Obituary: Barbara Grier, publisher, activist

Barbara Grier, groundbreaking lesbian publisher, activist, archivist and a co-founder of Naiad Press, died of lung cancer Nov.

10 in Tallahassee, where she had lived for decades with her partner of 40 years, Donna McBride. She was 78.

I met Grier for the first time when I was 19 and interviewed her often over the years, first for the lesbian radio program “Amazon Country” at WXPN, and later for a range of queer and mainstream publications, including PGN, the Advocate, OUT, Curve and Ms. magazine. She chose me to be her “official” biographer — both a pleasure and a responsibility — for “Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context,” edited by Vern L. Bullough.

Grier came out early and never looked back. Grier asserted her mother had been reading “The Well of Loneliness” when she was pregnant with Grier and later gave her the book. It was Grier’s first lesbian novel. She told me she informed her mother she was a lesbian when she was 12 after investigating homosexuality at the local library.

“Because mother and I were always open with each other, I told her immediately,” Grier said with a laugh. “Mother said since I was a woman, I wasn’t a homosexual, I was a lesbian. She also said I was a little young to make this decision and we should wait six months to tell the newspapers.”

Grier’s life revolved around books, writing and libraries from the day she discovered herself as a “homosexual” until her death. At 18, she wooed the local librarian — 20 years her senior —and the two were partnered for nearly 20 years until Grier met McBride in 1971, with whom she spent the next 40 years.

In 1956, Grier began writing for the first lesbian magazine in the U.S., The Ladder, with an emphasis on books. The Ladder was co-founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who also founded Daughters of Bilitis. In 1968, Grier took over as editor from Philadelphia activist Barbara Gittings. She grew the magazine to a mailing list of 3,800 and nearly doubled the page count of the mimeographed monthly to 48.

In 1972, after internal strife over the feminist direction in which Grier was taking the magazine, The Ladder ceased publication. In 1973, she and McBride co-founded Naiad Books (later Naiad Press as it expanded to include audio books and videotapes) with Muriel Crawford and Crawford’s partner, Anyda Marchant, from Rehoboth, Del.

Marchant’s book, “The Latecomer,” published under her pseudonym, Sarah Aldridge, was Naiad’s first publication. When Grier and McBride retired in 2003, selling their backlist to Bella Books, one of many lesbian presses to follow Naiad’s lead, the press had a stable of over 100 authors.

Grier took a lot of risks as a publisher, although she never apologized for wanting to be a success at business and wanting to make money, both of which she achieved.

Grier put many lesbian authors on the literary map, among them Katherine V. Forrest, whose intensely erotic romance and mystery novels took lesbian sexuality from behind closed doors and off the page, as in previous books, to the focal point. Her novel “Curious Wine” remained a best-seller for years and was also the first lesbian novel to be transferred to audio book.

Also among Grier’s stable were Sarah Schulman, Lee Lynch, Sheila Ortiz, Karin Kallmaker and Valerie Taylor. Lesbian artist and photographer Tee Corinne did over 50 covers for the press.

Reviving lesbian books was another passion of Grier’s. She reprinted some of the most important pulp novels of the 1940s and ’50s, including those by Ann Bannon and Gale Wilhelm as well as “The Price of Salt,” the lesbian novel by Patricia Highsmith published under her pseudonym, Claire Morgan. Grier also brought other lesbian writers of the past from anonymity, including 1920s Parisian poet Renee Vivien and novelist Margaret Anderson. One achievement she held dear was publishing Gertrude Stein’s book-length lesbian prose poem, “Lifting Belly.”

Grier was not averse to controversy and in 1985 paid half a million dollars for the rights to Rosemary Kurb and Nancy Manahan’s groundbreaking collection of memoirs, “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence.” The book was an immediate best-seller, but also raised enormous controversy, even in the feminist community when Grier chose to allow excerpts in Penthouse magazine. Grier was always proud of the book and that it had been “banned in Boston.”

On her passing, Forrest noted, “It would be hard to imagine a more significant figure in the growth and development of lesbian publishing than Barbara Grier. Or a more towering and central figure in lesbian culture. We have lost a giant.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.