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Op-ed: Barbara Grier, Lesbian Icon, Dies

Op-ed: Barbara Grier, Lesbian Icon, Dies

Barbara Grier, lesbian publisher, activist and archivist,
died Thursday of cancer. She was 79.

When I first met Barbara Grier, I was 19 and knew even then
that she was one of the most important lesbian figures I would ever meet. More
than 30 years later, after I've interviewed countless other lesbians over the
years, Grier still ranks as a mover and shaker of iconic proportions.

For a lifelong queer activist, Grier grew up in unlikely
circumstances, in the heart of the Midwest — Kansas and Missouri, where she lived
for decades — the daughter of a feminist mother before the word feminist was
even known. In the many interviews I did with her over the years, Grier was
always succinct about her origins: The pioneer spirit of the Plains states had
infused her. She was born to be a pioneer, she believed, and she
was one.

Irascible and cantankerous, with a dry and acid wit, she
could make a sailor blush and have you laughing till you cried. She worked hard
and expected everyone else to work equally hard, because to her, there was
always something else to be done.

Grier was a librarian and archivist by trade and an activist
by avocation. The two great loves of her life, her first partner, Helen, and
then the woman she spent over 40 years with, Donna McBride, were also
librarians. McBride survives her.

Grier told me many stories over the years of how she came to
lesbian activism — through meeting the town butch dyke as a child, through
wooing Helen at the library, through meeting McBride and, as she said about their relationship, “falling as deeply in love as anyone ever could.”

Grier was one of the few out lesbians of the 1940s and
1950s. She was a contributor to and then editor of the pivotal lesbian magazine
— the first official such publication in the U.S. — The Ladder. She wrote under the names Gene Damon, Vern Niven,
and Lennox Strong. In 1973 she cofounded Naiad Books with McBride, whom she
had met while working for The Ladder. 

 The Ladder, founded
by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon as a publication for the Daughters of Bilitis,
which they also founded, published monthly between 1956 and 1970 and had an
initial mailing list of less than 200. In 1968, Grier took over from activist
Barbara Gittings as editor of the mimeographed, brown-paper-wrapped magazine
and immediately sought to expand both its readership and its content. Within a
month of Grier’s ascension to editor, The Ladder went from 24 pages to 48. Its mailing list grew to
3,800. Grier also broadened the content to include more news and a much more
feminist slant.

In 1973, after The Ladder folded due to internal controversies in which Grier was a major
player, Grier cofounded Naiad Books, later Naiad Press, which at the time of
its closing in 2003 was the world’s largest lesbian publisher.

Naiad published mostly romance and mystery novels — accessible
lesbian work. Grier told me that she wanted lesbians in Kansas to have books
they could read that were about themselves in an era when very few lesbians
were out. The books were first distributed solely through mail order, utilizing
the list Grier was accused of (and admitted to) stealing from The Ladder. 

Some of the best-known lesbian writers of the past 25 years
were first published by Naiad, such as Katherine V. Forrest, whose Curious Wine is still considered the first novel in the genre of “new”
lesbian fiction. Grier also published the young Sarah Schulman. The list of
award-winning and prolific romance and mystery novelists — Barbara Wilson, Lee
Lynch, Isabelle Miller, Valerie Taylor, Karin Kallmaker, and a host of others — put
accessible lesbian fiction on the literary map. The late photographer and
artist Tee Corinne created many of the press’s early book covers.

Grier’s lifelong passion as an archivist of lesbian writing
led her to revive many out-of-print works of lesbian poetry, memoir and
fiction. Ann Bannon, Jane Rule, and Gale Wilhelm were among the writers whose
early pulp-fiction novels she revived. She also reprinted the work of Renée
Vivien and Gertrude Stein.  

In 1985, Grier published Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. Grier told me she paid a half million dollars to the
author-editors, Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, both ex-nuns. The book created
national controversy and Grier came under fire for allowing excerpts to be
printed in Penthouse magazine.
But the book was enormously influential and shifted the tone of lesbian
publishing.

Grier’s legacy is as a major figure of the lesbian literary
world. In 1992 she established the Naiad Collection at the James C. Hormel Gay
and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library. In an interview in
2003, Grier told me it took two vans to take the entirety of books, letters,
magazines, and other memorabilia such as T-shirts, posters, buttons, and the like
which she had painstakingly archived over the years from her home in
Tallahassee to the library. It is the largest collection of lesbian letters in
the world and includes such iconic writer-activists as Audre Lorde, Andrea
Dworkin, and Rita Mae Brown, among others.

Grier leaves behind her longtime partner and a plethora of
friends and colleagues. She also gave the world a body of work that was
definitively the foundation for the lesbian literature of the 21st century and
beyond.

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