Jesse's Journal: LGBT Heroes: Cleve Jones and Barbara Grier

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This week SFGN recognizes our community’s “Out 50.” However, even as we honor today’s LGBT heroes, we should also look back and remember those individuals who made our community what it is today. Unlike today, when leading an LGBT community organization is often a profession, the heroes of the 1960s and 1970s were volunteer leaders of a movement. And while being out is now a given, the individuals of the sixties and seventies were openly lesbian or gay, bisexual or transgender, at a time when most of us were still in our closets. What would our community be without the likes of Harry Hay, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Jack Nichols or Harvey Milk? Even in South Florida we owe much to the likes of Frank Arango, Staci Aker, Bob Basker, Edda Cimino, Rev. Joseph Gilbert, Jay Freier and Tom Bradshaw. Milk is still remembered, thanks to the movie of the same name and his nephews work. How will we remember the others?

Two of our leading LGBT icons made a joint appearance in Miami in 1981, as Grand Marshals for that year’s Gay Pride Parade. One of the Marshals, Cleve Jones, is well-known as Milk’s protégé and the creator of the AIDS Quilt. The other Marshal, Barbara Grier, though not as famous, is perhaps the most important person in the herstory of lesbian literature. Though Grier did not write any major works of fiction or non-fiction, she promoted “lesbian” as a lesbian book collector, critic, bibliographer (The Lesbian in Literature) and publisher (Naiad Press). I was an active member of Pride at the time, and I got to meet both Jones and Grier. However, I established a greater rapport with Grier, if only because I was one of the few male book critics who reviewed lesbian books. Grier added me to her list of reviewers who received copies of Naiad books and I tried to return the compliment by writing about most of the books she sent me.

Cleve Jones, who is a year younger than me, needs no help on my part to get the recognition that he deserves. Jones, after all, is the main character of When We Rise, an ABC TV miniseries about the LGBT movement in San Francisco. Jones is also the author of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (Hachette Books), a memoir of his eventful life that is as interesting as the series that he appears in. But Barbara Grier (1933-2011), though no longer with us, is finally getting her due. Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier (Bella Books) is a long-overdue biography by Joanne Passet, author of Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeanette Howard Foster. (Foster’s 1956 classic, Sex Variant Women in Literature was an inspiration for Grier and everyone else who came after them.) Here we read about Grier’s early days as a lesbian in the Midwest; her relationships with Helen Bennett and Donna McBride; her work with the pioneer lesbian journal The Ladder; and her years she spent encouraging and browbeating lesbian authors as head of the Naiad Press. Grier was not an easy person to work with, as many disgruntled former Naiad writers and workers told Passet. However, even Grier’s greatest critics recognize her contributions to lesbian lit and to the LGBT community as a whole. Like all of us, Grier and Jones have or had their share of faults, but these are outweighed by their virtues, talents and contributions.

Though I do not read as many LGBT books today as I did when I wrote “The Book Nook,” I still keep an eye out for good books; especially non-fiction titles that educate and inspire our community and our movement. Both When We Rise (the book and the series) and Indomitable make major contributions to LGBT studies and to the history of our community through the lives of a man and a woman who gave us much. They inspire us at a time when our progress is endangered, both from above and from below.


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