R.I.P. Bill Brent: Author, Publisher and Sex Activist

by Thomas Roche on August 21, 2012

Bill Brent was the editor and publisher of the influential 1990s sex zine Black Sheets, as well as a literary event and sex party organizer, book publisher, punk rock fan, and more. He killed himself this past weekend by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Most of you outside of San Francisco will probably never have heard of him. Many of you within the SF community may never have heard of him, either. But Bill’s influence on our scene was absolutely enormous; it almost can’t be overstated.

In addition to publishing Black Sheets, Bill was responsible for The Black Book, a book-length sexual resource guide in the days long before the web made such things interactive. He founded Perverts Put Out, an alt-sex literary performance series that continues to this day under the care of Simon Sheppard, Carol Queen and Lori Selke. Under the Black Books imprint, he published numerous books, including Best Bisexual Erotica (which he co-published with Circlet Press) and my own Noirotica 3. He also co-founded and co-ran the Black Sheets pansexual play parties, which were a hugely influential venue.

There’s no easy way to describe the place that Bill Brent has in American History — and no, I’m not overstating it. The tragic truth is that people like Bill too often are forgotten. Even radical queer histories tend to eat their own. But Bill was a giant of the San Francisco sex underground. Oozing (some would say “spurting”) Bill’s natural charm and perverse humor, Black Sheets came along at a time when the sexual landscape of San Francisco was being completely redefined. Bill had been an old school SF punk in the eighties, and brought a mosh pit sensibility and DIY aesthetic to the radical queer expression that was just getting started in the early nineties.

With Black Sheets Bill actively sought out and encouraged original voices; Black Sheets was one of the first zines to publish my writing, and it published it because Bill tracked me down after a reading. He believed you learned about literature the same way you learned about sex — by getting your hands dirty. He got his hands, and the rest of him, as dirty as he needed to to follow his bliss and stick it to The Man.

Bill was in many respects a culture warrior; he found a home for himself at the confluence of San Francisco’s punk, gay, and BDSM communities by putting down tent stakes where they belonged, not where the existing identity politics made them convenient. He made a home for himself by carving it out of the city. In so doing, he helped make a place for so many of us.

San Francisco writer and event host Kirk Read said something beautiful about Bill on his Facebook page:

Bill Brent — author, publisher and thrower of literary events and sex parties — has taken his own life. He was important. Up there with Geoff Mains and John Preston.

He was the crown prince of the San Francisco sex nerds. The world he envisioned was so totally different than the one we live in. For artists, writers and dreamers, that disparity can be shattering. Let us all continue to write and perform and gather together. The alternative sucks.

Kirk is not exaggerating. Bill’s may not be a name you recognize, but the world would not be the same without him.

Bill himself said something beautiful in his page at Author’s Den:

Each of us wants to hear someone shouting back as we scream into the abyss.
–Profound Bill

In classic Bill Brent style, he followed that up with the observation:

Every mind needs candy.
–goofy Bill

So here’s some candy, in honor of Bill — over on Thomasroche.com, I’ve posted his punk rock sex-noir story “I Want Candy,” Episode 1 of his Dick Death series. It appeared in the first volume of my anthology series Noirotica in March, 1996.

R.I.P., Bill. You will be missed.

Thomas Roche

Thomas Roche's first novel, The Panama Laugh, is a gonzo military science fiction zombie apocalypse that has been compared to the writings of Jim Thompson and Hunter S. Thompson. He is also a widely published author of sex-positive erotica and the occasional purveyor of horror and crime-noir short stories, and a commentator on sex, crime, culture and politics.

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{ 6 comments }

1 Dennis Dunnum September 13, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I’m so saddened to hear about Bill. My last connection with Bill was at the 14th Street dungeon back in 1999. My lover, Luke, had just told me he was giving up. I had driven him up to Denver to settle in with his mom and sister while I flew off to California to do a job for Fakir and Carla. When that was finished I was to go back to help him die.
I was a total mess. I truly did not know how I was going to get through what I knew was coming. When the job was over F&C took me to the dungeon for BLW night. Bill and Puma took me in hand and flogged me lovingly for what seemed like hours and then held me while I wailed and sobbed away the last bit of pain and fear that they hadn’t beaten out of me. I truly owe them for what passes for my sanity. It was one of those rare gifts offered exactly when it was needed.
Fare thee well, Bill. I really hope, in spite of whatever anguish took you to the bridge, that you enjoyed your last few moments of flight.

2 Ducky DooLittle August 27, 2012 at 7:02 am

Oh that is profoundly sad to me. Such a beautiful bad ass. Thanks for posting this Thomas.

3 Darklady August 24, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Let’s not forget that Bill wrote the Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men, among other books. The royalties from this book were a real help to him toward the end of his life.

Bill and I began talking about our struggles with depression in 2001, I believe. We spent the next 11 years doing our best to be supportive of one another and in June he called me to tell me two things: 1) he’d tried to do something he knew I would be very upset with him for trying but had failed and 2) he had decided that yes, he wanted to move to Portland and live with me so that we could help each other heal emotionally, I could help him heal physically, and we could both play cheerleader to the other as regards our writing.

Unfortunately, the changes needed on my side to make that happen took longer than he could apparently wait, for which I am feeling more than a little guilty right now. I wished him a happy birthday on Facebook last month, telling him that I love him, and a couple of days later I got an “I <3 u, too!" message from a strange cell phone number with a Colorado area code. I assumed it was from him, but didn't write back to confirm. Another thing to feel guilty about…

He was my "SFBF" and my "Froot Loop" and I was his "PDXGF" and "tragic princess of erotica."

I'd been thinking a lot about Bill lately and reminding myself to call him, because things were starting to move in a direction that would have allowed us to start preparing for a relocation… but now I'm the only one who'll be relocating.

When we talked in June and prior, he shared that he felt out of place. He was considering a return to Hawaii, which I advised against since he said it had damaged him emotionally and physically. He was glad to be back in the Bay Area, but said it and the people he had known had "moved on" and he no longer felt like he belonged there. He was feeling pressured to enter romantic/sexual partnerships he didn't think he really wanted to enter. He needed somewhere he could feel safe, loved, and able to regroup after being away from the mainland for so long.

Apparently he wasn't able to find that place in time and didn't realize how many people still loved him. That's the tragedy of depression: when it becomes overwhelming, you can't see the gifts in your life and, if you can see them, you're convinced that you're unworthy of them or that they don't really belong to you.

The one thing I am both angry at Bill for and deeply amused by is his choice of diving platform. We will never again be able to look at that bridge and just see a bridge. I saw Barbara Boxer on MSNBC the other night with the bridge as her backdrop and just burst into tears. I do that a lot lately, when they're not just coursing down my face for no apparent reason.

On the other hand, it was a brilliant way to go out with a bang and not a whimper… and what an amazing view that must have been for him.

Gotta go now. Can't see the keyboard… hopefully I'll see many of you on the 9th and, equally hopefully, you guys can help me find a place to crash while I'm in town.

4 Thomas Roche August 23, 2012 at 1:08 pm

horehound….I think the thing I find most painful myself is not that Bill chose to end his own life, but that a man so brilliant, talented, inspiring, charming, charismatic, and just flat-out fucking big-hearted could come to a place where it was more painful to continue than not to. But I echo many of your sentiments, and I think you’ll agree that if anyone wants to call Bill Brent a coward, they’re batshit. He faced what he faced and he chose to do what he chose to do, and I think only compassion for his struggles can illuminate any part of it. I hope others out there who may feel like not continuing are able to find comfort not in how Bill died but it what he meant, both as a person and as a cultural force. And you’re so right that there will never be anyone like him. They didn’t just break the mold…they forgot how molds are made.

5 horehound stillpoint August 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Bill Brent forged a community just by being himself. That’s amazing, important, big-hearted work. Like Michelle Tea, Kirk Read and others are still doing, he created work, then found an audience for it, and – voila! – ended up helping other people even more than he did himself. That might be one decent definition of a beautiful soul. Plus, there’ll never be anyone else like him.

Maybe I missed it but I haven’t seen anyone say much about the fact that it was suicide. I’ve never understood why so many societies judge that as a crime, a sin, or less brave than ‘pushing through.’ It seems to me like an honorable option for people who find this world impossibly difficult. I wish peace and love and eternal happiness to Bill’s spirit.

6 Chris O'Sullivan August 21, 2012 at 10:46 pm

He re-landscaped the sexual topography of the SF Bay Area. Sad to hear he’s gone.

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