Recently, when I packed to move, I found a copy of Katherine Forrest’s first novel, Curious Wine, on my bookshelf. Published in 1983, the novel about two women sharing a room in a Tahoe cabin is still considered the classic lesbian romance. It was given to me by my first girlfriend, who said it reminded her of my own coming out story. She, in turn, had received it from another lesbian.
Before the days of the internet, the lesbian community could only find literature that reflected their culture in women’s bookstores. You were lucky if your community had one. Or, you were gifted books passed hand-to-hand through friends.
The Associated Press is reporting that Barbara Grier, a founder of what once was the world’s largest publishing house of literature about gays and lesbians, has died. She was 78. Her partner in life and business, Donna McBride, said Grier died of cancer on Thursday at a hospital in Tallahassee, Fla.
Grier met McBride, then a librarian, in 1967 while living in Kansas City, Mo. They launched Naiad Press with two other women in 1973 with a $2,000 investment, keeping their regular jobs and working on Naiad from their home after hours. Most of their titles were romances and mysteries, McBride said.
“It was her belief that through literature she could make lesbians feel good about themselves and find a happy life,” McBride said from her home in nearby Carrabelle, Fla.
Grier and McBride moved to Florida and had their first big success when they published Curious Wine. It sold more than 400,000 copies which have doubtlessly passed through the hands of exponentially more lesbians.
“It would be hard to imagine a more significant figure in the growth and development of lesbian publishing in the 20th century than Barbara Grier,” Katherine Forrest told the AP. “Or a more towering and central figure in lesbian culture.”
Naiad Press became best known for publishing Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence in 1985. Fifty-one former or current nuns contributed to the book. It described relationships in their religious communities that sometimes turned into love affairs.
Naiad was publishing 36 books a year before she and Grier sold the company to Bella Books, another publisher of literature about lesbians in Tallahassee, and retired in 2003, McBride said.
Grier was “a savior to isolated lesbians all over the world, many of whom feel intense gratitude,” author Karin Kallmaker told The Associated Press. “I have no doubt that books save lives and Barbara put books into the lesbian universe at a rate no one in that era matched.”
Kallmaker’s first novel was published by Naiad Press in 1989 and she’s now editorial director of Bella Books.
Grier was born on Nov. 4, 1933 in Cincinnati and realized at an early age she was a lesbian, according to the Ohio Historical Society’s Gay Ohio History Initiative. She began writing for The Ladder and later became the editor of the San Francisco-based lesbian magazine, which was published from 1953 to 1970 and originally edited by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin.
McBride said their happiest moment together was on Sept. 5, 2008, when they wed in California after same-sex marriages were briefly legalized there.
Grier’s body was cremated and there will be no funeral service, McBride said. She said she’ll probably scatter her ashes in the Bahamas, Grier’s favorite place.