Barbara Grier (left, shown with partner Donna McBride) passed away November 10 at the age of 79…young from my perspective, but obviously an elder in the world of lesbians and of publishing. Her history will be written in essays and PhD theses still to come, but a glimpse reveals: she was one of the editors of the newsletter The Ladder (started in 1956). The Ladder was the publication of the first national lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, founded by Phyllis Lyon (87 years old three days before Barbara left us this month) and the late Del Martin. The Ladder published the early work of lesbian literary pioneers such as Judy Grahn and Rita Mae Brown.
Barbara went on to co-found Naiad Press, one of the most prolific lesbian publishers in this country with her partner Donna McBride, Anyda Marchant and Murial Crawford. Naiad was the publishing home of writers such as Claire McNab, Karin Kallmaker, Katherine Forrest, Sarah Schulman, Jane Rule, Nikki Baker, and the most beloved Ann Bannon, whose ‘Beebo Brinker’ 1960s pulp fiction Naiad kept in print.
After Barbara and Donna retired (they were partners for 41 years) they passed on their stock to Bella Books to carry on the work and just as importantly they donated their collection to the Hormel LGBT Center here at the San Francisco Public Library helping to create a core for what is now an internationally known reference center. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the president of the SFPL Commission!
But the facts don’t get at the force of nature that Barbara was. If her sheer force of will could be translated into usable power there’d never be any shortages. There was nothing (then or now) in mainstream culture to say that lesbian books were valuable or that a business could survive selling lesbian books. But the hunger was unstoppable–for this literature, for a way to identify ourselves when everything else said we were invisible and for a sense of community that comes from reading about our culture.
Barbara had a blunt way of speaking that sometimes camouflaged her wealth of knowledge and sometimes irritated people. Her determination and the methods she used to make sure that Naiad survived could also outrage. The most scandalous story was Naiad’s publication of an amazing and groundbreaking book, “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence.” I remember reading it (as a fallen away Catholic) and jumping up and down for joy and then trying to sound objective when I wrote the review of it. But what most of my generation remember is that Barbara published excerpts from the book in Forum, a het porn magazine with pretensions to intellectual pursuits. Kind of like that old Playboy idea that men read it for the articles.
Women were furious! And this was before the Sex Wars when conservative feminists were policing women’s sexual expression. It was the equivalent of an African American publishing something with a press owned by the KKK. But Barbara was determined to get Lesbian Nuns:Breaking Silence the attention it deserved and damn if she didn’t get it!
Barbara took those types of chances–like it or lump it as we used to say. She brought lesbian books back into print that might have disappeared into oblivion…like the Beebo Brinker novels. She took chances on books like the Lesbian Nuns. In 1981 she published the first annotated bibliography of Black Lesbians’ work.
Some people didn’t like her book cover art. Some didn’t like her focus on publishing mysteries and romances. Some wanted more rigorous editing. We all wanted something. Without Barbara’s fanaticism and abrasiveness there might have been nothing. There might not have been the legacy of lesbian writing we (and that’s the universal we) have today. Making the world safer for lesbian writing made a bigger space for all women writing. Without Barbara we might not have had the blossoming of lesbian feminist presses like Firebrand Books, or Kitchen Table Women of Color Press or Aunt Lute Books or Spinsters Ink, or the numerous lesbian literary magazines. The seeds of the work of Dorothy Allison, Cheryl Clarke, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, Paula Gunn Allen, and Carmen de Monteflores were planted in the ground fertilized by Barbara. As was my work. Naiad Press primed the pump for our writing and showed that our supply and demand was healthy and sustainable…at least for a time.
Barbara was fanatical about books and their importance to liberation and to dispelling lesbian invisibility and to building health lesbian self-identity. ‘It is NOT a joke to recognize,’ she wrote in 1983, ‘that you really DO control the world when you control what gets into print.’
Are women still talking about each other and to each other and to the world with the passion we need to survive?