4 min

A lifelong love of gay words

Richard Labonté turns to queer sci-fi

Richard Labonté’s queer sci-fi anthology, The Future Is Queer, coedited with Lawrence Schimel, continues his lifelong love affair with sci-fi.

Schimel met Labonté 13 years ago in Boston at Out/Write, a gay literary conference.

“We bonded over our love of gay books; we actually bonded more over science fiction,” Labonté says. “We discovered we had both been big science fiction fans in our youth.”

The two kept in touch, eventually deciding to collaborate. Labonté suggested queer sci-fi and they set to work.

“Why queer sci-fi?” Labonté asks. “Because they combined our interests. We settled on doing a science fiction anthology because there haven’t been that many openly gay, bending-the-landscape series that have come out over the years.”

They pitched the idea to Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press because of Arsenal’s successful horror series, Queer Fear, edited by Michael Rowe. Labonté says Arsenal also likes combining literary writing and science fiction with broad queer content.

The Future Is Queer covers broad queer ground. An angst-ridden lesbian searches for a lover in a homogenized society with gated, heterosexual-only suburbs. In an experimental compound, a male covets his clones. On the Yule solstice, a bisexual Wiccan mourns his lovers’ deaths and fears the authorities knocking down the door.

For Labonté, editing The Future Is Queer was refreshing.

“I’ve been doing erotica anthologies for so long that it was a pleasure to do something that actually developed plot,” Labonté says.

Labonté has edited Cleis Press’s Best Gay Erotica series since 1997. While he doesn’t read erotica in his spare time but “bad mystery” novels, he enjoys editing it.

“I like discovering new writers,” he says. “There’s a freedom to writing erotica that allows young writers to get into writing. A lot of the stuff is more often not, ‘Here’s what happened’ but, ‘Here’s what I wish would happen.'”

Labonté’s career has taken some fantastical turns itself.

An English and political science graduate from Carleton University, Labonté edited The Charlatan for a year before becoming an Ottawa Citizen copy boy in 1972.

In the mid-1970s, Labonté fell in love with Glad Day Books employee Norman Laurila. When George Leigh asked Laurila to open a bookstore in Los Angeles, Laurila took Labonté with him. The three opened A Different Light Bookstore in the Silver Lake district in 1979. Labonté would manage that store, as well as its San Francisco and New York offshoots, until 2000.

In June 1980, Labonté, then a Citizen entertainment writer and copy editor, contributed to a series about gay life in Ottawa. Labonté wrote about being openly gay, becoming perhaps the first mainstream Canadian journalist to come out. Labonté wanted to say there was more to gay life than bathhouses, public sex and the Lord Elgin stalls, the series’ focus thus far.

“Every time we refrain from an act of public affection, every time we are unable to take a loved one to the office party, every time we cannot bring ourselves to challenge anti-gay comments, we die a little, a little every day,” wrote the 29-year-old Labonté.

Citizen staff were generally supportive. However, over 300 readers cancelled subscriptions. Irate callers harangued the newsroom. Angry letter writers denounced the series as “sickening.” Labonté received over 50 threatening, abusive phone calls. But other callers reached out, too.

“I got a lot of phone calls and letters from people coming out, sometimes teenagers and some older guys, saying ‘Thanks for doing this,'” Labonté recalls fondly. “I’m actually a very private person, but it did feel good to have been a positive influence for some people.”

While Labonté breakfasted at Out/Write, a 20-ish writer, Michael Rowe, approached him about the Citizen feature.

“Michael said that his mother had shown this to him and said ‘See? It’s okay to be gay,'” Labonté says.

In 1982, Labonté returned to California. A year later, though, he and Laurila broke up. Laurila left to open a new store in New York.

Labonté’s bookstore romance ended during the 1998 ice storm. Co-founder Leigh died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Labonté could not bring his friend back to Montreal because the airports were closed.

New owners soon bought the financially imperilled Different Light stores that were, for a time, the largest US gay bookstore group, although Canadian-owned.

“I figured that was as good a time as any to leave,” Labonté says.

He moved back to Canada in 2001 and took a year off, living on a farm in rural Calabogie that he bought in 1976 and still co-owns with university friends. He started freelancing, eventually renting an apartment in Perth from former Prairie Oyster guitarist Keith Glass. In a year, Labonté penned over 250 reviews for the Books To Watch Out For/Gay Men’s Edition subscription newsletter, Book Marks, a fortnightly column distributed by Q Syndicate, and reviews mainstream novels for Publishers Weekly.

Today, Labonté and his husband, whom he originally hired as a house cleaner in San Francisco, alternate between Calabogie and Perth.

“It’s like something out of Torso Magazine where the house cleaner shows up,” Labonté says of falling in love in 1992. “He was the one who had to say, ‘You know, I think something’s happening here.'”

A self-described military brat, the Edmonton-born Labonté has lived in Washington, DC, Ottawa, Paris, Chatham, New Brunswick and St Hubert, Quebec. In his anthology introduction honouring queer erotica author John Preston, Labonté describes being a queer 12-year-old sci-fi addict happening upon a pulp magazine cache.

Because of this addiction, Labonté now adores the genre.

“A lot of the best writing is genre writing,” Labonté says. “When I was a book-seller, I happily stocked books with even a hint of science fiction content with a gay character buried somewhere because I knew my customers wanted mysteries, romances and science fiction.

“Almost all of the writers in Future have fairly distinguished sci-fi writing careers. They were delighted to have an outlet where they didn’t have to temper the editorial content for the readership.”

Arsenal Pulp is planning another anthology with the co-editors called Queer Justice, and possibly a trilogy of books with them in the future.