“Do you know who this is?”
I had to think for a minute, before I realized that the voice on the other end of the line was that of Barbara Grier, the publisher of Naiad Books. The year was 1987.
Did I know who she was? Well! How about, did she know who I was? More to the point, did I know who I was. I had just come out as a lesbian, and my world was upside down. Most of the patterns of the first three decades of my life made no sense in the new world I found myself attempting to navigate.
Did I know who she was? Of course I knew. She was the publisher of lesbian books. Everyone knew that. Especially lesbian writers.
It was a tough conversation, as I remember. Starting with that memorably abrasive opening line, right through to the end, where Barbara would contact the author on my behalf, but not entrust me with the information. She wanted to make sure I understood copyright law. She wanted to make sure I understood the long history of the novel, which had been brought back into print twice, decades after original publication. She wanted me to know that, unable to locate Wilhelm, she had still published it, hoping that Wilhelm would contact her. Most of all, she wanted to make sure that I understood the weight and the freight of lesbian literature and of those few who were called to work in what I was rapidly coming to understand was some kind of sacred field.
Today I have just read of Barbara’s passing. I hear that voice again, “Do you know who I am?”
No, I don’t. I can’t. I came out in the 1980’s, not the 1950’s. I came out at a time when there was an openly identified, lesbian press—Barbara’s. I came out in the wake of the momentous Women’s Liberation Movement. I have read about the Daughters of Bilitis, but when I came out there were lesbian hiking clubs, and lesbian books clubs, and lesbian chess clubs, and lesbian festivals. I can’t know what it was like to meet in secret, in private homes, knowing that DOB was the only lesbian organization in the country, the only meeting place outside of the bars. I’ve read about The Ladder, the first openly lesbian magazine. I’ve even read archival copies of it, including the articles by “Gene Damon,” which was Barbara’s nom de plume. But I can’t understand the courage it took to write for The Ladder, even under an assumed name. I can’t know what that publication meant to lesbians unable to locate any sisters in their hometowns. And I can’t imagine what she went through to establish Naiad Books. I came out amid a flowering of women’s presses.
I may not know who Barbara Grier was, but I would catch glimpses of her through the lesbian authors she published. Grier had rediscovered Wilhelm. She also dug up Renée Vivien and published translations of her work. I read the Naiad edition of Lifting Belly by Gertrude Stein.
I want to share it today, because it stands as tribute to a woman who did not define herself as a writer, but who had the genius for discovering, treasuring, and gifting the world with lesbian writing.
What Barbara read out loud to me that day was the ending of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, a lesbian novel published in 1952—the year I was born. Barbara would have been nineteen. It was the story of a middle-class lesbian whose lesbianism cost her the custody of her daughter—a story from an era that I will never know. But I appreciate the history, the struggle, the writing, and the passion of the woman who shared it with me:
Carol raised her hand slowly and brushed her hair back, once on either side, and Therese smiled because the gesture was Carol, and it was Carol she loved and would always love. Oh, in a different way now, because she was a different person, and it was like meeting Carol all over again, but it was still Carol and no one else. It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell. Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing, before her arm lifted suddenly, her hand waved a quick, eager greeting that Therese had never seen before. Therese walked towards her.