Barbara Grier, 74, editor and bibliographer, archivist and champion of lesbian literature, became editor of The Ladder in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Rebellion would make gay rights and sexual liberation a truly national topic of conversation. With her life partner, Donna McBride, she later co-founded Naiad Press, which grew to become the country’s most visible and successful publisher of lesbian literature. The publishing house transitioned to Bella Books in 2005.
Q: Being an “out” lesbian your whole life—that’s somewhat exceptional for your generation, right?
A: Yes. I knew from childhood that I was different, but didn’t know exactly why. There were always books in our house, so I knew books would help me solve the mystery. One day I took the streetcar to the public library, spent hours there, and figured it out. I came home and announced to my mother, “I’m a homosexual!” “Well,” she said, “since you’re a female, the appropriate word is ‘lesbian,’ and since you’re just 12, let’s wait at least six months before we tell the newspapers.” Her attitude—wry, loving, and completely accepting—never changed. Happily, my whole family was like that. I grew up believing that anyone who felt negatively about lesbian and gay people was simply uninformed. That said, I learned pretty quickly that for some reason or other, homosexuals were and remain the terrible fear of the world. A politician beats up on gay people, he gets applauded. That’s not quite rational, is it?
Q: Did being gay ever hinder your work or life?
A: No, it didn’t. Perhaps that’s because of my area of focus, which was lesbian literature. I do have friends who were terribly hurt, discriminated against, shunned by their families. But they didn’t have my mother, or the confidence she gave me. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a teenager knows that between 11 and 19, they have to be supported, and “being supported” doesn’t mean being driven all over towns to games—it means in the head. You don’t come out of the womb knowing you can conquer the world; your parent teaches you that. I came from a family of mostly women, strong women. My grandmother in particular, who broke both hips in a fall and never walked again. She was lighthearted, and courageous, and matter-of-fact. She set the example: We can’t dictate what the world might do to us, but we can decide for ourselves how we react to it.
Q: How did you get into publishing?
A: By reading, actually. My mother gave me a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness, and through that I discovered a whole world of literature I didn’t know existed. I subscribed to The Ladder in 1957, read every issue cover to cover, then wrote for it, and ultimately edited it. I wanted to be a writer more than anything, but I finally had to face it: I’m a bad writer. So what I became was a champion of other writers, which was joyous. We did not divorce writers; we kept them. If you published a book with Naiad, we published your second one. And your third one. And kept your first one in print. In my time at The Ladder and then at Naiad, lesbian writers became visible. It wasn’t that the literature was underground up until that point, it just wasn’t noticed much. We moved from the shadows into great acceptance and critical recognition.
Q: Did you feel part of the various movements of the 1960s?
A: Part of, of course, and yet somewhat separate. Not all of us were baby boomers, you know. Some of us went through the Depression and WW II; we knew that the postwar idealism of America as this boundless place of opportunity, this Camelot, was somewhat of a marketing idea. It wasn’t exactly true. Still, it was a time of such ferment, such change, such optimism. And then came the assassinations, and a return to reality. Not cynicism, just, okay, yes, I want to change the world, but maybe this is going to be a little harder than I thought.