Once upon a time, Matty Thompson entered Milk SF with butterflies in his stomach. He scanned the room, where 20 people were already settled into comfy chairs, then picked a seat on the edge, next to the one person he knew. It was time for Queer Bedtime Stories, an event at the blue, lesbian-owned cafe on Valencia Street where queer participants read aloud to the audience. Thompson, though nervous, registered to read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” a work he returns to in times of grief. He spoke so quietly, the audience strained to hear.
“I was in a daze. I hadn’t been in a space like this in a long time — a bunch of folk, very diverse, who are just appreciating something that someone wants to share,” he said. Thompson thanked Scott Sessions, the organizer, for creating an atmosphere full of “soft queer vibes that was really needed in our community.”
Thompson’s reading in September 2021 was at the first in-person Queer Bedtime Stories. Since then, the once-a-month event regularly draws at least 20 people, often more. But its original iteration began much smaller and six months into the pandemic so, of course, it was on Zoom.
The invitation first proffered to the group of queer men in July, 2020, was simple: Bring anything — a heartfelt poem you wrote 15 years ago, a random newspaper clipping — to read aloud for one to 10 minutes. Then, talk.
Sessions, a Mission resident, joined a friend, Peter Dewitt, for the online reading/discussion, knowing no one else. Sessions can’t remember exactly what was read, but he loved it. When his friend asked Sessions to coordinate the event for the following month, he immediately said “yes.”
That first Zoom, and those that followed, reinforced Sessions’ belief in the sanctity of words, which he learned from his devout Mormon upbringing. “To engage in a text as if it’s sacred, it brings forth wisdom and morality,” Sessions said. “Books change our lives — how we see ourselves, our communities.”
That was evidenced in his own life. Sessions, now 32, was 21 and struggling with his homosexuality and his commitment to Mormonism when a book by Carol Lynn Pearson “saved his life.” Pearson, a Mormon, wrote about loving her Mormon husband who came out as gay and another book that collected stories of queer Mormons.
“That freed me of so much weight,” Sessions said. Pearson’s words told him, “maybe there was a deep love for me.”
Sessions held the Zoom readings regularly, often at 9 or 10 p.m., earning the event the name “bedtime stories.” Listeners were cozied up in bed, computer screens and blankets pulled close, waiting to hear a chapter from “Blossom of Bone” or a poem from “The World That Belongs to Us.”
The nighttime ritual especially thrilled Duane Horton, a Black queer fantasy writer, who tenderly recalls his mother reading the “Harry Potter” series to him as a child before lights out. Horton never feels “on display” or a “token” as a Black person, which isn’t always the case in other queer Bay Area spaces, he said. He brings his own short stories from time to time; one called “Curse Words” inspired a discussion on language.
Other times, participants reflect on politics or gender identity, said Josh Winters, an Oakland resident. “It can be observations on the parallels to queer existence in nature. It can be, simply, [a discussion on] the joys of eating ass, for example,” Winters said.
“It was an intimate place,” said David Padula, an East Bay resident who came to the first meeting.
Padula is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. However, since they present straight, they said it’s hard to feel accepted in certain spaces. “I was interested in the idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man, and the breadth of everyone’s different experiences,” they said. “There have been some beautiful moments where somebody said something [in Queer Bedtime Stories] that really resonated with me. It’s nice to go somewhere and not feel like an imposter.”
Winters agreed, saying the space offered “communal healing” for queer folk. “Sharing text, or our own personal experiences, can be a balm.”
When Queer Bedtime Stories transitioned to in-person gatherings last September, there was little question that the Milk SF cafe should host. It was owned by a lesbian couple, named after Harvey Milk, and flush with inviting and political decor, such as the rainbow staircase. Plus it was near Sessions’ house, and screamed cozy — the couches begged for someone to sink in.
Furthermore, it pushed Queer Bedtime Stories to grow. The in-person event allowed all identities to join, not just queer men. The cafe, already a sober space, naturally caused the event to be alcohol-free too. That delighted attendees.
“It’s spiritually important to just have alternatives,” Thompson said. Commonly, gay social spaces can be “dominated” by alcohol or partying, he said. While that’s essential, so is a space for those who don’t like to go out as frequently but crave connection. Today, long-lasting relationships have formed; recently, Horton attended Sessions’ birthday party, and Sessions became a good friend to Thompson.
And over time, Sessions said this event became something of a “ministry” to him. The events start with a mediation to set the tone, and end with Sessions’ favorite Rumi poem. (“Night cancels the business of day;/inertia recharges the mind. Then the day cancels the night,/and inertia disappears in the light./Though we sleep and rest in the dark,/doesn’t the dark contain the water of life?”)
At the most recent Queer Bedtime Stories, Sessions engaged the 40-person audience in a call-and-response chant about the Pride Flag, not unlike a liturgy. “Please repeat after me,” Sessions said. “We push for liberation.”
“We push for liberation,” the audience responded.
Sessions explained the Pride Flag represents “more of humanity” than any other, and closed the meditation with an urge to the crowd. “Let yourself, this night, this month, and always, be radicalized by Pride,” Sessions said. “Welcome to Queer Bedtime Stories.”
While organizers will not enforce it, they kindly ask that Queer Bedtime Stories stay a primarily queer-space.The next in-person Queer Bedtime Stories is on July 21 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. at Milk SF, 302 Valencia St.