I was saddened to learn today that Barbara Grier is no longer with us, and I’ve spent part of today trying to figure out how best to express what Grier meant for so many of us without somehow cheapening her legacy with inadequate words. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.
For many of us “of certain generations,” Grier was a beacon in lesfic — one of the architects, I think, of the modern lesbian fiction publishing and writing industries. As a co-founder of what I consider the legendary Naiad Press in 1973, Grier brought lesbian lives to print, and made them available to thousands of bi- and lesbian-identified women at a time when such materials just simply weren’t readily available commercially.
Beyond the “lesbian pulp novels” of the 1950s and 1960s that were marketed most often as erotica for men (see the covers of some of the originals here), portrayals of lesbians in literature were practically nonexistent or, if not, appeared as she-devils, “fallen women,” or misguided sexual perverts.
But those pulp novels (reissued years later by Naiad) were lesbian stories of a kind, and in a community seeking representation — any representation — in literature, they provided a lifeline, an acknowledgement that lesbians existed, and that authors wrote about them, that publishers put these stories into book form, and sold them.
Grier was all too familiar with these portrayals of lesbians, and she sought a different way. She wrote book capsules for The Ladder, the publication of the first national lesbian rights organizations in this country, the Daughters of Bilitis. Though Grier was never a member of DOB, her reviews — written under the pseudonym Gene Damon — informed readers that yes, there were lesbians out there in books, and yes, you can read them.
The DOB had its roots in 1955, a time in this country when homosexuality was roundly condemned in virtually every quarter and actively persecuted through bar raids, witch hunts, and violence. People caught in police raids of gay bars often had their photographs published in newspapers, along with their names and addresses, which guaranteed, at the very least, loss of a job and social ostracism from family and now, former friends. Those who identified as gay and lesbian lived in a constant climate of fear, with no legal or political recourse for active and accepted discrimination in every institution in this country, and no way to legally or even publicly validate a relationship.
It’s difficult now to understand the chances that LGBT people had to take during that era to build networks, create safe spaces, disseminate information, and provide venues for creative expression. Attending a DOB meeting in the 1950s and 1960s was a radical act, a profound expression of rebellion, that carried over into the publication of newsletters/news magazines like The Ladder.
Grier became editor of The Ladder in 1968, and broadened its focus to include feminist news, a controversial move because some of the faithful wanted the content to remain exclusively lesbian. The Ladder went broke a couple years later, perhaps a victim of the shifting zeitgeist of the early 1970s as well as hints that Grier was perhaps out of step with an emerging post-Stonewall generation. Or, perhaps she wasn’t.
She, her partner in business and life Donna McBride, Anyda Marchant, and Muriel Crawford founded Naiad Press, where they changed the tropes of lesbian fiction that existed prior to Naiad. Simply put, lesbian stories didn’t have to end tragically à la The Well of Loneliness. They didn’t have to be lurid, sordid tales marketed as fantasies for men. They could instead be about women who loved women, and they could be romantic, erotic, and joyful within that context. They could be stories about women of different classes and cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. They could explore what it means to be lesbian, how that’s expressed in fiction and poetry, and how lesbian-identified women negotiate the varying relationships that make up a part of being human.
Former Naiad author and editor Katherine Forrest puts it best: “It would be hard to imagine a more towering and central figure in lesbian culture. With her forceful personality she was a mover and shaker whose impact on our world of books and lesbian literature can scarcely be overstated. We have lost a giant.” [source]
Naiad was an overt political act, an in-your-face third-finger salute to the established publishing industry. It was a snarky little grin and a defiant haven for those of us who sought representation between book covers, who had read dozens of books with hundreds of characters who weren’t us, who didn’t have to deal with the things that we did, who barely knew we existed in the literary landscape. It was a goddess-send, as those of us who came of age the decade after its launch might have thought.
Between the covers of a Naiad book was one of the first times in literature that I, at least, had ever seen a lesbian-identified woman okay with herself as a lesbian, get the girl, and end up happy, or at least alive by the end of the book, and ready to get back in the saddle. It was revolutionary, and it sparked within me a profound “hell, yeah!” moment that stayed with me until I started writing fiction with lesbian (and gay) characters twenty years after Naiad opened its doors, finally publishing some of it fifteen years after that.
By then, the landscape had changed indeed, and now there are several publishing houses that specialize in lesbian fiction, that continue to tell our stories, spark discussions, inspire debate, and find readers around the world thanks to changes in technology and culture. Often, we don’t even need a publishing house these days to offer our stories to the world, though the community that a network of lesbian-centered publishing houses builds is still a joy to behold.
Writing and publishing can be radical acts and political chances. They are reflections of who we are at various times in our literary history, and they are harbingers of what might come. They are path breakers, dream makers, idea shakers. In stories, we can find reflections or projections, escape and self-realization. We can find ourselves, and come to see that yes, we do have a place in this world, this time, this journey. And though I did not have the good fortune to meet Barbara Grier, I hope I’m not being presumptuous in thinking she might have agreed.
I wish peace to those who knew her best and will miss her for many more reasons than my simple tribute offers. To them, as well, I say thanks for all the work that you, too, have done and may you continue that work. Every bit of the road we build is a step farther than the day before.
And thank you, Ms. Grier, for the radical acts that gave me the inspiration to foment my own. You will be missed, but your legacy continues through the words of others who will continue to tell our stories.