Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, LGBTQ ally and co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco has died. He was 101 years old.
Ferlinghetti and contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac played an integral role in the Beat Poetry movement…and in helping to spark gay liberation. Born in New York, Ferlinghetti served in the Navy during World War II before relocating to San Francisco. There, he co-founded City Lights with Peter Martin in 1953. Two years later, he bought out Martin’s share and became the sole owner of the shop.
City Lights Booksellers played a crucial role in the emergence of modern American authors, as Ferlinghetti also operated an independent publishing service out of the bookstore. The shop, along with its publishing wing, helped popularize Beat Poetry: Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima had early work published by City Lights. Other important writers, including Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Paulene Kael, and Sam Shepard all had work published under the City Lights label.
The shop also became one of the first booksellers in the US to openly sell LGBTQ-themed material in the 1950s. The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl—a long-form poem that touches on homosexuality–prompted San Francisco police to raid the store. Both Ferlinghetti and store manager Shigeyoshi Murao were charged with distribution of obscene material. In the subsequent trial, the ACLU represented Ferlinghetti, and eventually won the case. The landmark ruling paved the way for the publication and sale of other sexual and queer-themed literature across the country.
“I knew the world had been waiting for this poem, for this apocalyptic message to be articulated,” Ferlinghetti said in 2006. “It was in the air, waiting to be captured in speech. The repressive, conformist, racist, homophobic world of the 1950s cried out for it.”
The publicity and effect of City Lights helped affirm San Francisco as a liberal–and gay–Mecca, which attracted LGBTQ people from all over the world. By the 1970s, the community had grown enough to elect Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; the rest, as they say, is history.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti died of lung disease February 22, 2021. May he rest the way he lived: in power.