Skip to main content
News

Senate House Library launches ‘Seized Books!’ exhibition marking 40th anniversary of ‘Operation Tiger’ raids

Date

Written by
Siobhan Pipa

A new online exhibition marks 40 years since the infamous 1984 Operation Tiger raids on Gay's the Word bookshop.

A new online exhibition by Senate House Library at the University of London examines the censorship of LGBTQ+ literature and its lasting cultural impact. ‘Seized Books!’, which launches on 10 April, commemorates the 40th anniversary of the infamous 1984 ‘Operation Tiger’ raids, when UK Customs and Excise officers confiscated over 140 titles, and thousands of pounds worth of stock, from London's Gay's the Word bookshop, deeming them "indecent or obscene".

Through the confiscated titles and the subsequent legal battle to defend them, ‘Seized Books!’ opens up vital conversations about queer literature, reading cultures and censorship over the decades. The ‘Operation Tiger’ raids ignited a fierce legal battle and a nationwide defence campaign that united publishers, bookshops, writers and activists in a fight against state censorship. Following a two-year legal battle all charges against the defendants were dropped.

Dr Sarah Pyke from the Institute of English Studies, co-curator of the exhibition with Leila Kassir from Senate House Library, said: "Although it was only forty years ago, ‘Operation Tiger’ has been largely written out of the history of literary censorship in the UK. Spending time with the seized books for this exhibition has opened up a world of overlooked and out-of-print queer literature, from gay fiction to lesbian periodicals to novels for young LGBTQ+ adults. 

“This exhibition shows how hard LGBTQ+ people have fought - and are still fighting - to have access to books that reflect their lives, and how integral Gay's the Word was in building queer book culture and community in the UK and beyond, a role it still plays today."

The exhibition draws from the Haud Nominandum collection at Senate House Library, the personal library of Jonathan Cutbill, co-founder and a director of Gay's the Word. Prior to his death in 2019, Cutbill donated his collection of over 30,000 LGBTQ+-themed books to the library, providing a unique opportunity to revisit the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids and their lasting impact on queer literature and activism. 

"Seized Books!" is a collaboration between Senate House Library, the Digital Humanities Research Hub at the School of Advanced Study, Gay's the Word and community partners. Through a digital platform, the exhibition encourages visitors to engage with queer literature both from the perspective of the defiant 1980s and the present day.

Michael Donnay, Manager at the Digital Humanities Research Hub and co-ordinator of the Seized Books project, said: “This project has been an excellent opportunity to bring together the expertise and incredible collections of Senate House Library, researchers from the School of Advanced Study, and members of the queer community in London to shape a deeper understanding of this important moment in British history.”

Graham McKerrow, Editor of Capital Gay, a weekly newspaper, from 1981 to 1989 and a co-ordinator of the Defend Gay’s the Word campaign in 1986, said: “Our community was on the fringes of society and targeted by the state – by violent homophobia from the police and frequent raids on our bars, with little protection from the courts; there was also routine prejudice from employers, trade unions, religious leaders, the media and street thugs. It is an astonishing journey to now have a team of academics at a leading institution researching ‘Operation Tiger’ and the events that followed, which were an attempt to isolate us from international thought, research and the possibilities about what our lives might be.

“I am thrilled by the launch of this exhibition, which makes available to academics and the general public some of the fruits of this research and reveals, after four decades of being ignored, the wicked attempt to prohibit the importation of queer books and newspapers into this country with seizures from Dover on the south coast to Prestwick in Scotland. They even seized books about Aids, the disease that was ravaging our community and killing our friends. As a result of Customs and Excise’s activities, the NHS had to smuggle copies of The Joy of Gay Sex into the country to educate its staff.”

“Customs sustained this campaign of harassment for more than two years and brought 100 charges against nine staff and volunteer directors of the shop and threatened them with jail. Within days of the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids, a defence campaign and fund were launched and as Customs escalated their seizures and brought criminal charges, so the campaign and fund had to escalate its response until they won an important victory for an oppressed community and for free speech.

“If Gay’s the Word had not fought back, Customs would have destroyed thousands of volumes of hundreds of titles and no one would have been able to import queer fiction or non-fiction, poetry or sociological works. I am delighted that the seized books are now available for all to see in the gallery of the Seized Books! website.

“This exhibition exposes an extraordinary attempt at state censorship that has been largely ignored for 40 years.”

Queer Between the Covers (University of London Press, 2021), which was co-authored by exhibition curator Leila Kassir further explores the history of radical queer publishing and literature's role in community building, self-expression and political resistance against censorship - including a chapter from Graham McKerrow on the the Defend Gay's the Word campaign.

Exhibition details

The online exhibition launches on 10 April 2024 at www.london.ac.uk/seized-books. A digital screen and window display will be available at Gay's the Word from 11-18 April, and selected books will be on display at Senate House Library throughout April.

About Jonathan Cutbill and the Haud Nominandum Collection

Jonathan [John Louis] Cutbill (1937-2019) was a bookseller, book collector, civil servant and gay rights campaigner. 

With Ernest Hole and Peter Dorey, Cutbill founded the Gay’s the Word bookstall which developed into Gay’s the Word bookshop in 1979. Cutbill was one of the bookshop’s directors and it was in this role that he became a defendant in the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids and proposed trial. 

Over many decades, Cutbill collected approximately 30,000 English language books covering LGBTQ+ literature, social science, and history, alongside numerous pamphlets, newspapers, and cuttings. As Andrew Lumsden noted in his entry about Jonathan Cutbill in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the collection is the “greatest of known personal English-language LGBT+ collections”. 

Before his death in 2019, Cutbill gifted his collection to Senate House Library, where it is currently held as a special collection. Most of the books on display in the Seized Books! exhibition are from this collection, which is formally called the Haud Nominandum collection, a Latin phrase chosen by Cutbill which broadly translates as ‘that which cannot be named’.