GAY’S THE WORD

The UK’s most fa­mous LGBT+ book­shop is cel­e­brat­ing its 40th an­niver­sary hav­ing ne­go­ti­ated a fair share of plot twists over the years

Attitude - - Contents - As told to Thomas Stich­bury Pho­tog­ra­phy Leon Cser­nolavek

The UK’s LGBT+ book­shop turns 40

Books of­ten of­fer an escape from the real world, a tem­po­rary time out from what­ever is­sues or prob­lems you may be deal­ing with. In many ways, Gay’s The Word book­shop pro­vides that same sense of es­capism for LGBT+ peo­ple. Si­t­u­ated on March­mont Street in Blooms­bury, Lon­don, the lit­er­ary haven is free of the judg­ment and prej­u­dice mem­bers of the com­mu­nity may face else­where.

Founded by Ernest Hole in 1979, the UK’s first book­shop de­voted to queer lit­er­a­ture cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary on 17 Jan­uary. To mark the mile­stone, we asked man­ager Jim MacSweeney, who has worked there for more than 30 years, to leaf through its rich his­tory, from its role in the legacy of LGBT+ rights to his fu­ture hopes, in an in­sight­ful, funny and touch­ing in­ter­view with his as­sis­tant ( and our book re­viewer) Uli Le­nart.

Uli: So, Gay’s The Word is mark­ing its 40th an­niver­sary. What does that mean to you and the LGBT+ com­mu­nity? Jim:

I feel great sat­is­fac­tion and pride that we’ve hit 40. It started off on very lit­tle money, where peo­ple came to­gether and put 100 quid here, 200 quid there, and any money made has gone back into the shop. Most les­bian and gay book­shops around the world have closed, so for Gay’s The Word to still be here and thriv­ing, not just sur­viv­ing, is ex­tra­or­di­nary.

Do you see this as an oc­ca­sion for the UK and, in­deed, global LGBT+ com­mu­nity to cel­e­brate?

In the past decade, we’ve seen main­stream shops such as Barnes & Noble and Borders in the US, and Water­stones here, open gay sec­tions. Then, with the rise of on­line book- sell­ing, it felt there was a point, “Well, why would you go to a book­shop when you can or­der on­line, or down­load?” But peo­ple aren’t com­ing in to “sup­port” us, there is no feel­ing of “we should”, they come in be­cause they en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence. They come into a place that’s very spe­cial, an LGBT+ space that is safe and wel­com­ing. A young cou­ple on a date came in last month and their joy was pal­pa­ble as they looked around. They were a bit bash­ful but their eyes opened as they could see what was there in front of them. It’s their book­shop. Wher­ever else they may be “other” they’re not “other” here. I also re­mem­ber an Amer­i­can, long hair, shaved one side, com­ing up with some books. As they went to pay, they burst into tears: “You don’t un­der­stand, I come from a small town, to be here in this space is so mov­ing,” they said. They were here for half an hour, talk­ing about their ex­pe­ri­ences and some of the shit they’ve put up with, and how here they felt at one. When you leave the book­shop, you go back into the world strength­ened.

It sounds as if see­ing new gen­er­a­tions dis­cover and cher­ish the book­shop is re­new­ing for you?

Com­pletely. It’s never been just about sell­ing books. You want to em­power peo­ple, have them dis­cover their lit­er­a­ture, books that are for them. It changes how you ne­go­ti­ate the world, to know that peo­ple have gone be­fore you, that you’re not the only one like this. We see the very best of the LGBT+ com­mu­nity; par­ents come in buy­ing books for their 16 year old who has just come out, or com­ing in with their 16 year old and let­ting them choose the books.

I think we’re also here to help peo­ple and re­fer them to sources of sup­port when they do face chal­lenges. There’s a lot of ad­vo­cacy work.

There’s lots of lis­ten­ing. I’m also moved by young peo­ple when they’re deal­ing with their sex­u­al­ity. I’m from a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion but the guts and con­fi­dence they have… There was a young woman, prob­a­bly 14, talk­ing about how she was chal­leng­ing some­thing in the Girl Guides re­gard­ing space for les­bians. I shook her hand. You go, girl!

When you leave the book­shop, you go back into the world strength­ened

Can you re­mem­ber the first time you vis­ited Gay’s The Word?

I came to England from Ire­land in 1982/ 83, I was 22 and hadn’t dealt with my sex­u­al­ity. I got to the door and couldn’t go in be­cause I thought ev­ery­one would “know” so I walked round the block and went in the sec­ond time. Then I started com­ing to Ice­break­ers, a gay so­cial­ist dis­cus­sion group, and friends who I met there con­tinue to be among my clos­est.

Tell us about your friend and former man­ager Paud Heg­garty. You took over from him in 1997.

He was in­tel­li­gent, had strong views and didn’t suf­fer fools — I got away with a lot [ laughs]. He was very kind as well. Last year [ 2018] a bag of gay badges from the 1980s was found in a South Lon­don at­tic, they be­longed to Paud, who died in 2000, and are now framed in store ( above). The story went vi­ral on Twit­ter and there were lots of com­ments from peo­ple re­mem­ber­ing him. For me, he is the shop. A ba­ton is passed and you try to run with it. When we were go­ing through bad times, it was im­por­tant to me that I didn’t drop it. I would have felt guilty. We came through, what­ever hap­pened, I can breathe, I didn’t drop the ba­ton.

Why was Gay’s The Word set up in the first place?

A guy called Ernest Hole had been in New York in the late 1960s. He be­came friendly with Craig Rod­well, who set up the Os­car Wilde Memo­rial book­shop, the first of the modern gay book­shops. Ernest wanted to do the same thing when he came back to Lon­don. It was also a meet­ing space from the start for the Gay Black Group, the Ir­ish Gay Net­work, the Les­bian Dis­cus­sion Group, and Ice­break­ers, which young gay so­cial­ists such as [ ac­tivist] Mark Ash­ton used to come along to. Sub­se­quently, we got Les­bian and Gays Sup­port the Miners in 1984 [ doc­u­mented in 2014 film Pride]. Lots of the early gay Prides were or­gan­ised from the book­shop, too. It was a hive of ac­tivism.

And it was a com­mu­nity re­source in a pre- in­ter­net age.

That’s what I was get­ting at — I can’t be­lieve you’ve stolen my words [ laughs]! We had no­tice­boards at the back for flat shares, per­sonal ads, no­tices on dif­fer­ent groups who were meet­ing. There would even be ads for peo­ple want­ing to marry to stay in the coun­try, or for peo­ple in the armed forces, all of which was il­le­gal, so you’d have to ask at the desk and you would then be given that in­for­ma­tion.

The raid was an at­tack on what we were read­ing, what we were al­lowed to read

What are the big­gest chal­lenges Gay’s The Word has had to face over the years?

The big­gest was the raid in 1984 when Cus­toms and Ex­cise took away lots of the Amer­i­can stock, charg­ing the di­rec­tors and staff [ with con­spir­acy to im­port in­de­cent ma­te­rial]. They prob­a­bly as­sumed it was a porn shop. It was an at­tack on what we were read­ing, what we were al­lowed to read. Some of the books that were seized in­cluded The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Les­bian Sex, [ even though] the straight equiv­a­lent was avail­able.

Do you be­lieve part of the rea­son the shop was raided was the cli­mate of en­demic and in­sti­tu­tion­alised ho­mo­pho­bic prej­u­dice at the time?

Yes. They went with the charges, we had to fight it for two years and lots of money had to be raised. The com­mu­nity was out­raged be­cause wher­ever else they ex­pected to be raided, they didn’t ex­pect Gay’s The Word.

It takes re­silience and for­ti­tude to look af­ter and safe­guard this place from the very oc­ca­sional ha­rass­ment that hap­pens. Have you ever re­flected on the ex­tra­or­di­nary strength of char­ac­ter that you have?

Gosh! You’ve knocked me for six… I would re­gard my­self as a quiet, gen­tle in­tro­verted per­son but some­times you have to hold this space if there is an at­tack from out­side. Most of the time, if you’re get­ting has­sle, they don’t come in, you’ve just got to take a deep breath, try to dif­fuse the si­t­u­a­tion. When a win­dow gets bro­ken, it’s an ir­ri­ta­tion. Th­ese days, with so­cial me­dia, you get such an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sponse, you feel re­ally held. That’s what I re­mem­ber rather than the dick­heads who com­mit­ted the act. I’ve cer­tainly never thought of my­self as brave or any­thing [ like that].

What are your hopes for the fu­ture of the book­shop?

New peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing us, and I hope it con­tin­ues to go from strength to strength, rather than be­ing yes­ter­day’s man. More of the same, please.

READ­ING FROM THE SAME PAGE: Jim MacSweeney, right, and Uli Le­nart

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