Barbara Grier: Publisher who championed lesbian literature

 

Barbara Grier was a co-founder of Naiad Press, one of the first and most successful lesbian publishing houses, and an editor at The Ladder, America's first nationally distributed lesbian publication.

Grier challenged the barriers of prejudice of the time and took on the mainstream publishers and the virulent homophobia exhibited by designers and printers who refused to work for a lesbian press.

Her raison d'étre in publishing was "to make lesbians happy about themselves," and aimed to make literature by and about lesbians freely available. In Naiad, Grier left behind a legacy that has influenced the course of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) publishing. As Victoria Brownworth wrote in Lambda Literary, "Grier built the lesbian book industry".

Naiad, which primarily published romances, erotica, mysteries and self-help guides, hit the headlines in 1985 with a controversial non-fiction book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, which presented the accounts of 51 lesbian women, most of whom had been Roman Catholic nuns.

In its foreword, one of the authors, Nancy Manahan, wrote that its intent was to break the silence about "erotic love between women in religious life." It was banned in some towns but sold 500,000 copies and provided Naiad Press with a national profile. Grier caused outrage when she sold excerpts to Penthouse, but this was another example of her wanting to get the word out to as many readers as possible.

Born in Cincinnati in 1933, Barbara Grier was the eldest of three daughters of Philip, a doctor, and Dorothy, a secretary. Her parents separated when she was 10 and divorced when she was 13, although her father had been largely absent since she was five. Growing up in Detroit, Grier became aware of her sexual orientation when she was 12, telling her mother that she was a homosexual. Her mother took an enlightened view. As Grier recalled in Vern Bullough's book Before Stonewall: activists for gay and lesbian rights in historical context, she told her that,"Since I was a woman, I wasn't a homosexual, I was a lesbian. She also said that since I was 12, I was a little young to make this decision and we should wait six months to tell the newspapers."

Grier's love of books was ignited when she received her first two classic lesbian-themed books from her mother; The Well of Loneliness (1928), the novel by Radclyffe Hall which had caused a scandal, and Of Lena Geyer, a 1936 novel by Marcia Davenport. At 18, she left school to work in the local library to help support the family. There she met Helen Bennett, 20 years her senior, and soon embarked upon a relationship. They moved to Denver and then Kansas City, continuing to work in libraries. Their relationship ended in 1971.

In 1957, Grier became a book reviewer for the pioneering magazine The Ladder, established in San Francisco in 1955 by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), America's first lesbian-rights organisation. Under multiple pseudonyms, her reviews were hugely valuable. Long before gay and lesbian culture went mainstream, Grier told readers that their lives were reflected in books. She became the editor in 1968 and publisher in 1970. However, when she tried to give the magazine a more feminist orientation, a controversial move for DOB members, its benefactor withdrew funding and the publication closed in 1972.

Unperturbed, in January 1973, with a loan of $2,000 from Anyda Marchant, and Marchant's partner, Muriel Crawford, Grier and her new partner Donna McBride founded Naiad Press, which went on to publish ground-breaking works. Their first book was Latecomer, a romantic novel written by Marchant under the pseudonym Sarah Aldridge. Over the next 30 years, Naiad published more than 500 titles by such luminaries as Katherine Forrest, Isabel Miller, Rita Mae Brown, Gertrude Stein and Sheila Ortiz Taylor. In 2003, the company's list was taken over by Bella Books, a publisher specialising in lesbian-themed romance novels.

Brownworth described Grier, who died from lung cancer, as the premier editor to American lesbian writers, a mentor whose guidance helped formulate "new ways of defining ourselves during a time that saw tectonic shifts in the culture."

Barbara Grier, author and publisher: born Cincinnati, Ohio 4 November 1933; partner to Donna McBride; died Tallahassee, Florida 10 November 2011.

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