Twenty years ago -- before Ellen DeGeneres came out and before the "L-word" entered the mainstream vocabulary -- the Lesbian Writers Series began raising the visibility of women who wished to publicly acknowledge their lesbian identity.
About 60 people gathered Sunday to celebrate the literary series, a platform for women to share their work and confront their identity. The gathering also paid tribute to Clothespin Fever Press, the area's first commercial book publisher dedicated to lesbian authors.
Over the years, some 300 women -- and a handful of men -- have read their poetry and prose before audiences at local bookstores. Distinguished lesbian authors such as Joan Nestle often made their first public readings in California at the Lesbian Writers Series. The event also attracted such literary stars as June Jordan and Angela Y. Davis.
Ann Bradley was working as a clerk at the gay and lesbian bookstore A Different Light when she founded the series in 1984. At the time, she was frustrated by the fact that women writers reading their works would not acknowledge their homosexuality, Bradley said.
"This silence was very toxic, humiliating and ultimately degrading," Bradley said. As a result, she started her showcase at the bookstore with one rule: If you read at the Lesbian Writers Series, your name was announced on the publicity materials. You couldn't hide in the closet.
This was a big deal at a time when people could be fired or attacked for being anything other than heterosexual, Bradley said.
For example, she said, in the early 1980s, "You could put elected officials in office that we all knew were gay, but they wouldn't come out and say it."
At the event at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, a library affiliated with USC, many attendees credited the Lesbian Writers Series with helping them learn about their sexual identity and shape lesbian consciousness in general. It provided a place to meet other intelligent, questioning women.
"I thought, in my young adult life, I was the only lesbian on the planet," said 42-year-old Angela Brinskele, who grew up in Orange County.
She said that just before she attended her first writers series, her college had disbanded all its clubs rather than allow a gay club.
She couldn't believe that an event could fill a bookstore with lesbians regularly on Saturday nights and speak openly of themes such as gay-bashing, women's desires for other women and changing the oil in a car.
"I though it was a dream," she said.
The accepting atmosphere inspired one woman to read a love poem to her partner, an elected official who has never publicly acknowledged her sexuality, said Stuart Timmons, who was a clerk at A Different Light in the early 1980s.
The open nature of the series was part of the magic, he said, allowing hundreds of women to deal with their public and private personas.
Timmons, who now serves as ONE's executive director, said he saw the writers series as history in the making.
"Simply being in the presence of so many women who were lesbians and writing about their lives was taking the political movement to the second step of creating a cultural record," he said.
Timmons, encouraged by the success of the lesbian series, started a gay male writers series.
The Lesbian Writers Series appeared at a critical moment in the definition of the gay and lesbian movement, said Robin Podolsky, a well-known local writer who read in front of an audience for the first time in 1984.
"There was all this horror at the death associated with the AIDS crisis," said Podolsky, who now serves as a press deputy for state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). "We needed to respond with something positive, something creative, rather than responding with horror."
In addition to its slate of readings, the current series coordinator said, the program also plans to pair emerging lesbian writers with established authors to help the new writers produce a publishable work.
"For many years [the Lesbian Writers Series] was absolutely the only place where lesbian-themed authors could safely share their work," Sophia Corleone said. "It many ways, this is still true."