Barbara Grier, a founder and publisher of Naiad Press, a much-thumbed lesbian pulp fiction publisher, died of cancer on November 10, 2011 in Tallahassee, Florida. She was 78. Her death was announced by her long-time partner (in work and life), Donna McBride.
Founded in 1973, and with a mailing list purloined from the Daughters of Bilitis, Grier went on to publish over 500 books with unconditionally lesbian themes–romance, erotica, poetry, science fiction and self-help. If you wanted to read a book with lesbian sex, you bought one of the Naiad titles. Like real life, sometimes the sex was great, sometimes not-so-great. The stand-out best book of lesbian awakening, desire, seduction and sex is Katherine V. Forrest’s 1983 novel, “Curious Wine.” Buy it.
The availability of these novels–with lust and sex and a happy ending–was a tremendous service to lesbians everywhere. In lesbian fiction in the 1940s, 50s and 60s the heroine dallied with a female lover but ended up with a man. Barbara Grier flipped this formula around: the women flirted with men or a heterosexual lifestyle, but came to their senses and ended up with a woman.
Many of these early lesbian novels were straight men’s pornographic fantasies: a little girl-on-girl action to get things warmed up, but a man finishes up. Lesbians had to be content with reading to the middle of the book.
Besides an appreciation of some of her romance novels, my acquaintence with Barbara Grier and Naiad Press came through the 1985 smash hit, “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence.” In 1984 I was asked by Nancy Manahan, one of the editor/authors, if she could solicit stories from the ex-nuns and sisters who were members of CCL – the Conference for Catholic Lesbians. A number of CCL members ended up in the book, including two of the women who were presented as currently belonging to a religious community. One of them still is…although she published her story using her grandmother’s name not her own.
Nancy Manahan did a workshop at the 1986 CCL national conference where she talked about the book and the process of pulling it together. As I remember her, she was soft-spoken, thoughtful, and earnest. She wrote in the forward of the book that its intent was to break the silence about “erotic love between women in religious life.”
The book resonated with a large swathe of Catholic lesbians, especially former women religious, who left their communities because their lesbianism was not compatible with either their vows, or the forced invisibility of homosexuals in the Catholic Church. The spiritual community they experienced in religious life was missed, and it left an ache in some that was never healed.
There is an interplay between sexuality and spirituality in Catholicism especially, with its emphasis on sensuality and the body. Think of the suggestive pose of St. Sebastian, and the orgasmic rapture of St. Theresa of Avila. Even Christ hanging on the cross often has his loincloth positioned in a pretty erotic angle. How can anyone avoid the subtle message of these images or even avoid making them an object of desire?
When a local TV station in Boston promoted an interview with Manahan and her co-editor, Rosemary Curb, archdiocesan officials complained, saying the broadcast would be “an affront to the sensitivity of Roman Catholics.” The station cancelled the program, but the ensuing uproar sent sales of the book soaring. “This is crazy,” Grier told the New York Times , scrambling to fill new orders for the book, which eventually sold several hundred thousand copies. “I’m a mouse giving birth to an elephant!”
A year or two later, a controversy ensured when Barbara Grier sold the rights to some of the lesbian nun stories to Penthouse Forum, a male prono magazine. The CCL board sent an angry letter to Grier saying it was a betrayal, selling these women’s stories for the titillation of male readers. Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Curb protested, too, but to no avail–Naiad Press owned the book.
I can’t remember if Grier replied to us–I think she didn’t bother–but the story goes she did it because she felt she could reach new women readers through Penthouse.
My sense is she did it for the money and publicity it would bring to Naiad Press. She had her mainstream hit, and she wanted to ride it for all it was worth. After all, she labored for many years on the margins with a shoestring budget.
The tremendous irony of the whole thing is that Barbara Grier, who spent a lifetime working hard to publish lesbian literature, had her greatest notoriety from providing lesbian sex thrills to men.