For 40 years, London-based queer bookshop Gay’s the Word has played a vital role in Britain’s LGBTQ rights movement.
Since its founding in 1979 by gay activists who were encouraged by the rise of queer bookstores in the United States, Gay’s the Word has been a hub for a diverse range of organizations, including the Lesbian Discussion Group, TransLondon, and, perhaps most notably, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.
Uli Lenart, manager of the bookshop, believes the London institution is just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. “When I think of all the lives that have been enriched by the bookshop over its history I find it near dizzying,” he tells NewNowNext.
“Yes, I’m biased because I’m blessed enough to work here, but I think Gay’s the Word’s existence and ongoing viability is of crucial importance for the LGBTQ community,” Lenart continues.
London urgently needs more community spaces like Gay’s the Word, which is open during the day and provides a safe space for all members of the community without judgment or exclusive policies, unlike many of the capital’s nightclubs. From gay nightclub XXL being accused of femmephobia for refusing entry to anyone wearing “women’s clothing” to the owner of G-A-Y nightclub implying that people from Somalia are partly to blame for rising crime levels, it’s clear the London club scene isn’t as inclusive as it needs to be.
The number of LGBTQ venues in London fell by 58% from 2006 to 2017, seeing 72 venues close down over this period. This negative trend slightly reversed in 2018, as three new LGBTQ spaces opened in the city, but a great number of historic spaces have been shuttered in recent years, displacing countless communities and increasing the cultural importance of Gay’s the Word.
“It’s a point of almost ethical principle for me that the community retains its own space to curate and share our own canon of literature and ideas. Books written by us, for us, which we collate and share through this independent forum,” Lenart says, noting that the number of books for sale written by trans and non-binary writers has increased.
The introduction of a genuinely inclusive LGBTQ bookshop was groundbreaking in 1979, with Gay’s the Word managing to maintain its radical attitude past its 40th birthday. The bookshop has been recognized by countless LGBTQ icons, organizations, and authors. However, its status as an LGBTQ landmark was cemented when it played a central role in the award-winning film, Pride.
Released in 2014, Pride focused on the efforts by Welsh miners and London’s LGB community to oppose the policies enacted by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners using Gay’s the Word as their headquarters in London.
While Pride introduced a new generation to the pivotal role Gay’s the Word had in the fight for full LGBTQ equality, few are aware of the struggle that was required to simply open this cultural institution.
Gay’s the Word founder Ernest Hole struggled to obtain a lease from the local council to open the bookshop simply because it catered to the queer community. In Britain in the ’70s, the LGBTQ community was regularly negatively portrayed in the media, with their legal rights falling far short of the equality of today. Not only were same-sex sexual acts illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland during the 1970s, but, in England, the age of consent for gay sex was 21 compared to 16 for straight sex.
“This was at a time of vitriolic and institutionalized homophobic prejudice. The bookshop is an example of late-’70s left-wing LGBTQ activism and community social change,” Lenart says.
A handful of other LGBTQ bookshops opened soon after Gay’s the Word, including West and Wilde in Edinburgh, Out in Brighton, and Silver Moon in London, but all have since closed. According to Lenart, Gay’s the Word has just about managed to hang on in the face of increasing rents, the advent of ebooks, and the rise of online booksellers like Amazon.
“Independent bookshops—even those who do an incredible amount of social care and community work like us—are under severe threat due to economic gentrification and the enduring consequences of recession and economic uncertainty,” Lenart adds. “It’s tough out there, so I’m not surprised we are the only dedicated LGBTQ London bookshop.”
LGBTQ books were extremely hard to find in traditional shops when Gay’s the Word opened. The bookshop introduced many seminal works to the country’s LGBTQ population, including books written by Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood.
But British authorities originally viewed the bookshop as an adult store and raided it in 1984, seizing 144 titles and thousands of British pounds’ worth of stock in the process. U.K. Customs and Excise considered a number of the books as obscene, and prosecuted staff and directors of Gay’s the Word, leading to a high-profile fundraising campaign to support the store.
Today, Gay’s the Word stands as an enduring symbol of pride, with visitors from around the world traveling to see this singular cultural attraction. Unlike when the shop opened all those years ago, all types of LGBTQ books are now widely available online. But online bookstores can’t replace the tangible sense of community and kinship felt by queer people who make real-life connections at Gay’s the Word.
It’s not just the customers who have been affected by this bookshop. Lenart has been working at Gay’s the Word for 14 years and first found the telephone number for the bookshop in the back of the Time Out magazine diary.
“I was born in and grew up in London, but up until that point, I didn’t even know the bookshop existed. I called up and asked if there were any jobs going—that day my life changed forever in the best way possible,” he says.
As London continues to change around this small bookshop, Lenart hopes the 40th anniversary of Gay’s the Word, a resource that has helped generations of queer people find out more about their community, will remain a London fixture long into the future.
“It’s a moment to take stock, be thankful, and appreciate the quiet power and importance of this little space. To reflect on the bravery, tenacity, and vision of the people who founded the bookshop and have tended it over the years.”
“To raise a glass to the past, while valuing today and look forward to the future, and to say thank you to all the authors, volunteers, and—most importantly—customers who have supported us over the years,” concludes Lenart. “Without them we wouldn’t be here.”