Palette Magazine

Queer writers have deep roots in South Florida

By Julie Hope Balter

Reading Queer writing alumni James Sacco, Jan Becker (Workshop Leader), Y’senia Mina and Errol Portman;
Reading Queer writing alumni James Sacco, Jan Becker (Workshop Leader), Y’senia Mina and Errol Portman;

Throughout its history, America shunned homosexuality, but small colonies of queer writers and artists staked out island-outpost residencies all the same. Fire Island and Provincetown were favored for their proximity to New York, but Key West — much more hospitable than a blowhard beached winter — was claimed as a celebratory playground. Literary greats including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and U.S. Poet Laureate Elizabeth Bishop, lived openly, wrote freely and entertained without a care. In many ways, Key West was an island. Fortunately, much has changed.


Chapter 1: South Beach, 2017

Local writer and FIU instructor Jan Becker marches her signature combat boots into the Betsy Hotel to lead her resident workshop, Boot Camp for Queer Writers, sponsored by Miami’s Reading Queer.

You may be scared to share your life story, but you’re in the right place. Becker makes the workshop safe and even — gasp! — enjoyable. Here, you can find your voice and be heard. You may find that you are just beginning to find the words to actualize your life.

“Some of my students have become activists,” says Becker. “Y’senia Mina is a trans woman. She never wrote poetry before Boot Camp,” she says. “Since coming out, she’s become vocal in her activism and did a reading at the Miami Book Fair. I was also able to introduce her to [former U.S. Poet Laureate] Richard Blanco.


Chapter 2: Downtown Miami, 2016

It’s another standing-room only Lip Service event, Miami’s most famous storytelling show, where writers read true accounts of their lives. Miami Book Fair currently sponsors the series, but founder and local writer Andrea Askowitz (My Miserable, Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy) was at the helm for nine years. Today, Askowitz has a global reach with her popular podcast, Writing Class Radio.

Lip Service has never been lgbtQ-specific, but Askowitz estimates two out of every eight stories come from queer writers. Her own tell-all mini-memoirs address everything from tantric sex workshops — “What it was like to be the only lesbian couple in the group, only to realize we all have the same intimacy issues” — to Miami’s homophobia — “I called the fertility clinic to make an appointment for my wife’s impregnation and the receptionist told me they don’t do inseminations for same sex couples.”

Every story is equally tear- and cringe-worthy. This is your America.


Chapter Three: South Florida, 2017

Today South Florida’s literary scene evokes a patchwork of bygone eras — equal parts historic Key West salon and gay 90s South Beach. Queer writers are a vital independent voice that’s critical to the city’s world-renowned events, including the Miami Book Fair and O’Miami — the month-long poetry celebration that takes place every April.

Fortunately, the momentum will continue. Reading Queer was awarded a $70 thousand Knight Foundation grant at the end of 2016 to fund a literary festival, writing academy and writers’ residency. Becker, Queers’ first resident, is debuting The Sunshine Chronicles through Miami micro publisher Jitney Books. Described as “part Armistead Maupin set in South Florida, part Poor Richard’s Almanac for the 21st Century,” it is a quirky compilation of Facebook posts that are thoroughly Floridian.