When Randy Gresham was at Georgia State University, he belonged to a writing group as an avocation and always enjoyed the exchange.
After college, he was still looking for interaction with fellow writers to further exchange ideas.
Well, that was 35 years ago, and the NewTown Writers club is still running strongand celebrating a major milestone anniversary, a mix of a working and social group with about 25 active members.
NewTown Writers celebrated the anniversary in August, and it is believed to be the oldest LGBT writing group in the United States, offering Chicago's LGBT literary community a forum to share literary work with those who understand the life experiences from which members draw for their work.
NewTown Writers holds frequent public events, including open mic readings and monthly workshop-style meetings. Off The Rocks is the group's literary anthology, published annually. In 2014, NewTown released volume 17 of Off the Rocks, an annual anthology series by, for, and about the queer communityand the edition was dedicated to writer, performer, and Chicagoan Cookie Crumbles, with the work of 28 contributors, nearly a dozen of whom are local.
"When the group started, it was very much hated because there was a separation of the LGBT culture and the mainstream culture. So, a group that focused specifically on LGBT writing was needed," said Gresham, 65, who now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, though he spent 35 living in Chicago, and plans to return soon to the Windy City.
The Unabridged Bookstore was one of the first stores to sell Off The Rocks, Gresham said. By the 1990s, the mainstream bookstores had an LGBT section of literature. "And now LGBT writing is just considered, writing, whereas in the past it was a very specific voice that the community needed," he said.
"Things have relaxed, attitudes have changed [over the years], but I still think there is a need for specifically LGBT writing because there is just something about that connection with someone with that same sensibility; that's very enriching."
Gresham said the Internet and social media have certainly changed and improved the club.
"In the past, we basically had to hand out flyers [promoting the club], or put up advertisements in the bars, or rely on word of mouth," he said.
Though no specific anniversary celebration event was planned yet, that may change later in the years, said Gresham, who served as the club's president for 20-plus years.
"The group is every bit as important as it once was, but it's a little bit more relaxed, more low key," he said.
In the early years, NewTown Writers was advertised in local gay media. It began in an informal basis, meeting at Gresham's apartment every other Thursday.
"We'd read our work, critique and chat," and there also was food shared for the social aspect, he said.
The group became aligned with a local LGBT arts alliance in about 1982, and through that alliance, the group was able to fund its first anthology, Gresham said.
NewTown Writers also has done performances in conjunction with Bailiwick Chicago, a major sponsor, he said.
"Getting published that first time was a highlight, Gresham said.
NewTown Writers has had a presence at the annual Printers Row Lit Fest for decades, and were at a time the only LGBT group represented at the event.
"I think a lot of our performance were really good, he said. "We have helped launch a lot of previously unpublished and unknown authors. We've had writers go on to be fairly well known."
NewTown Writers also has won an award from the Bailiwick, and Gresham accepted it on behalf of the group. "I was very pleased, very proud [of that award, which was] very well attended."
Gresham said the first-ever printing of Off The Rocks also was a "proud moment."