When ReadOut: A Festival of Lesbian Literature hosted its first year back in 2018, it was a niche event for local lesbian writers to connect.
It was (and remains) a program of the LGBTQ Resource Center at the Gulfport Library; at one time, it took place exclusively within the four walls of the Gulfport Public Library.
In five years, the festival has transitioned to an online event featuring pre-recorded readings [pearls] and Zoom chats.
It’s become a globally attended event, with last year clocking almost 1,000 viewers in 22 countries.
“The upside is that you don’t have to have money or time to come to Gulfport but the downside is that you don’t get to come to Gulfport,” said Susan Gore, LGBTQ Resource Center President.
Gore hopes to one day blend the online format with an in-person meetup, but COVID-19 precautions are still a concern.
“COVID is not a positive thing, but last year proved a positive outcome of a bad situation,” Gore said. “Trust me, we’d love to be back in the library but with the way things are going, that’s not happening right now.”
The theme this year? Lesbian Voices, Stronger Together.
The Festival runs from Friday, Feb. 18-Sunday, Feb. 20.
One of the principal events of the festival is the first event of the weekend: the opening keynote speech, which sets the tone for the rest of the weekend.
The original keynote speaker was Michèle Alexandre, Dean of the College of Law at Stetson University. Alexandre withdrew less than three weeks before ReadOut’s opening ceremony, after announcing her move to Chicago.
Gore and other organizers appointed two speakers in her place, Georgia Beers and Anne Shade.
Beers is a veteran lesbian romance novelist who has been a part of the literary queer women scene since 2000. She’ll tune into the festival remotely, from currently snowy Rochester, New York.
“I feel like the world has gotten bigger since I first started writing,” Beers said. “There is so much eye-opening things to learn. I feel lucky to be a part of that.”
Shade is a newbie author but hit the ground running writing inclusive lesbian romance featuring people of color, something often missing in her genre.
The New Jersey author is mostly known for Femme Tales, a queer version of three classic fairy tales.
“I’d like to tell other writers not to give up,” Shade said. “I sent out 75 manuscripts and was told each time to make my stories more diverse because all my characters are Black.”
She went on to self-publish, and was eventually picked up by Brush Strokes Books.
Gulfport comedian and writer Fay Jacobs remembers ReadOut’s first years. In 2022, she’s hosting two Zoom classes for the festival. One will discuss incorporating humor in writing and the other, editing.
“I write very personal essays,” Jacobs told The Gabber. “Many of the writers attending are very serious about what they do. I’m going to actually talk about the structure of writing humor and what makes things funny.”
Since going virtual, the discussion topics have broadened to things such as “Rural Spaces and Queer Women” and lesbian sci-fi.
“It’s very exciting to know that so many people are watching,” Jacobs said.
ReadOut: A Festival of Lesbian Literature Feb. 18-20. Free; registration required.