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Senate House Library

From the fight back to the future

How one small bookshop in Bloomsbury took on the establishment. By Sarah Pyke.

The UK’s first lesbian and gay bookshop 

Gay’s the Word bookshop opened its doors at 66 Marchmont Street, in London’s Bloomsbury, in 1979. Set up by Ernest Hole and Peter Dorey, members of the socialist Gay Icebreakers group, with friends including Jonathan Cutbill, the bricks-and-mortar shop grew out of a successful beginning selling books at gay venues and events.

A black and white photo of customers inside Gay's The Word bookshop
Browsing customers at Gay’s the Word. Photo by Robert Workman. Robert Workman Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

The shop swiftly became an important community meeting-place for activist and discussion groups, including the Lesbian Discussion Group (still running today), the Gay Black Group and the Gay Men’s Disabled Group. It was a charged, exciting time. Lesbian, gay and feminist publishing was emerging in the UK: the feminist Onlywomen Press was established in 1974, Gay Men’s Press in 1979, and Brilliance Books in 1982, with funding from the Greater London Council. Other LGBTQ+ bookshops were springing up, too, such as Edinburgh’s Lavender Menace, opened by Bob Orr and Sigrid Nielsen in 1982.  

Gay’s the Word began importing books from lesbian and gay bookstores in the United States – Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, A Different Light in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York – and became part of a thriving and mutually supportive transnational network of booksellers. The shop was doing so well, in fact, that by early 1984 a move to a new, larger premises was on the cards. 

But at lunchtime on Tuesday 10 April 1984, the shop’s fortunes abruptly changed. Several officers from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise entered the shop, ordered manager Paud Hegarty to eject the browsing customers, and began to take titles – seemingly at random – from the shelves. ‘Operation Tiger’ had begun. 

The ‘Operation Tiger’ raids 

It was not Customs’ first action that day. At 9.20am, officers had demanded entrance to the flat of Gay’s the Word director Glenn McKee, held him for six hours without representation, and searched through his books and videos, paperwork and meeting minutes. Later, they went to the home of Amanda Russell, the shop’s former manager, seizing her videotapes of American soap opera Dallas and the dog show, Crufts. When officers visited director Jonathan Cutbill at his house, Capital Gay reported, they telephoned their superiors, saying “We’re meant to be looking for pornography, but he’s got about 10,000 books here!” 

The Customs officers were looking for books that had been brought into the country. They had no jurisdiction over works that were published within the UK. But under a piece of Victorian legislation, the Customs Consolidation Act 1876, they were able to bring charges against nine of Gay’s the Word’s directors and staff, accusing them of conspiring to import indecent literature, with two of them (Amanda Russell and Jonathan Cutbill) further charged with “fraudulently [...] evad[ing] the prohibition on the importation of indecent books”.  

Lesbian and gay businesses had long been used to interference from Customs. From at least the 1970s, Customs had been systematically intercepting packages containing LGBTQ+ books. Gay’s the Word staff asked their wholesalers to wrap consignments in plain brown paper, avoid using the word ‘gay’, and even to send parcels to their home addresses. But the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids were another level of magnitude. Customs took around 800 books away in the April raids. In August 1984, the French newspaper Gai Pied was seized en route to the shop and in October that year, a further 132 titles were detained. In total, 144 titles comprising around a third of the shop’s stock were impounded by Customs. Unless Gay’s the Word could fight Customs in court, this meant financial ruin on top of public and personal humiliation. As Jonathan Cutbill asked, "Can we afford not to fight?".

Defending Gay’s the Word 

Black and white photo of defendants with seized books in 1984
The nine defendants holding some of the seized books. Clockwise from bottom right: Paud Hegarty, Peter Dorey, Glenn McKee, Gerard Walsh, Jonathan Cutbill, Charles Brown, John Duncan, Lesley Jones, Amanda Russell (centre). Photo by Robert Workman. Robert Workman Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

Newspaper Capital Gay published a front-page story about the first ‘Operation Tiger’ raids in that week's issue. By the Sunday, a public meeting had been organised at County Hall, with around 150 attendees. The Defend Gay’s the Word campaign had sprung into vigorous existence. Just over a fortnight later, on 27 April 1984, more than a hundred people protested outside HM Customs and Excise offices in Woburn Place. The campaign raised £500 in its first week and would go on to employ two campaign co-ordinators and raise over £30,000 -- an enormous sum, though barely enough to cover the projected legal costs. 

Support from the LGBTQ+ community was strong, both nationally and internationally: there were badges, a Pride float, a read-a-thon, a fundraising gig headlined by Jimmy Somerville. But support came from other quarters, too: the Royal Society of Literature and the National Council of Civil Liberties, Labour and Liberal MPs, mainstream publishers, such as Penguin and Gollancz, and the mainstream press. The Bookseller magazine and the New Statesman supported the shop, as did high-profile authors, like Gore Vidal.  

After two and a half extraordinarily difficult years, and against a background of continuing seizures, the case was all set to go to trial at the Old Bailey. Customs had declared 74 of the seized titles indecent and the defendants prepared to argue their case. But then, unexpectedly, on 27 June 1986, all charges were dropped. The Defend Gay’s the Word campaign undoubtedly helped to put pressure on Customs. A new minister at the Treasury may have wanted to avoid public embarrassment or attention. And a company called Conegate – attempting to import inflatable dolls for their chain of sex shops – successfully argued that if goods were manufactured domestically, they must also be allowed to import them. Customs therefore had to drop the charge of “indecency” -- if sex dolls were allowed, so were these books -- and had instead to prove “obscenity” under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. This would have allowed for defence of the public good, on literary grounds. The vast majority of the seized books could not be proved to be obscene (all bar nineteen which were returned to Giovanni’s Room bookstore in Philadelphia). As Geoffrey Robertson, the defence for the shop, wrote, “gay literature was saved by a rubber doll”.  

It’s a neat ending, though not entirely accurate: LGBTQ+ books and public health information continued to fall foul of Customs in the 1980s and 1990s. Read our blog to find out how the story continues.

Forty years on from ‘Operation Tiger’ 

Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings are All Alike (1980)
Sandra Scoppettone’s 'Happy Endings are All Alike' (1980), one of the seized books, with the original sticker produced for the Defend Gay’s the Word campaign. Photo by Erica Gillingham.

In the decades since the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids, the landscape of queer bookselling has shifted significantly. In the early 2000s, Gay’s the Word was the only remaining dedicated LGBTQ+ bookshop in the country. The discriminatory Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government just four years after ‘Operation Tiger’, prevented local authorities, public librarians and teachers from “publish[ing] material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “teaching [...] the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It effectively kept queer book culture on the margins. 

Today, queer bookselling in the UK is undergoing something of a resurgence. Category is Books in Glasgow, Paned o Gê in Cardiff, the Portal Bookshop in York, The Bookish Type in Leeds, The Old Queeriosity Shop in Plymouth, and Paperxclips Books in Belfast are just a handful of the new booksellers on the scene in the last decade. In parallel, new genres of queer writing have emerged and flourished since the repeal of Section 28 in 2003 (2000 in Scotland). Gay and trans YA (young adult) literature, for example, occupies shelf-space undreamed of in 1984. 

But still queer books are under threat. Book-banning is on the rise in the US, UK and Ireland, among other places, and disproportionately targets books by and about LGBTQ+ people and people of colour. Author Simon James Green, whose Boy Like Me (2023) takes the effects of Section 28 in a school library in 1994 as its subject matter, was himself prevented from visiting a faith-based school in South London in 2022. 

Remembering ‘Operation Tiger’ and the courageous and tireless action of Gay’s the Word’s staff, directors and supporters in response shows us how aggressively queer books can be targeted – but also how steadfastly they can and will be defended, now and in future.