A short, selective, and incomplete history of LGBT publishing

Lawyer and author Michael Nava began his three-part exploration into gay and lesbian* writing—as well as reading and publishing—by introducing the decades between 1940 and 1980, which he described, in no few words, as “a wasteland for gay and lesbian writers” that featured relationships reflective of the times, by emphasizing the depravity of homosexuality. He continues with a second post in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that looks at the years between 1980 and 1996, when the number of book publishers and newspaper publications increased and new marketing efforts and distribution networks evolved—a time when gay and lesbian titles had become “fashionable”!

Nava notes that much of the credit for growth in the industry during those sixteen years was caused by the AIDS epidemic, which added a sense of urgency to getting a message out and led to a mass movement for gay and lesbian equality: a movement that grew out of, at least partially, a growing familiarity between the general public and, not only AIDS, but the concept and culture of homosexuality. On top of that, he adds,

The phenomenal surge of gay and lesbian literature in the 1980s and 1990s, at small presses and big ones, would not have been possible without a reading audience and distribution channels that brought the books to those readers. . . . Lesbian presses benefited from the existence of women’s bookstores and newspapers that started up in the 1970s. They were joined in the 1980s by a chain of independent gay and lesbian bookstores and the explosive growth of the gay and lesbian presses.

So-called gay bookstores appeared rapidly, and, by 1990, nearly every city—large and medium-sized, anyway—had at least one shop hidden somewhere in its central business district. These bookstores functioned not only as retail outlets, but served, too, as de facto community centers, safe spaces where readings, meetings, and other get-togethers were hosted. Author Dorothy Allison is quoted in Nava’s article as saying,

Without gay and lesbian bookstores, and the many feminist bookstores of my youth, I would never have found my people, my community, never had the encouragement and commentary of other gay and lesbian writers. I would not be who I am without those voices, those closely watching eyes, those critical and understanding perspectives.

In addition to bookstores, gay and lesbian newspapers rose up throughout the country. These outlets provided space for articles on local and national politics, health news, and opinion columns, as well as book reviews and advertisements—marketing efforts that helped to expand the budgets of gay and lesbian specialty publishers like Alyson Publications, Firebrand Books, Naiad Press, Gay Men’s Press, and Brilliance Books.

Other literary “accomplishments” of the period included publication of The Lambda Book Report—first issued in 1987 by the owners of Lambda Rising, a bookstore in Washington, DC—which was the only literary journal dedicated to reviewing gay and lesbian literature, and initiation of the Lambda Literary Awards, also founded by Lambda Rising, to recognize excellence in gay and lesbian literature. (Both the review and the awards are now operated by a nonprofit foundation, Lambda Literary.)

In addition to the persistence of small specialty publishers and two powerhouse legends over these years, Barbara Grier, founder of Naiad Press, and Sasha Alyson, founder of Alyson Publications, Nava credits much of the public, mainstream advancement in queer publishing to two gay editors: Michael Denneny at St. Martin’s Press and David Groff at Crown Books. During seventeen years at St. Martin’s Press, Denneny led a largely gay imprint, Stonewall Inn Editions; in 1976, he co-founded Christopher Street, a monthly literary magazine for the gay community that featured fiction and nonfiction stories, photography and artwork, poetry, news, book reviews, and features on politics and culture.

Besides working with gay and lesbian authors at another mainstream publishing house, Groff was instrumental in the 1988–1989 founding of the Publishing Triangle, a literary organization that provided networking and support opportunities for gay and lesbian publishers and publications through panels and workshops, a lending library, a newsletter, and awards. Nava writes,

In a 1993 essay in Poets & Writers, Groff was upbeat about the gay and lesbian boom among New York publishers during that time, attributing it to the emergence of “an ever-growing audience out there eager for the facts, entertainment, stories, education, and self-definition that gay and lesbian books can provide.” Groff pointed out the unique and crucial role books played in a community that otherwise had few or no representations of itself in other cultural platforms: “We don’t really have movies, television, or music to call our own,” he said. “[M]ostly what we have is books. Gay and lesbian books sell so consistently because we need them so urgently.”

Nava began his own experience as an author during this transitional period. “When I finished writing my first novel, a mystery with a gay defense lawyer named Henry Rios, in 1985, I submitted it to thirteen New York publishers.” He then received thirteen rejections—some with a note complimenting his efforts but telling him, “there’s no audience for it”—before Alyson Publications quickly accepted the manuscript. A paperback version of The Little Death (1986) was followed in 1988 by Goldenboy; after its publication, though, Nava signed with a major publisher, the start of a growing trend among gay and lesbian writers: “Publication by the big houses gave our books the kind of exposure and distribution the small presses were unable to provide,” he says. Still, with the smaller presses, he added, “I knew I was part of a larger mission; with the New York publishers, I felt like an employee.” Before 1996, he would also release Howtown (Harper & Row, 1990), The Hidden Law (Harper & Row, 1992), and The Death of Friends (Putnam, 1996)—all part of a series that developed around the Rios character.

Not a totally random date, Nava chose 1996 as the end of this era in gay and lesbian publishing partly because of that exodus of writers from small publishers to mainstream houses, which was beginning to have an impact on the industry—but also because the mainstream houses were starting to bail on the gay and lesbian market by this time. “As early as 1993, Groff was firing warning shots.” Nava reports that Groff said, “Every single book we published that succeeded or failed became an immediate and weighty metric indicating the viability or futility of the entire LGBTQ category.” Denneny concurred with Groff: “As soon as the New York houses realized queer books weren’t the Golden Calf they’d imagined, publishers, many of whom had held their noses as they published these titles, couldn’t dump them fast enough.”

“Around this time, too,” Nava laments, “gay bookstores began to disappear,” overpowered, first, by growing chains, then by an up-and-coming startup that grew into Amazon.com. “The gay and lesbian presses also began to contract,” a process begun by the broader powers of larger publishers that accelerated with a growing availability of information on an expanding internet.

My personal connection to this time period was a book titled A History of Shadows (Avon Books, 1982), by Robert C. Reinhart. I had likely read about the book in a copy of the Washington Blade or The Advocate (gay newspapers in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton were just beginning publication) and bought it at a legitimate bookstore outlet in the basement of a gay bar (I think it was Badlands, but I wouldn’t swear to that) in Cincinnati (because someone might have recognized me in one of the bookstores of downtown Dayton). The story shares the lives of four gay men who have been friends for more than 40 years, the 1930s into the 1970s. As they reveal their oral histories, readers learn what life was like as a homosexual through changing times. I’ve read the book from cover to cover twice, and I confess to overanalyzing details, trying to calculate who, in real-life, each man might have been—just to have the role models to look up to. I’ve even bought three copies of the book, after a loan to a friend didn’t get home! Though, the last copy was purchased at a “regular” bookstore, out in public—my own sign of changing times.

Part III, the conclusion of Nava’s series for the Los Angeles Review of Books, will pick up with the late 1990s and end with the current state of gay and lesbian* publishing, so make sure you’ve read this current installment, which includes a much larger discussion about the evolution of lesbian presses—and their roots in the 1970s feminist movement, with its maturing culture of newspapers, magazines, bookstores, music festivals, and other institutions—along with more names, more titles, and more details all around.

*In the words of author Nava: “The emphasis on gay and lesbian writers reflects the fact that the period under examination mostly preceded the emergence of transgender, bisexual, and nonbinary communities as distinct and recognizable literary communities and publishing cohorts; it in no way devalues them. . . . This is only part of the story, the part of the story I lived through and participated in: a trail of breadcrumbs for future readers, writers, and scholars to follow to uncover one of the most important literary movements of the last century.”

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originally posted June 15, 2021
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image information: Featured image via AuthorAllsorts, where it was used as artwork for a post, “Windows and Doors to Our Worlds: Writing LGBTQIA Literature” in which guest blogger author Laura Lam mentioned a We Need Diverse Books, DiverseBooks.org, program at the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in San Francisco.  


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