Op-ed: Barbara Grier, Lesbian Icon, Dies
By Victoria A. Brownworth, op-ed contributor
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.