Barbara Grier dies at 78; co-founder of lesbian publishing house

Barbara Grier, a pathbreaking publisher who challenged mainstream prejudices to make literature by and about lesbians widely available in the United States and abroad, has died. She was 78.

Grier, a founder of Naiad Press, died of lung cancer Thursday in Tallahassee, Fla., said her longtime partner, Donna McBride.

Grier and McBride launched Naiad Press in 1973 with a $2,000 loan and built it into a $1-million business. By the time it folded in 2003, it had published more than 500 titles by authors such as Rita Mae Brown, Katherine V. Forrest, Jane Rule and Sheila Ortiz Taylor.

"She created Naiad Press because the mainstream would not publish any of our books," Forrest, whose career was launched by Naiad in 1983 with the publication of her novel "Curious Wine," told The Times on Friday. "Her accomplishments are just monumental, given the obstacles she faced. There was such virulent homophobia. Barbara was nothing if not fearless."

Before she and McBride, a former librarian, started Naiad, lesbian literature consisted primarily of pulp fiction written by men whose protagonists generally ended up one of three ways: They married a man, went crazy or killed themselves.

Grier wanted to provide lesbian readers with stories that could help them lead happier lives.

"I have always believed that the best thing I might leave behind is a world in which any woman, anywhere, might say to herself 'I am a lesbian' and be able to go to a nearby store or library and find a book that will say to her, 'Yes, you are a lesbian, and you are wonderful,' " she told gay historian Jim Kepner some years ago.

Naiad published primarily romances and mysteries, but its top-selling book was the nonfiction "Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence" (1985) by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, which presented the accounts of 51 women, most of whom had been Roman Catholic nuns. It sold 500,000 copies and gave Naiad Press a national profile.

Born in Cincinnati on Nov. 4, 1933, and reared in Detroit, Grier was aware of her sexual orientation as a girl. When she was 12, she told her mother she was a homosexual — a word she learned from her physician-father's medical books.

Her mother, who came from a theatrical family, took an enlightened view of her daughter's declaration.

"Because Mother and I were always open with each other, I told her immediately," Grier said in the book "Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context" by Vern L. Bullough. "Mother said since I was a woman, I wasn't a homosexual, I was a lesbian. She also said that since I was 12 I was a little young to make this decision and we should wait six months to tell the newspapers."

When Grier was 18, she entered a long-term relationship with a woman 20 years her senior. They moved to Denver and later to Kansas City, Kan., where they both worked for the public library.

In 1957, Grier began writing a column for the pioneering lesbian magazine The Ladder. She became its editor in 1968 and publisher in 1970. When she tried to give the magazine a more feminist orientation, its benefactor withdrew funding and the publication closed in 1972.

She met McBride in 1971 and soon after ended her relationship with the older woman. They launched Naiad Press two years later with financing from a retired attorney, Anyda Marchant, and Marchant's partner, Muriel Crawford. The first book they published was a romance novel Marchant wrote under the pseudonym Sarah Aldridge called "Latecomer."

Forrest, who worked as Naiad's supervising editor from 1984 to 1994, said Grier and McBride overcame many obstacles, including homophobic printers and cover artists who refused to work for a lesbian press. But it gradually established itself as a major force, creating a market for lesbian writing, including Rule's classic "Outlander," a collection of stories and essays about the lives of lesbians.

Other specialized presses and bookstores emerged in the wake of Naiad's success, including Bella Books, the Tallahassee press that took over Naiad's inventory and authors when Grier and McBride retired eight years ago.

In addition to McBride, Grier is survived by two sisters, Diane Grier of Willard, Mo., and Penni Martin of Denton, Texas.