Bill Brent dies
by Liz Highleyman
Bill Brent, a prolific author of sex-positive literature and a member of San Francisco's alternative sexuality communities, died during the weekend of August 18-19. He ended his life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge after a long struggle with depression and chronic pain. He was 52.
Mr. Brent was involved in the Bay Area bisexual, BDSM, Black Leather Wings radical faerie, and pro-sex literary communities in the 1990s. He published The Black Book – one of the first queer and alternative sexuality directories – and edited or contributed to more than 30 erotic anthologies.
"Bill was a leader in the fin de siecle San Francisco erotic and sex radical renaissance in countless ways," said author Susie Bright, former editor of On Our Backs. "He published so many great people, he was endlessly generous, and a devoted literature person in every way."
Mr. Brent was born July 17, 1960, and grew up mainly in the East Bay. Recalling his less than happy childhood he once wrote, "[San Francisco] was my home away from home, that suburban hell where I'd spent most of the 1970s in a deep depression knowing that I was a freak, a rebel, an outcast every time I boarded the bus for the lunatic asylum called high school."
Mr. Brent attended San Francisco State University in the late 1970s, where he studied theater arts. He got involved in the punk rock scene and began to frequent gay sex venues in the city. After college he performed with Bay Area drama groups, tap danced, and helped start a theater company.
In the late 1980s Mr. Brent began volunteering with San Francisco Sex Information. Noting the lack of a comprehensive compilation of sex-positive resources, he produced the first of six editions of The Black Book in 1992, which he described as "a resource for everyone sexual in the 'other' category – everyone who wasn't married and having children, basically."
"Bill lived his whole life never apologizing for two important things: who he was and what he was into," said longtime friend and colleague Thomas Roche. "He didn't hide his bisexuality from the gay community. Now many people prefer the less restrictive, more inclusive, and for many more descriptive term 'queer.' But Bill is one of the people who helped invent that queer identity, well before it was fashionable. He helped show a bunch of people just how much their own rights to their own identities could matter."
Mr. Brent started a small publishing company, also called Black Books, while supplementing his income with temp word processing and freelance desktop publishing gigs. As "Uncle Bill" he wrote an advice column for Anything That Moves, the first national bisexual magazine, and in 1993 he began publishing his own sex magazine, Black Sheets.
"Bill was a wonderful writer, but to my mind his greatest importance came in the way he created queer/bi/pansexual literary community," said Carol Queen, founding director of the Center for Sex and Culture. "He introduced many new writers via the zine, readings, and anthologies, and many of them remained close even after Bill left the Bay Area."
"Bill had a particular knack for befriending difficult people, 'unlikable' people, people who were stubborn and opinionated, the awkward and the shy and the clueless," added Black Books colleague Lori Selke. "This is a big part of what made his community-building so successful."
Black Books was not financially lucrative, and to raise funds Mr. Brent started producing the Perverts Put Out reading series – which continues today – and hosting Black Sheets pansexual play parties.
"Bill threw the kind of sex parties where you would find people around a snack table talking about geometry in the garden," said author Kirk Read. "His social world encompassed all genders and all generations. I watched him bring writers and sex pigs into communal settings and I took notes."
"In the 1990s, as the emerging mainstream gay media championed same-sex marriage and gays in the military, Bill was throwing pansexual parties and building communities of queer intimacies that defied the usual straight categories of husband, wife, and 'friends without benefits' – and he was busy documenting it all in his writing and indie press," said longtime friend and colleague Lisa Montanarelli.
Mr. Brent's stories appeared in anthologies including Best American Erotica (1997), Best Gay Erotica (2002 and 2004), Tough Guys (2001), Everything You Know About God Is Wrong (2007), and The Cougar Book (2010). His character Dick Death, Punk Detective appeared in Roche's Noirotica series. With Queen, he edited two editions of Best Bisexual Erotica, the second of which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His nonfiction work included How To Make a Zine (1997 and 2008) and The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men (2002). He produced three poetry chapbooks and completed an unpublished novel in 2008.
Mr. Brent battled depression throughout his life. Years of writing and other computer work led to repetitive strain injury and back problems that continued to plague him. Having contracted HIV early in the epidemic, he became very ill in the early 1990s, but recovered mid-decade with the advent of effective antiretroviral treatment.
Nevertheless, worsening mental and physical difficulties led Mr. Brent to withdraw from his work and his social circles in the Bay Area. In 2005 he and longtime spouse Doug Puma Harrison moved to the Big Island of Hawaii.
Six years later, feeling increasingly isolated and having trouble making ends meet, Mr. Brent moved back to northern California, but had trouble dealing with the culture shock. After spending time with friends in Portland and Columbus, Ohio, he returned to Hawaii, only to come back to California earlier this year, where he lived in Sonoma with Black Leather Wings comrade Hugh Trutton.
Although Mr. Brent had felt isolated living on the island, he found the bustle of the Bay Area overwhelming when he returned, said Heron Saline, his lover in the North Bay. "After living on the side of a volcano, he couldn't live in the city. It was too much stimulation and he didn't find the right resources."
"He was hurt and searching, both physically and mentally, and he just got tired," Harrison added.
Mr. Brent's death came as a shock to many Bay Area friends and colleagues. According to Saline, "he was trying to find his way back to the public life," and he had recently been in contact with Selke to discuss resuming Black Sheets parties.
"Bill was such an unassuming figure that it only dawned on people slowly that an entire community swarmed around him," said Roche. "He inspired and encouraged people who were outsiders everywhere else to build a place where they really belonged."
"I didn't know one person who didn't think well of Bill," said Saline. "His contributions in writing and the sex community touched a lot of lives and opened a lot of doors for people to understand themselves and one another, and to be whole people in their bodies and their sexuality."
Mr. Brent is survived by Harrison, Saline, Trutton, his sister Juli, brother Todd, and many friends, lovers, and colleagues in San Francisco and throughout the world.
A memorial for Mr. Brent will take place September 26 starting at 6 p.m. at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission Street in San Francisco.