Gay’s the Word, London’s first gay bookshop, opened in Bloomsbury’s Marchmont Street, in January 1979. Inspired by lesbian and gay bookstores in the States, a small group of people from Gay Icebreakers, a gay socialist group, founded the store in 1979. Initial reluctance from Camden Council to grant a lease to the bookstore was overcome with help from Ken Livingstone, then a Camden councilor.
From the beginning, Gays the Word has been more than shop – the space has served as a community and information resource for lesbians and gay men. Hundreds of people drop by every week to pick up the free gay papers, hang out in the back, drink tea or coffee or check out the free noticeboard detailing numberless gay organisations and upcoming events. Sadly the piano, centrepiece of the musical evenings of the early days has since vanished…
Organisations using the shop as a meeting place over the years include Icebreakers, the Lesbian Discussion Group (still going after 27 years) Gay Black Group, the Gay Disabled Group and TransLondon.
Gay books weren’t generally available in ordinary bookstores, and for a while most of the bookshop’s stock came mainly from the vibrant US gay publishing scene. It was only in the ‘80s that lesbian and gay publishers like Gay Men’s Press, Brilliance Books, Onlywomen Press and Third House were established in Britain. This shortage of gay books meant that initially a fair amount of the stock was imported. This was to lead to trouble…
On 10th April 1984 Customs and Excise officers raided London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop and seized all their imported books. This was the start of so-called ‘Operation Tiger’. The operation also included raids on the homes of the shop’s directors and the retention of thousands of pounds worth of other imported books at their ports of entry.
The basis for this assault was the Customs Consolidation Act of 1876. Just as rightwing christian moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse had used archaic blasphemy laws to prosecute Gay News in 1977, the British government was using antiquated legislation to attack this gay community bookshop. The 1876 Act is, in effect, a way of skirting round the provisions of the much more realistic Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
This latter Act allows for the defence of publications on the grounds of literary or artistic merit. However, it only applies to documents published in the UK. The Customs Consolidation Act, on the other hand, does not allow such a defence to be applied to imported material.
Given that the UK’s lesbian and gay publishing industry was still relatively small at that time, it follows that an LGBT community bookshop would necessarily seek stock from abroad.
But it was clear that Customs and Excise decreed any book imported by GTW to be obscene and, therefore, seized. This ‘obscene’ material included works by Oscar Wilde, Armistead Maupin, Tennessee Williams, Kate Millet and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Some works – such as The Joy of Gay Sex and the Joy of Lesbian Sex – were sexually explicit, yet their heterosexual equivalent (Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex) was never subjected to such measures. It seemed that Her Majesty’s Government saw ‘homosexuality’ and ‘obscenity’ as one and the same thing.
‘Operation Tiger’ represented a massive assault on Gay’s the Word. The raid on the bookshop itself had led to around one third of its stock being removed. They were also advised that a further £12,000 of stock had been seized in transit. And in October they received a further 20 seizure notices detailing 144 titles, many of which were standard academic texts.
This immediate and unanticipated withholding of stock obviously generated financial pressures for GTW. But there was another, less obvious, impact as Customs played its arbitrary game of censorship. Paul Hegarty, who worked at the shop at that time, said that books were occasionally released by Customs. However, when they were received they were generally damaged as a result of poor treatment ‘in custody’. In consequence, it was impossible to sell them at their full market price so another financial loss was incurred.
And then there were the legal costs. In December the shop’s eight volunteer Directors and member of staff, Paul Hegarty were charged with “conspiracy to import indecent or obscene material”. In spite of the huge outcry that had greeted the initial seizures, HM Customs were determined to keep up the assault.
Support for GTW came from a wide range of sources. Obviously the LGBT community got behind the bookshop, helping to raise money for a defence fund. But many other people also saw the prosecutions for what they really were – a serious assault on civil rights and freedom of expression. Authors, the book industry, MPs, civil rights groups, Trade Unions and many others also gave their support. Leftwing gay pop act the Communards made their first public appearance at a GTW benefit at Heaven in London.
Somewhat bizarrely, it would appear that German sex dolls had a key role to play in the case eventually being dropped.
Some months prior to GTW’s case being brought to court in June 1985, a company called Conegate had tried to import sex dolls from West Germany. HM Customs seized these as “indecent or obscene articles” but the company had fought back. They took their case all the way to the European Court arguing that there was no restriction on manufacturing the same items in the UK, therefore a ban on imports was a restriction on trade.
They won their case and it set enough of a precedent for the judge in the GTW case to throw it out of court. Customs and Excise also dropped the charges but no apology has ever been received from them or the Government for this orchestrated attack on an LGBT institution.
So Gay’s the Word lived to fight another day – although they still have to contend with other problems such as rising rents, online retailers like Amazon and, sadly, homophobic attacks on the premises…
Nicked from the excellent Gay in the 80s site
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online