Remembering Alt Sexuality Writer and Pioneer Bill Brent
On September 26, the friends and loved ones of Bill Brent will gather at the Center of Sex and Culture to remember the life and work of a man who was once one of the city's most well-regarded publishers and writers of alternative sexuality. Brent committed suicide in late August by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge after struggling with depression and physical illness, including AIDS, for many years.
And Bill Brent did leave a lot of memories behind. We should all be so lucky to have so many people talk about us with such tenderness, as Brent's friends did when I spoke to them for this piece. Even when speaking frankly of his flaws, there was a palpable sense of loss of something important, something genuinely beyond the perfunctory courtesies that many use when speaking of the dead.
Brent was probably best known for editing and publishing the zine Black Sheets and several editions of The Black Book, a resource guide for sexual explorers. He also founded his own small publishing house, Black Books. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a constant presence in the sexual culture of San Francisco.
Just a quick look at Brent's legacy is an abrupt reminder not only of how much San Francisco has changed, but how much sexual culture has changed in a relatively short time. When Brent first began publishing Black Sheets, zines and indie publishers were primary gateways into alternative sexuality communities. Even for those who had access to the Internet, it was still a text-only medium with little more than e-mail, chat rooms, and Usenet. People became the media through zines. Sex-positive zines of the time included not only Black Sheets and the legendary On Our Backs, but Anything That Moves, Frighten the Horses, and Taste of Latex.
Writer Marilyn Jaye Lewis, a friend and colleague of Brent's, says the unique thing about Black Sheets was "that sensibility of hardcore sex with humor and intelligence -- I just don't know of anything else that came before or that was going on at the same time that was like that. Frighten the Horses ... was bisexual and political and really intelligent, but it didn't have that wacky humor that Bill's magazine had." Also, in a time when strict lines were drawn between factions and identities, Brent ignored the sexual underground's self-imposed boundaries. "For some reason, Bill was able to pull all the little factions and communities together," Lewis says. "Hardcore guys, hardcore girls, bisexuals, polyamory, whatever people were into, he could put it into the zine. It had a place."
Fluidity -- of orientation and of gender -- is now a key word in the vocabulary of San Francisco's alt-sex scene, but it was much less so when Brent was most active, and he probably deserves a lot of credit that we can take it for granted as much as we do. Bill Brent himself was bisexual before bisexuality was cool, or even accepted among the city's queers. Thomas Roche says that when the gay male community saw bisexuality as code for a gay guy pretending he was straight, Brent insisted on it as an identity: "I knew him to play with women and be with women less commonly than with men, but that didn't matter to him," Roche says. "It was about identity. It was about who he was and who he was attracted to, and he never hesitated to correct people if they tried to call him gay."
How passionately Bill Brent felt about this issue, about the importance of erotic flexibility, can be demonstrated best by his own words, originally published in issue 14 of Black Sheets:
I distrust absolutes. I believe that rigid heterosexuality or homosexuality is largely a product of social programming and has only peripherally to do with innate desire. Bisexuals take a lot of flak for being "confused" about their sexuality, yet this particular bisexual is far more confused about the sexuality of others. I am confused by men who will suck a breast yet steadfastly refuse to suck a penis, as well as those who will fuck a man's butt yet not a woman's vagina.
Next: "It's hard to think of a guy who's running giant, popular sex parties as an introvert, but I think he was."