Barbara Grier, Activist and Founder of Naiad Press

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DESCRIBING herself as not particularly easy to get along with, remembered by one well-known writer as “irascible and cantankerous,” Barbara Grier (1933–2011) was also remembered as visionary and courageous, generous, kind, and nurturing to writers. The pioneering lesbian publisher, whose Naiad Press was the world’s largest lesbian book publishing company, died of lung cancer on November 10, 2011, at age 78, in Tallahassee, Florida, where she lived with Donna McBride, whom she married in California in 2008.

Barbara Grier was born into a remarkably liberal and accepting family in Cincinnati. She came out to her mother when she was twelve and began to collect lesbian literature a few years later. She met her first partner, Helen Bennett, in the literature stacks at the Kansas City (MO) Public Library. Soon after they met, they moved to Colorado so that Bennett could attend library school, and on their return to the Midwest they took positions in the local library. Their relationship lasted until Grier met a newly hired librarian, Donna McBride, in 1967.

Barbara GrierGrier’s first foray into writing was as a book reviewer for the “Lesbiana” column at the first American lesbian magazine, The Ladder. It had been founded in 1955 as a non-political publication of the Daughters of Bilitis. Grier filled many positions at the magazine, using a variety of pseudonyms—not because she was closeted, but because the magazine needed to look like it had a large staff. She went on to become editor in 1968, and within a month she doubled the page count and expanded the mailing list, adding news columns and politicizing the content. The Ladder folded in late 1972, and, in what would not be her last controversial maneuver, she expropriated the magazine’s mailing list for use by Naiad Press, which was founded in 1973.

Naiad’s first book, The Latecomer, was published in 1974. It was written by Florida resident Andya Marchant (using the pseudonym of Sarah Aldridge), who, with her partner Muriel Crawford, put up the money for Naiad. At that time, Grier and McBride moved to Florida to be closer to Marchant and Crawford. (Both women died in 2006 after a 57-year relationship.) Grier went on to publish such now iconic writers as Rita Mae Brown, Lee Lynch, and Ann Allen Shockley; to revive and reprint works by Ann Bannon, Gale Wilhem, and Jane Rule; and to publish early works by Gertrude Stein and Renee Vivien (one of Natalie Barney’s lovers). Katherine V. Forrest’s Curious Wine (1983) was Naiad’s first big success; it went on to sell over 400,000 copies. For the most part, light fiction, mysteries, and romance novels comprised the core of Naiad’s output.

In 1985, a firestorm erupted when Grier published a collection of fifty first-person accounts, almost all written by former Roman Catholic nuns, titled Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, edited by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan. On April 5, 1985, The Boston Globe reported that in response to “pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, WBZ-TV, Channel 4, has canceled an appearance on People Are Talking [a daytime talk show]of two editors of a book about lesbian nuns.” In response, Grier was quoted as saying “These women will be talked about at every breakfast table in America. They’ll be in every newspaper and on every radio and television station. They’re going to be two of the best-known women in the country and—I don’t mean this as a challenge—but there’s nothing the Catholic Church can do about it.”

When Grier sold the rights (for $2,000) to some of the nuns’ accounts to a Penthouse publication, Forum, she encountered tremendous hostility both from some con- tributors to the book and from loyal Naiad readers. The battle played out in the lesbian and feminist press. In the August-September 1985 issue of the feminist newspaper Off Our Backs, Grier was quoted as saying that she “bitterly regretted [her]naïveté [and]stupidity.” She stated that she had been trying “to find the widest audience for what we viewed as a momentous and beautiful book on a subject yet to be addressed in our literature.”

The “Barbara Grier–Naiad Press Collection” has been housed at the San Francisco Public Library since June 1992. Consisting of about 54 cubic feet, it took a couple of moving vans to carry Naiad’s business and personal archival materials, letters, T-shirts, buttons, posters, and 14,000 books across the country. When Grier and McBride retired eight years ago, Naiad was a million-dollar business, publishing 36 books a year, and Bella Books bought Naiad’s inventory.

In her obituary in The Los Angeles Times, Grier was quoted as having said to gay historian Jim Kepner, “I have always believed that the best thing I might leave behind is a world in which any woman, anywhere, might say to herself ‘I am a lesbian’ and be able to go to a nearby store or library and find a book that will say to her, ‘Yes, you are a lesbian, and you are wonderful.’”

 

Martha E. Stone is the literary editor and a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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