The Golden Age (1980–1995)
Between 1940 and 1980, books by gay and lesbian writers comprised a nearly undetectable part of the corpus of American literature. But in the decade and a half that followed, there was a vast outpouring of gay and lesbian literature. When readers held Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993, Firebrand Books) or the anthology Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out (1991, Alyson Publications, edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaʻahumanu), they caught glimmers of an expanded queer literature. The growing gay and lesbian political and cultural assertiveness in the face of attacks by religious bigots and right-wing Republicans accounts for some of this growth, but the single most important factor was the AIDS crisis. The epidemic not only galvanized the lesbian and gay community, but media coverage of that community’s suffering and heroism in the face of the devastating virus began to transform public opinion of this hitherto despised minority and created an interest — and a market — for its stories.
Before the advent of Amazon and the consolidation of American publishing into five big corporate houses, the annual American Bookseller Association expo was publishing’s equivalent of Coachella. It attracted hundreds of publishers and thousands of booksellers, authors, and readers over a long weekend where the publishers presented their forthcoming books. From the late 1980s and into the 1990s, gay and lesbian publishers planted the rainbow flag at the ABA. Joanne Passet’s biography of Naiad Press founder Barbara Grier, Indomitable, recounts the moment when Katherine V. Forrest, a Naiad author, “saw [an] entire aisle at ABA featuring gay pride flags flying from the booths for Alyson Books, Cleis Press, Firebrand Books, Naiad Press and Seal Press [and] felt tears of joy.”
All the publishers Passet names, except Alyson, were exclusively lesbian. The lesbian presses, which began to emerge out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, were rooted in a community that had constructed its own cultural infrastructure, one that included newspapers, magazines, bookstores, music festivals, and women’s studies programs. Powerfully supported by the lesbian community, these presses were, from the start, mission-driven and operated largely outside the mainstream literary world. These characteristics helped secure an autonomy that allowed them to publish without regard to the cultural and economic vagaries that swayed New York publishing.
Lesbian small presses launched and nurtured the careers of major lesbian writers. The first of these, Daughters, Inc., founded by partners June Arnold and Parke Bowman in 1971, published Rita Mae Brown’s classic novel Rubyfruit Jungle. Among the most impressive of the other early presses was Firebrand Books, established in 1984 by Nancy K. Bereano. Bereano published one of Dorothy Allison’s first books, the short story collection Trash; Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For; and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, a founding work of transgender literature. She also published Black fiction writer Jewelle Gomez and Black poet Cheryl Clarke. Short-lived but vastly influential was Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (1980–1992), founded by Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde. Among Kitchen Table’s titles were the 1983 second edition of the anthology This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, which introduced the concept of intersectionality; Smith’s Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology; and Lorde’s I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities. Naiad Press was home to many popular writers like Forrest, a genre-crossing novelist who became one of the best-selling lesbian writers of her generation, and Canadian writer Jane Rule, whose 1964 novel Desert of the Heart was republished by Naiad and became the basis of the acclaimed film Desert Hearts. Naiad, which emerged as the largest of the lesbian presses, was run by Barbara Grier, an energetic and controversial figure in the lesbian and gay publishing world.
No one questioned Grier’s commitment to lesbian literature. As “Gene Damon,” she compiled the most definitive bibliography of lesbian books then available, The Lesbian in Literature, first published in 1967, then updated in 1975, and finally reprinted in 1981 under her own name. Before beginning Naiad Press in 1973, Grier wrote for and eventually became editor of The Ladder, the publication of the Daughters of Bilitis, which evolved from a secret, social group to the first national organization for lesbians. She built Naiad into the largest and most profitable lesbian press, but she was also criticized for the quality of the books she published.
Grier was unapologetic about Naiad’s routine fare of “romances, mysteries, a few Westerns and works of science fiction, all featuring lesbian heroines and happy endings.” Her biographer observes that she “eschewed the ‘women’s studies’ direction because of her commitment to working-class readers and to ‘the girl out there who had no place else to go.’” When Bereano criticized Naiad for “scal[ing] down” the reach of lesbian publishing, Grier replied, “Yeah, I publish for the sixteen-year-old reader.” (Grier was a mentor to Bereano, as she was to other lesbian publishers, and they had a long and cordial relationship.)
Grier understood that a literary culture consists of more than its greatest works or its greatest writers and that, especially for gay and lesbian readers, the books that readers love are the ones they most identify with, and that those books are not necessarily the ones enshrined in the academic canon. Moreover, as she once told Forrest, she published the books she needed to publish because they allowed her to publish the books she wanted to. Those included Jane Rule’s works, reprints of the Ann Bannon books, Highsmith’s The Price of Salt as well as Gale Wilhelm’s Torchlight to Valhalla and We Too Are Drifting, thus returning to print key volumes in lesbian literary history. She also launched the career of Sarah Schulman, who would become one of the most distinguished queer writers of her generation, by publishing Schulman’s first novel, The Sophie Horowitz Story. Grier took serious risks, too, publishing Pat Califia’s Sapphistry, a book about lesbian sexuality that contained a chapter on sadomasochism which, as Grier’s biographer observes, “foreshadowed broader conversations about sexuality that would become known as the ‘feminist sex wars’” of the late 1980s.
Grier’s gay counterpart — and temperamentally her polar opposite — was Sasha Alyson, the reserved and laconic founder of Alyson Publications. Like Naiad, Alyson Publications was a general interest publisher that published everything from coming-out novels to memoirs and biographies (including an important biography of gay founding father, Harry Hay), to mysteries and gay vampire fiction, to works about BDSM and a series of “Alyson Almanacs” that were compilations of all things gay and lesbian, including short biographies of historical figures and glossaries of slang.
Like Naiad, Alyson’s long, eclectic list included some important firsts, among them the first novels by Black gay writers Larry Duplechan, Steven Corbin, and James Earl Hardy. At a time when gays and lesbians were still demonized as pedophiles, Alyson published the first queer children’s books, including Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, which was for years one of the most banned books in the country according to the American Library Association. Sasha Alyson also personally initiated the publication of You Can Do Something About AIDS, a collaborative publishing industry project in the form of a 126-page book with a foreword by Elizabeth Taylor that was distributed free in bookstores. A civic-minded person of great integrity, Alyson was recognized far beyond the confines of gay and lesbian publishing when, for example, in 1994 he and his company were named “Publisher of the Year” by the New England Booksellers Association. (Alyson currently works with a children’s literacy project in Laos called Big Brother Mouse, which he founded in 2003.)
The gay and lesbian publishing boom did not go unnoticed by the New York publishing industry. In the late 1970s, gay male writers found homes in the New York houses with the publication of novels by writers including Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, and Edmund White. However, it was in the ’70s that interest in gay writers (and they were mostly gay men) really picked up steam. This was abetted by the advocacy of two extraordinary gay editors: Michael Denneny at St. Martin’s Press and David Groff at Crown.
Denneny came to New York from Chicago in 1971 “mainly to be gay,” he said in a 2014 interview. In 1976, he co-founded Christopher Street, a magazine that covered culture and politics for its nearly 20-year run. That cost Denneny his job at Macmillan Publishers; he then moved to St. Martin’s Press where, as an openly gay editor, he would oversee, among other books, the publication of Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, the groundbreaking history of the AIDS epidemic, and a celebrated line of gay fiction published under the Stonewall Inn Editions imprint.
At Crown, Groff, also a distinguished poet, published, among many other books, the final novels of AIDS memoirist Paul Monette, Frank Browning’s The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today, books that addressed the AIDS epidemic, and boundary-pushing works exploring then-outré topics such as gay and lesbian parenting and being gay and Christian. Groff was also instrumental in founding the Publishing Triangle, a publishing-industry-led literary organization that promoted gay and lesbian visibility through panels and workshops, a lending library, a newsletter, and annual awards for, among other categories, lifetime achievement in LGBTQ literature. The organization continues to this day.
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.”
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. As noted above, 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.
Craig Rodwell, a veteran of the homophile movement, opened the first gay bookstore, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, in 1967 in Greenwich Village. By 1990, there were gay bookstores in all the major cities, including A Different Light, with locations in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco; Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia; Glad Day in Boston; Lambda Rising in Washington, DC; and Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago. But these bookstores were not confined to the usual urban suspects — there were also gay bookstores in Minneapolis; New Orleans; Nashville; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Atlanta; among other places. In his 1993 essay, Groff estimates there were by then a hundred gay, lesbian, and feminist bookstores that stocked gay and/or lesbian books, shops that were “part of a larger network of up to twelve hundred bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.” (Moreover, as the boom in gay and lesbian books continued into the early 1990s, the big chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble would see profitability in having sections, although maybe no more than a couple of shelves, dedicated to gay and lesbian books.)
In both large and small cities, these bookstores functioned not simply as retailers but as informal community centers. They provided forums for readings and meetings, and they kept books on their shelves for much longer than other independent bookstores. Groff noted in his Poets & Writers essay that the rate of return from bookstores for lesbian and gay trade paperbacks “can be lower than five percent whereas nongay trade paperbacks have return rates of up to seventy percent.”
The bookstores were the original safe spaces for queer people. Dorothy Allison remembers the first time she went into Oscar Wilde as a “baby dyke.” The gay man behind the counter kept his eyes on her because, she thought, he was afraid she was a shoplifter
but actually he was admiring my leather jacket. That was a tiny but wonderful bookstore. 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 1987, the owners of Washington’s Lambda Rising began publication of The Lambda Book Report, the only literary journal dedicated solely to reviewing gay and lesbian books. Two years later, they initiated the Lambda Literary Awards to recognize excellence in gay and lesbian literature. Both the review and the awards were later turned over to an independent nonprofit, the Lambda Literary Foundation, which continues to flourish.
As with bookstores, there was also an explosive proliferation of gay and lesbian newspapers across the country and, again, this growth was not limited to major coastal cities. Dozens of newspapers from Sacramento (Mom … Guess What) to Boston (Gay Community News, founded in 1973) provided space for dozens of book review columns. In practical terms, that meant that, while a straight, first-time novelist might receive a handful of reviews, a gay or lesbian debut might get dozens from newspapers across the nation that spoke specifically and directly to the writer’s potential audience.
The AIDS epidemic brought both the culmination and the beginning of the end of the queer literary spring of the 1980s and 1990s. AIDS heightened the community’s visibility and, in a way, forced the straight population to take a side: either with men and women compassionately and courageously responding to a lethal disease, or with those who called that disease the righteous judgment of God. In this heightened and emotional cultural moment, when gay and lesbian writers bore witness to actual life-and-death struggles on the most simultaneously granular and broad level, they became the writers de jour. The New York houses, sensing a vast untapped audience of readers, began to sign gay and (some) lesbian writers as never before.
This flurry of activity produced some brilliant writing about the epidemic and gay life. In books like Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time and David B. Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed, gay writers, many of them, like Monette and Feinberg, infected with the virus, wrote for their lives. These books, affirming and furious, could not have been more different from their 1950s ancestors. It was a heady time for gay and lesbian writers, readers, publishers, and editors, culminating in the OutWrite conferences of the early 1990s that drew together hundreds of queer literati. Ultimately, the epidemic produced a literature as significant to American letters as the literature of the Harlem Renaissance; it marked the arrival of a hitherto marginalized community that was finally free to speak of its experience in its own voices, and prominent in that movement were the voices of Black gay and lesbian writers including Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, Sapphire, and Jewelle Gomez, among others.
My own experience is illustrative of that time. When I finished writing my first novel, a mystery with a gay defense lawyer named Henry Rios, in 1985, I submitted it to 13 New York publishers. This was an era when even big publishers would consider unagented or “over the transom” manuscripts. I was roundly rejected by all of them. Most of the rejections were form letters, but a handful of editors sent personal notes, all which said, in effect, “Good book, but there’s no audience for it.” A friend told me about Alyson Publications and suggested I try my luck there. I sent in the manuscript of The Little Death, and it was accepted for publication almost by return mail. The reader who sent the note — not Sasha Alyson, but an assistant — said he’d stayed up all night reading the book.
Published as a trade paperback original, The Little Death was reviewed in the mystery book column of The New York Times by a critic who complimented the author for his “dignified” handling of the “homosexual” theme. No other Alyson book had ever been reviewed in the Times, and the book’s success led me to write a second book with the same character, titled Goldenboy, published by Alyson in 1988. That book was reviewed in the expanding network of gay and lesbian media, including the then-influential magazine The Advocate. Goldenboy was also the first of my novels that dealt with AIDS, a theme that became central to the remaining books in the series.
Following publication of Goldenboy, I was approached by a New York literary agent, the late Jed Mattes, a gay man who would come to represent a number of other gay writers. Jed told me that if I agreed to continue to write more Henry Rios books, he would get me a New York publisher. Though I had not set out to be a mystery writer, I agreed. He negotiated a two-book deal with Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), and from there I moved to Putnam, which published my books until 2000 when I began a 15-year break from publishing and the literary world.
My jump from a small gay press to a New York house was not unique. A number of other lesbian and gay writers, including Katherine V. Forrest, Sarah Schulman, Dorothy Allison, and Larry Duplechan, also made the transition. Publication by the big houses gave our books the kind of exposure and distribution the small presses were unable to provide, but we also became cogs in a corporate publishing machine. When I worked with Sasha Alyson, I knew I was part of a larger mission; with the New York publishers, I felt like an employee, and a pretty low-ranking one at that. (My editor at Putnam, a perfectly affable man, was Tom Clancy’s editor, so I knew my place in that food chain.) While my books were widely reviewed by the mainstream press — a review in People magazine generating more excitement among my friends than reviews in The New York Times — my audience remained primarily gay and lesbian. Sometime in the early 1990s, a straight literary agent told me in passing that if Henry Rios was straight, my books would sell 10 times what they were then selling, and this was a perfect encapsulation of big publishing’s priorities, not just then, but always.
The big gay boom did not last. The big publishers were the first to bail out when gay and lesbian books failed to meet their economic expectations. As early as 1993, Groff was firing warning shots. “For all the brouhaha over lesbian and gay book-publishing triumphs, there is still a low ceiling on that success,” he cautioned. “Few hardcovers can exceed sales of 20,000 copies and few promise to assemble a large enough audience to be a lead title for a mainstream publisher, with the attendant publicity and promotion that could attract new queer and straight readers alike.” In a 2020 email, he parted the curtains and showed what had been going on behind the scenes at the big houses. “At the New York houses we were under great pressure: 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,” he explained. “No other genre of book endured that same reflex of dubiousness and dauntedness.”
Denneny was less circumspect. In a conversation after he’d left publishing, he told me that 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. By the mid-1990s, contracts were being canceled and, more grimly, writers were dying of AIDS, including Monette and Feinberg.
Around this time, too, gay bookstores began to disappear, driven out of business first by the big bookstore chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then by Amazon. The gay and lesbian presses also began to contract, a process accelerated by the spread of the internet. The small presses continued to publish, though in diminishing numbers, as they changed hands or went out of business entirely. Barbara Grier retired and Naiad closed up shop, sending much of its backlist to Bella Books. Sasha Alyson sold Alyson Publications in 1995 and it changed hands again in 2008 before disappearing entirely. Nancy Bereano retired in 1994 and Firebrand Books ceased publication. Both Denneny and Groff left publishing to become respected freelance editors. By 2000, the Golden Age was over.
Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.
Banner image: "Giovanni's Room book store" by chrisinphilly5448 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.