— Donna McBride, co-founder of Naiad Press
In the 1980s and 1990s, Tallahassee was home to Naiad Press, one of the largest and earliest publishers of lesbian literature in the United States. Twelve recently recorded oral histories form the basis of this exhibition, which explores the social and cultural life of Naiad and the vitality and affirmation one feels when one sees people like themselves on the page, whole and complex and alive. Women and transmasculine people who worked for the press and who lived in Tallahassee during this period shared their stories about Naiad, about co-founders Barbara Grier and Donna McBride, and about their experiences in the local lesbian scene. Drawing heavily on these interviews as well as on personal photographs, local news coverage, an exhibition lending library, and other historical documents and objects, this exhibition looks at what Naiad meant to the people involved with it and how Naiad provided lifelines to women-loving women.
McBride’s quote illustrates three themes that are strong throughout the interviews and that we have used to organize the exhibition: the discovery of oneself through literature and other forms of culture; the work of operating a publishing company, and of living openly as lesbian-identified women in a homophobic society; and the community that emerged as women collaboratively worked, loved, and expressed themselves creatively and politically.
In 1973, Naiad Press was formed by retired couple Anyda Marchant and Muriel Crawford, Barbara Grier, and her partner, Donna McBride. While the press would eventually become one of the oldest and largest lesbian publishing companies, it started from humble beginnings. With a modest $2,000 startup and Marchant’s manuscripts, much of the press’s revenue in the 1970s came from the sales of Marchant’s books, which were under the pen name Sarah Aldridge. While Naiad Press is recognized as one of the first lesbian presses, it was originally not well-known.
It was Grier and McBride who believed that the press should expand to include many works of lesbian literature. They advocated for the pivotal role of lesbian literature in allowing women to be seen. In 1980, the couple moved from Kansas City to Tallahassee to be closer to Marchant and Crawford’s winter home in Lighthouse Point, Florida. In 1981, the press received one of its first large successes in Sheila Ortiz Taylor’s Faultline. Two years later, Katherine V. Forrest’s Curious Wine became another popular (and now widely considered classic) lesbian novel. However, it was the explosive and controversial Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, edited by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, that sprang the press into mainstream notoriety.
Despite these original titles, Naiad Press is also attributed for recirculating lesbian classic literature. Patricia Highsmith’s Price of Salt, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart, and Gertrude Stein’s Lifting Belly are all examples of works that were given new life by the press. Marchant and Crawford left Naiad Press due to legal disputes. Despite the rift between founders, the press continued to be as large as it had ever been. Their mailing list was 26,000 by 1998. The press continued to stay with its mission of publishing lesbian literature, publishing at least one title a month.
Soon after the turn of the century, Naiad Press shuttered with the retirement of Barbara Grier, after nearly 30 years in business. Many of their titles and authors were moved to Bella Books, a lesbian publishing company that still operates in Tallahassee to this day.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of the following outstanding contributors: Annie Booth, Allison Boroff, Jay Estelow, Michael David Franklin, Zeke Greenwood, Kelly Hendrickson, Nadia Rassech, Lilliana Reinoso, Grace Robbins, RaeAnn Quick, Theo Smith.
Organizers of this exhibition would like to thank the San Francisco Public Library and the following Florida State University partners for their generous assistance and support: the Honors Program; the Museum of Fine Arts; Special Collections; the Project Enhancement Network and Incubator program in Digital Research and Scholarship at FSU Libraries; the Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement; and the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Thanks to Katherine V. Forrest and Stephanie Andrea Allen for their exhibition catalog essays.
Finally, we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the oral history narrators who shared their memories and stories with us: Vicki Combs, Candis Creekmore, Joan Denman, Dana Farmer, Katherine Forrest, Alex Jaeger, Adrien, Donna McBride, Amy McDonald, Sheila Ortiz Taylor, Rita Mae Reese, and Sarah Schulman.
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