Michael Denneny, pioneer of gay publishing, dies at 80

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Michael Denneny is the author of
Michael Denneny is the author of "On Christopher Street" just released in April 2023

Editor remembered for his devotion to LGBTQ literature

Michael Denneny, legendary editor and cultivator of gay and lesbian writings, died earlier this month, suddenly, in his Manhattan home. He was 80.

Denneny’s brother, Joe, his only immediate survivor, said the cause was likely a heart attack, reported The New York Times.

Denneny, born in 1943, grew up prior to the LGBTQ liberation movement. At the time, there were very few LGBTQ-themed writings. For over 30 years, he used his talents in both the publishing and editing scene to change this reality for the future, paving room for gay liturature in public spaces.

In 1976, Denneny co-founded Christopher Street Magazine, one of the first gay literary magazines, which, for 19 years, published gay and lesbian fiction and nonfiction writings. And in 1987, while working for St. Martin’s Press, he launched Stonewall Inn Editions, a trade paperback line and first ever imprint at a major publishing house.

It was said that Denneny, one of the first openly gay editors to work at a major publishing house, helped to normalize the publishing of gay books.

“It’s probably too much to say that without Michael there would be no gay literature,” Keith Kahla, an executive editor at St. Martin’s and a former assistant to Denneny told The Washington Post, “but it would be a very different landscape, because once he started to publish and show it was possible to write about these lives, writers and other editors were inspired and emboldened.”

Some of the titles Denneny notably helped publish were G. Gordon Liddy’s 1980 memoir, Will; Judith Thurman’s 1982 biography of the Danish writer Isak Dinesen; and journalist Randy Shilts’ best-selling history of the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On (1987).

Denneny’s publishing career championed the works of many LGBTQ writers who documented the AIDS epidemic. Many of those writers, according to The Post, were friends of Denneny’s who died later in life due to AIDS complications. His friends included Allen Barnett, who died at 36; Paul Monette, at 49; John Preston, at 48; and Shilts, at 42.

Denneny died about a month after the publishing of his book titled, On Christopher Street: Life, Sex, and Death after Stonewall, a cultural autobigraphy which “traces the evolution of the queer community in the three decades post-Stonewall.”

In 1987, NPR’s Terry Gross spoke to Denneny, and asked him where he believed the place of AIDS lititure would be after the epidemic. He said, “I think it’ll probably be the founding literature of gay culture and the gay community in a very odd way. I mean, in the ’70s, there were — when I first got involved in publishing, you know, gay books, gay magazines, etc., there were many heated discussions about whether there was such a thing as gay culture or not, I mean, even by people who today would be considered representatives of gay culture, like Edmund White or Ethan Mordden. There were many late-night discussions where even those guys sometimes took the position that there was no such thing as a specifically gay culture or gay literature.”

He continued, “I don’t think that will be a position many people will take 10 years from now. And to some extent, I think because this historical event, or the — you know, this historical threat to the whole community so mobilized the resources of the writers and they did create this literature, which I think is quite remarkable, I think they sort of put that — made that a moot question.”