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Naiad Press co-founder Barbara Grier dies
News update posted Nov. 10, 2011
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times

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Barbara Grier, co-founder of Naiad Press, died Nov. 10 at age 78.

Generations of lesbians grew up on the novels of Naiad Press. Authors including Katherine V. Forrest, Ann Bannon, Valerie Taylor, Barbara Wilson, Jane Rule, Isabel Miller, Nikki Baker, Sarah Schulman, Claire McNab, Diane Salvatore, Lee Lynch and Karin Kallmaker were published by Naiad. The company was co-founded in 1973 with Grier's partner Donna McBride, and partners Muriel Crawford and Anyda Marchant ( who used Sarah Aldridge as her pen name ) .

Kallmaker, now a writer and editor for Bella Books, the successor to Naiad, broke the news on her Facebook page: "It is with a profound sense of loss that I share the news of Barbara Grier's passing this morning. She was a force of nature and it is hard to believe she would ever slow, let alone stop. A fearless personality who touched countless lesbian lives; she was truly a one of a kind. One of the founders of the legendary Naiad Press, she was unforgettable."

McBride said the cause of death was cancer.

Former Chicagoan Toni Armstrong Jr., lesbian-feminist culture historian and former editor of HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture, points out that many people today don't realize that Naiad Press's roots date back to The Ladder ( 1956-1972 ) , the first national lesbian periodical in the U.S. It was started out as a small newsletter done through the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis ( DOB ) . Grier started writing book reviews for The Ladder in the late 1950s.

"Grier told HOT WIRE The Ladder eventually grew into a 72-page glossy magazine before finally folding in 1972," Armstrong said, "and contained early writings by many women who went on to be famous, including Jane Rule, Judy Grahn, Isabel Miller, Valerie Taylor, and Rita Mae Brown. In 1968, Barbara Grier—writing then as Gene Damon—became the editor, having already served as fiction and poetry editor in 1966-1967. In 1970, publishing responsibilities changed hands from DOB to Barbara Grier and Rita LaPorte. What came next—Naiad Press, founded in 1973—altered the terrain of lesbian publishing permanently."

Grier and LaPorte had used the 3,800-member mailing list of The Ladder as an outreach tool to start their new publishing house. This caused some controversy in the lesbian community. As Wikipedia notes: "When the DOB folded in 1970, Grier, who was editing the magazine from Kansas City, planned with DOB president Rita LaPorte to take the only two copies of the subscription list from the printer and the DOB headquarters in order to keep The Ladder alive. LaPorte took both copies to the ignorance of DOB founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, and relocated the magazine to Reno, causing an uproar. The Ladder ran for two more years before it outgrew its finances and folded in September 1972." Grier said of the incident: "You have to understand that none of these things were done with malice aforethought or with intention to damage. I mean I was just as much a light-eyed maniac then as I am now in terms of the mission. The mission is that the lesbians shall inherit the earth, you see."

Armstrong continued, "Barbara Grier, through sheer force of will and commitment, pushed for political rights, respect for early lesbian writers and their 'pulp fiction,' and modern-day lesbian visibility through books. She didn't take no for an answer, she didn't suffer fools gladly, and she refused to stop making good things happen for the lesbian community—often at great expense to herself. She was a great example of walking the talk."

Naiad Press was featured in the March 1987 issue of HOT WIRE. In it, Grier said, "Your political philosophy will not keep your doors open if you do not pay attention to things like sweeping the floor and paying the light bill. We work 50-to-80 hours a week, and when we're on the road we work continuously. Most of what we do is fun. Part of it is attitudinal. You can't do a good job unless you care. I get so tired sometimes I could bang my head on the wall. But," she emphasized, "I really love what I'm doing."

Chicagoan Midge Stocker said "Barbara Grier was fearless. Her passion was getting lesbian literature into the hands of as many people as possible, because she believed that a climate in which every lesbian could safely live openly would be created by every one of us living openly. As a feminist publisher at Third Side Press, I learned much by her example, and I admired her determination and commitment. The fire of a true believer like Barbara Grier frightens people. May we all find our true calling and commit ourselves to it as fully!"

The company's most controversial and well-known book was Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, which came out in 1985 and received major media attention. Excerpts ran in Penthouse Forum, a heterosexual men's porn magazine, causing outrage from some segments of the lesbian community.

Chicago historian Marie J. Kuda also spoke out on the impact of Grier's work: "From the point of view of scholars of lesbian literature, Grier's two major contributions were the publication of the first bibliographies of lesbians as authors and subject with her three publications as Gene Damon: The Lesbian in Literature. Her unique coding system for merit and content of hundreds of books enabled generations of bibliophiles to track pulps and quality material through used bookstores, etc., until ( and after ) lesbian presses, including Naiad brought reams of new writing to the lesbian reading public. Secondly, she picked up the gauntlet dropped by pioneering lesbian literary historian, Dr. Jeannette Howard Foster, re-issuing Foster's book, Sex Variant Women in Literature ( updated with Grier's own interim supplement ) and bringing it to a whole generation of emerging scholars at a critical time for Lesbian Studies on campus."

Joanne Passet, a professor of history at Indiana University East and author of Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster, spoke of her memories of Grier. "My e-mail in-box is treasure trove of messages from Barbara Grier, a joy to read because of their humor, hyperbole, and rich details shedding light on a vibrant era in twentieth century lesbian history," Passet wrote in an email to Windy City Times. "I met Barbara late in her life, just six years ago when I began work on Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster. Even though she had begun to slow a bit due to age, she remained an incredible force of nature. … Barbara at times seemed to live with a telephone attached to her ear. 'I do well talking ( too well ) ,' she explained. It didn't take long to learn that the woman with the gruff voice had a heart of gold. The stories she generously and enthusiastically shared about her mentor and friend brought Jeannette to life in ways that paper documents never could.

"Our images of Barbara Grier depend on when we met her and under what circumstances—was it as editor of The Ladder, co-founder of Naiad Press, or a formidable presence at meetings of the Women in Print movement, National Women's Studies Association, and the American Booksellers Association. Was it as the fan of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball, the woman who loved cats ( and sometimes preferred them to people ) , or one of her many other identities? As those who knew Barbara would agree, she could be outspoken, blunt, direct, and honest, a woman on a mission.

"When I spoke with Barbara last summer to discuss the possibility of writing her biography, she cautioned me that the person who ran Naiad Press was no longer there. It was frustrating for her to see her memory diminish, but as Donna McBride, her partner of 40 years commented, it was still better than most. Slowing only near the end, she lived life at a frantic pace as she pursued her passions, the foremost of which was the promotion of lesbian literature. 'It is NOT a joke to recognize,' she wrote in 1983, 'that you really DO control the world when you control what gets into print.' As someone who had devoted her life to seeing lesbians in print, she fervently believed that showing lesbians 'as they really are changes forever the ways in which young women grow up and see themselves.' Thank you, Barbara."

In 2003, Grier and McBride sold Naiad Press's stock of books to Bella Books, and many of their authors transferred to Bella.

Wikipedia reports that Grier established the Naiad Press Collection at the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library in 1992. It includes a "massive collection of memorabilia, lesbian and gay literature, including many classic lesbian pulp fiction titles … . Correspondence in the collection includes exchanges with contracted authors as well as other literary luminaries and influences such as Dorothy Allison, Rita Mae Brown, Nancy Berreano of publishing houses Crossing and Firebrand, Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde, Sherry Thomas of Old Wives Tales feminist bookstore and Spinsters Ink, and background material on the establishment of the Women in Print Conferences which began in 1976 and are widely credited with creating the Feminist Bookstore Network."

Grier and McBride were given the Lambda Literary Award for Publisher's Service in 1991 and the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award in 2002. The Gay Academic Union gave Grier the President's Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1985.

In September 1998, Clout! Business Report, a Chicago-based weekly LGBT business magazine that was published by Outlines ( now Windy City Times ) , interviewed Grier and McBride about their newest venture, a vacation rental property on Florida's West Coast. In it, Grier gave her opinion about the movement: "I really believe the only way gay people can be seen as 'ordinary' or 'normal' … is we have to do the same things everyone else does"—by actively showing concern for and taking part in shaping the overall community.

Grier is survived by McBride, and legions of readers and fans.

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