Fenton Johnson was born in Kentucky in 1953, the youngest of nine children in a bourbon-making family. His parents named him after a monk at the nearby Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, and from early childhood, Fenton was drawn to a life of the soul. He was also raised on the power of storytelling to captivate a room, and possibly change the world.
After high school, Fenton landed a scholarship to attend Stanford University in faraway, exotic California. Fenton earned his BA in English at Stanford, and an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Much of Fenton’s writing grapples with the slow-motion cataclysm of the AIDS epidemic, especially during the 1980s. His novel Scissors, Paper, Rock was among the first novels to present openly gay characters, and to deal with AIDS in rural America. For Fenton, the epidemic became more personal when his partner Larry Rose died of AIDS in 1990. Fenton explored his and Larry’s love in his award-winning memoir Geography of the Heart. Fenton’s prologue to that work was the first affirmative presentation of a gay relationship published in the New York Times Magazine. In Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks, Fenton described his experiences living in community at the Gethsemani Abbey and among Buddhists at various branches of the San Francisco Zen Center. Fenton’s 2015 essay Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude (Harper’s) pondered the contemplative life, and what it means to be single and celibate in middle age. In 2018, Harper’s published Fenton’s essay The Future of Queer: A Manifesto, in which Fenton suggests that gay marriage has robbed gay culture it of its power to challenge cookie-cutter societal expectations and norms. Rather than assimilate through marriage, Fenton proposes friendship as a foundation for celebrating queerness and difference.
The author of six books and numerous essays, short stories, articles, editorials, and radio commentaries, Fenton has been a professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson since 2000. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowships in fiction and creative nonfiction from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to Harper’s, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Tikkun, and many other publications, as well as on National Public Radio.
OUTWORDS interviewed Fenton at his Tucson home on a cool morning in February 2018. His low-slung adobe cottage felt like a writer’s retreat. Books everywhere, lovingly and tidily organized. It was immediately apparent that a lot of silence happens there. For some 30 years, Fenton has helped keep our queer consciousness alive, asking the pointed questions we’ll need to stay alive into the future.