In honor of Barbara Grier, a lesbian pioneer

Posted on 15 Nov 2011 at 3:01pm

Last week, the lesbian community and the world of literature lost a true giant when Barbara Grier, co-founder and longtime co-owner of Naiad Press, died on Nov. 10 of lung cancer at the age of 78. You can read a very complete story here at NYTimes.com about her life, her family and her work. But let me tell you why Barbara Grier has long been one of my heroes.

Barbara Grier

I have always loved to read.

In elementary school and junior high, I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on, and imagined that Nancy was in love with George, instead of with Ned Nickerson. (For those who don’t know, George is a girl.) I also read the Hardy Boys series, imagining myself as Frank, or Joe, chasing clues and solving mysteries. I read the Bobbsey Twin books, the Boxcar Children books — anything and everything I could get my hands on. And when I ran out of books I wanted to read, I’d even pick up a Harlequin romance that my mom left lying around and read that.

By high school, I had moved on to Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen R. Donaldson, Piers Anthony. I read Animal Farm and 1984 and Tale of Two Cities for school. I read short stories, novelettes, novels, poetry — and yes, even a Harlequin romance or two when I couldn’t find anything else.

Even after school, I continued to read voraciously. I discovered the joys of authors like Anne Rice, Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, Rick Riordan and, of course, J.K. Rowling and the magical world of Harry Potter. And when I discovered online fan fiction — which I could read for free! — I was in seventh heaven!

But no discovery made me happier than when I found the books from Naiad Press. Sure, they weren’t all great literature, but that mattered very little. What did matter is that these were all books about lesbians. Not the kind of “girl meets girl then leaves girl to live happily ever after with boy” or “tragic character” stories that used to be de rigueur if you were going to write about “the homosexuals.”

These were Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Harry Potter and even those Harlequin Romance novels, all rolled into lesbian characters who had adventures and solved mysteries and visited magical lands and fought crime and everything, and still ended up (usually) living happily ever after together. It was wonderful!

As a reporter for an LGBT newspaper, I often got review copies of the newest Naiad Press releases. I read every one. I wrote reviews of the books and looked for reasons to call and interview the folks that founded and ran Naiad — Barbara Grier and her partner Donna McBride. They were my heroes. And I am sure there were many other lesbians who felt the same way. Many probably even saw the Naiad publishers as saviors: I mean, it may seem like just the littlest of things to some, but when you are a young (or not so young) lesbian just looking for anyone, even fictional characters, who were “like” them, those books could be a godsend.

Grier, McBride and two other women founded Naiad Press in 1973, and over the next 30 years, the company published more than 500 books, from romance novels to histories to erotica to poetry to science fiction and more. Perhaps their most famous book was 1985′s Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. The book, written by two lesbian former nuns and including the stories of some 50 former and active lesbian nuns, caused an uproar when the Catholic Church denounced it. It ended up selling several hundred thousand copies.

Over the years, as mainstream publishers paid more attention to LGBT literature and as the independent, LGBT and feminist bookstores that had been Naiad’s biggest customers began closing, things slowed down for the company. In 2003, Grier and McBride retired, with Bella Books taking over Naiad’s book list. But Naiad’s — and Grier’s — legacies continue to live on in new ways— online, in e-books and in all those paperbacks lining the shelves in my office and at my home.

So here’s to Barbara Grier and Naiad Press: Thank you for being a lifeline to so many who felt lost and alone, and for giving me so many, many hours of reading pleasure.

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