South American prose and poetry, fairies among the Russian poets, contemporary high-teacup geniuses' concessions of their love life and ideas. What knocked me out most was the history of Sergei Esenin's poetic and amorous work with his elder poet-friend Klyuev, reviving back to nature, poetics and sexuality in pre-World War I Russia. You'll never get to read about that pair of lovers in Russian text books, anymore than you will get to read about Edward Carpenter's night with Walt Whitman in American text books. [See that text on the present site.] Thanks to Gay Sunshine, relevant photos, documents, gossip and texts are now public, available to the poetic community.
From Left: Peter Orlovsky, Charley Shively,
Allen Ginsberg, Winston Leyland. San Francisco, 1975.
(with house-building tools)
Photo by Steve Lowell.
Simon Karlinsky (professor emeritus of Slavic languages at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of such books as The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol and Marina Tsvetayeva) wrote:
Gay Sunshine sprang into existence shortly after the birth of the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement. Like the movement itself, it was young, gawky, unsure of its direction -something like a frisky, newly-born colt. The first few copies I saw at a newsstand on Euclid Avenue [in Berkeley] were exhilarating. And infuriating. Here were these wonderful young people energetically asserting their identity and their rights to revolution. But it was also our identity, not only theirs.
That revolution did not erupt into a bloodbath, nor did it lead to a GULAG-propped dictatorship, as so many innocent lambs were so fervently hoping it would in those days. But the gay revolution took place just the same, slowly but inexorably. The fact that we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of Gay Sunshine is proof of this. It is a different Gay Sunshine, to be sure, confident of its aims, internationally respected, a repository of gay culture and gay heritage. Liberated and liberating in the best sense of these words. Back in 1970, 1 could not have imagined I could contribute anything to Gay Sunshine. Only five years later Ian Young suggested that I do a survey of gay themes in Russian literature. I met Winston Leyland and after talking with him, I realized that here was a chance to write the article for which I had been subliminally storing away facts and knowledge for at least two decades, i.e., ever since I had become involved in the study of Russian literature and history.
I treasure a bulging folder of letters I received after my "Russian Gay Literature & History 11th-20th Centuries)" appeared in Gay Sunshine, Summer/Fall 1976. [This article is reprinted in Out of the Blue: Russia's Hidden Gay Literature]. Letters came from all over. From France, from Scotland, from Portugal, gay people wrote me to tell me they had learned something of value from what I wrote. A monk wrote from Baja California. Dennis Altman, whom I did not know, wrote from Australia. A Russian woman in her seventies telephoned to share her memories of her long-ago friendship with gay Russian socialists and poets around Leonid Kannegiser, the gay martyr mentioned in my article. She remembered how he was framed and shot shortly after the October Revolution. There was also some negative response, all of it from believers in the myth of Leninist Gay Liberation, a myth originated by some well-meaning gay Germans in the 1920s. The myth still has currency in the West today, even though no one in Russia heard of it, then or now.
Publishing in Gay Sunshine was a moving experience. It opened up a whole new area of research for me. Gay Sunshine, under Winston Leyland's editorship, has become a major bridge-builder: between cultures, between historical periods, between poets and their readers, between scholars and new areas of study. Ugly as the past ten years have been in some ways around the globe, for gay people and gay consciousness this has been the single most exciting and gratifying decade in human history. Gay Sunshine and what it represents testify to this excitement. Fifteen years ago the journal would not have been imaginable. Today, life would be poorer without Gay Sunshine and its publishing house.
New York writer Richard Hall (novel The Butterscotch Prince, etc.) wrote:
I first became aware of Gay Sunshine around 1971, when I passed three young men hawking copies on Christopher Street. I stopped dead in my tracks. "Did you say sunshine?" "Yessir. Sunshine" As I stood there on the greasy pavements of this overbuilt city, something stirred in me. The hippie movement had gone gay. How wonderful. And it could only have happened in California. A closer took at the three salesmen confirmed this. They were wearing batik and angelic smiles. California --definitely.
I bought a copy and took it home. It had the dirtiest poetry I had ever read. Forests of cocks exploded with awesome regularity. There seemed to be one orgasm per column inch. California again. I loved it.
Since then I haven't missed an issue. The cocks are still exploding, along with a great many new ideas. It may well be that GS and Winston Leyland have invented gay culture. This is a larger and more revolutionary step than may at first appear, equivalent to such other social advances as the invention of privacy, childhood and love. No one really thought of gay culture before and, now that we are drowning in it, it might be well to remember where it first appeared. Since then, GS has gone through changes of staff, format, size, circulation. But the original commitment remains--to gay sex as culture, as prayer, as principle, as salvation. We are all richer for it.
Ned Rorem, one of America's foremost composers (orchestral, opera, etc.) and authors (The Paris Diary, Music and People, etc.), wrote:
Two generations ago when Charles Henri Ford's pugnacious poetry review, The Blues, went the way of most poetry reviews, Gertrude Stein said: "Of all the little mags that died to make verse free, I liked The Blues the best." Could I do better than to paraphrase her? Of all the periodicals that have survived to make homosexuals free, I like Gay Sunshine best.
The famous interview series alone places Gay Sunshine on as high, and more complex, a cultural plane as the much older Paris Review, or even (dare one name it?) Playboy. These conversations focus not only on an artist's working method but on his sexual biography, thereby displaying the fact (although no one has ever penned a recipe for what makes good art good) that good artists are like everyone else only more so--like everyone else, while nobody is like them. What wouldn't we give for similar records of, say, Ravel or E. M. Forster, Beardsley or Stephen Crane! How lucky we are to possess those by artists already gone!
Thus we must thank Winston Leyland ...
Poet Will Inman wrote from Arizona:
In Gay Sunshine over the last several years, Winston Leyland has sought out elements of and explored in some depth several levels of homosexual life, experience, and subculture and has, in the many variations shown and expressed, revealed that homophilic lifestyles are organic throughout modern culture, or those many ghetto-styles, among ourselves. He has published celebrations of flesh among men without settling for mere titillation, let alone cheap pornography. He has, in interview after interview, given in-depth portraits of varied, interesting, and significant individuals from many sides of American and world culture. The individuals interviewed have by no means identical values or life-styles, they do not talk a narrow political or class line, and their experiences and approaches as revealed in their own words show complex and vital lives.
Leyland has shown awareness of social injustices, but his radicalism is of the human center, not of some narrow clique. He has published significant book reviews, poetry, and graphic art. If he wants homophiles to accept and love themselves and be proud of their orientation, it is also clear to me that he projects the widest variations of human response that he can find in constructive ways towards building human wholeness within and among us. He is not afraid of sensational writing provided it shows an embrace of life, but he avoids a tone in Gay Sunshine that would erode a sense of dignity in the reader.... He has helped, time after time, to reunite the dimensions of spirit and flesh, to help us transcend guilts imposed on us by church and state separations of physical and spiritual loving, to help us find new and energy-giving releases in us for all our internal contradictions as all necessary to whole lives. In this work, Winston Leyland in Gay Sunshine has been both pioneer and revolutionary, not shrill but steady on, with a quiet laughter working in a heavy and deep confidence, working in the light.
Canadian poet and translator Edward A. Lacey wrote:
The world has changed so immeasurably for gay people between 1970 and 1980 that it scarcely seems to be the same planet, at times, and of course Gay Sunshine has been instrumental in these changes. If one could sum up Gay Sunshine's contribution in a few words, I'd lay the stress, not on its radical socialism or activism, not on its protests against abuse and repression or on its calls for sexual freedom, not even on its having provided a forum and vehicle of publication for so many gay writers, though it filled admirably all these functions, but rather on its having given back to the gay intellectual community, so oppressed in such subtle ways by straight intellectuals, something very precious--its intellectual dignity. Gay Sunshine proved that the gay community could produce and maintain, over a decade, a literary-artistic- intellectual journal of high quality which is read for various purposes and spreads its influence far beyond the bounds of our minority group, and which can stand up proudly in comparison with any and all similar journals of the straight, intellectual community.
British novelist (The Servant; Enemy; etc.) Robin Maugham (1916-1981) wrote:
When asked to be the subject of an interview, one is almost always flattered. However, as anyone who has ever been interviewed will be aware, the final published interview is rarely satisfying. Editors intrude--often cutting some crucial sentence; the interviewer's prejudices may distort the words spoken by the writer, the actor, the painter.
I was doubly pleased, therefore, when Winston Leyland asked my old friend Peter Burton to interview me for Gay Sunshine. The interviews which are so important a part of this most admirable of quarterly gay magazines are noted for the calm honesty of those interviewed. These interviews are noted, too, for depth and range. What more could an interviewee ask than that the individual who is to interview him be someone with whom he can feel trust, who is aware and has a knowledge of his work. I immensely enjoyed the sessions which made up the interview which appeared in Gay Sunshine (Summer/Fall 1977)--and hope that the end result provided readers with some understanding and enlightenment about my life and work.
Gay Sunshine seems to me to be doing sterling work --a vital part of which is the essential exploration between a writer's life and a writer's work-and long may this continue. Gay Sunshine makes a decidedly important contribution to gay literature.
Poet Richard Ronan (author of the Gay Sunshine Press book Buddha's Kisses--he died of AIDS in San Francisco in 1989) wrote:
Winston's Journal and Press have been a dancing ground for many new and established gay writers. The books of Gay Sunshine Press have added to the literature of a conscious and intelligent movement towards gay self-actualization. Without these outlets many young gay writers may never have been able to expand themselves as both artists and gay identities.
The existence of Gay Sunshine Press has largely created a grammar of publishing and writing within the Gay Community--a grammar from which many now derive and differ. The great importance of the press has been in creating the place into which we all could enter, interact and better become ourselves.
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