Skip to main content
Senate House Library

Publishing after Stonewall

Date

Written by
By Leila Kassir, Academic Librarian for British, US, Latin American & Anglophone Caribbean Literature at Senate House Library

What ‘Operation Tiger’ can tell us about LGBTQ+ publishing in the 1970s and 1980s.

This blog accompanies Seized Books! An online exhibition.

When Customs and Excise officers raided Gay’s the Word in April 1984, they seized copies of over 140 books which they deemed to be ‘indecent’. As Customs only had jurisdiction over imported books, they seized those that had been supplied by US bookshops such as Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia.

The ‘Operation Tiger’ raids took place only fifteen years after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and the development of the Gay Liberation movement. Most of the works seized were published post-Stonewall and captured in print an emerging and increasingly confident and distinct LGBTQ+ voice. Forty years later, the seized books provide us with an unexpected layer of social history, by presenting us with a microcosm of LGBTQ+ publishing in the USA during the 1970s and early 1980s. Books produced by over fifty publishers of differing size and intent were seized: mass market (such as Avon Books and Pinnacle), trade (including Grove Press and Alfred A. Knopf), independent (for example Grey Fox Press and Down There Press), radical (Fag Rag Books), and self-published (such as Persona Press).

Gay Sunshine Press

With circa 25 titles seized, Gay Sunshine Press was the most prevalent publisher in the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids. Stemming from Berkeley, California’s post-Stonewall Gay Liberation Front, Gay Sunshine began life in 1970 as a collectively produced tabloid with a predominantly political focus. Collective member Winston Leyland became editor in 1971, moved the journal to San Francisco, and included a more literary emphasis. In 1975, Leyland founded the book publishing imprint Gay Sunshine Press. On the effort of publishing both journals and books Leyland commented that it was worth it “[...] if one article or one book affected the consciousness of at least a few people in a deep and lasting way”.[1]

The Gay Sunshine Press books that were seized are varied in style, tone, and form. Amongst those taken were a reprint of Gore Vidal’s 1956 short story collection A Thirsty Evil; two volumes of interviews with prominent gay writers and cultural figures such as William Burroughs, Christopher Isherwood, and Ned Rorem; a translation of Luis Zapata’s experimental Mexican novel Adonis García; Mitch Walker’s gay sex guide Men Loving Men; and poetry by Jean Genet. Notable within the Gay Sunshine Press seized titles are four anthologies containing ‘true’ sexual experiences of gay men as submitted to Boyd McDonald’s self-published magazine Straight to Hell. These collections were so successful that St. Martin’s Press editor Michael Denneny suggested that McDonald “[...] kept more gay bookstores afloat than any other author”[2].

Book covers
Books published by Gay Sunshine Press and the Gay Presses of New York

Gay Presses of New York

Located on the other side of the USA from Gay Sunshine Press were the Gay Presses of New York (GPNY), a collective of three publishers which, in combination, had circa 12 titles seized in the raids. In 1977, sociologist and author Larry Mitchell failed to find a publisher for his book The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, so decided to self-publish and formed Calamus Books, named after a series of poems by Walt Whitman. The same year, writer Felice Picano founded Sea Horse Press, with the intention of publishing gay poetry, beginning with a volume of his own poems. Four years later Terry Helbing, an actor, theatre journalist, and co-founder of the Gay Theatre Alliance, founded the JH Press, which focussed predominantly on works relating to gay drama. Realising not only that self-publishing was the best way for gay works to find an outlet but that collectively the three presses could publish more titles together than alone, the GPNY was founded in 1981. 

The first book published by the GPNY was Harvey Fierstein’s the Torch Song Trilogy, which was a success on Broadway and in London’s West End. A copy of the play script was seized during the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids, along with other GPNY titles including: Larry Mitchell’s own novel The Terminal Bar, which is considered the first fictional work to mention AIDS; the Gay Theatre Alliance Directory of Gay Plays listing plays featuring gay and lesbian characters; a reissue of Jane Chambers’s first novel Burning concerning suppressed lesbian love and witchesand Bob Herron’s comic novel Moritz!

Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, Hecuba’s Daughters, Diana Press

Although most of the books seized in the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids were written and published by gay men, a not insignificant number of seized texts were published by lesbian feminists.

Issue eight of the grassroots journal Common Lives/Lesbian Lives was seized by Customs who noted in their records that just one page (p.64) was ‘indecent’. Edited, typeset, printed, and bound by an Iowa City lesbian collective the journal featured prose, poetry, and art (Alison Bechdel contributed to the journal). Published from 1982 for fifteen years, the collective described the publishing process as a “[...] way dykes imagine what we want and bring it forth in defiance of a dominant culture that advocates against our very existence”.[3]

Hecuba’s Daughters, a publisher and distributor of herbs, was founded in Bearsville, New York, by Billie Potts and River Lightwomoon who were involved in feminist spirituality. The Hecuba’s Daughter title seized in the raids was Witches heal: lesbian herbal self-sufficiency which encourages lesbians to “hear and follow the witches, uncover old wyves tales, and heal ourselves”.[4] The publication of the book was controversial: former collective member Susun S. Weed claimed the book utilised her research without credit or remuneration, so she appealed to feminist bookshops not to stock the book.

Book covers
Books published by Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, Hecuba's Daughters, and Diana Press

In Baltimore in 1972, Coletta Reid and Casey Czarnik founded the Diana Press initially as a commercial print shop which later broadened into publishing works by authors including Rita Mae BrownIn 1977, Diana Press moved to Oakland, California, and merged with the Women’s Press Collective which was co-founded by Judy Grahn (the Diana Press book that was seized during ‘Operation Tiger’ was Grahn’s True to life adventure stories. Vol. 1.). Unlike several other women’s publishers, Diana Press was not a collective rather had a hierarchical structure and was open about the desire to be profitable. This stance was controversial, and in October 1977 the Press was vandalised; there was some conjecture at the time that the attack came from within the women’s movement.

Conclusion 

These glimpses of just a handful of the many publishers whose books were seized during ‘Operation Tiger’ hopefully demonstrate that focussing on the individuals and groups who provided a printed outlet for LGBTQ+ writers during the 1970s and 1980s is a fruitful way of approaching the Seized Books! online exhibition. 

You can search for publishers across the Seized Books! Gallery by:

  • Searching a publisher name in the search box at the top right of the page
  • Clicking on the ‘publisher’ field within each book’s metadata, to find other titles published by the same publisher. For example, clicking on the ‘publisher’ link for this book will take you to other titles published by Pinnacle Books (Firm). 

Footnotes and references