A Short History of Gay Men’s Press

Aubrey Walter and myself, David Fernbach, had been living together since 1965. We were very involved in the political struggles of that decade, especially the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. We were out as a gay couple by the standards of the time, but we didn’t see our gayness as a political issue. That began to change when we heard reports from the Gay Liberation movement in the US; Aubrey spent the summer of 1970 in America, where he immersed himself in the new politics. He also met Bob Mellors, and once back in England they called a meeting to found the London Gay Liberation Front.

In his introduction to Come Together,[1]a collection of pieces from the GLF paper, Aubrey related that exciting phase in the gay movement. It was also through GLF that Richard Dipple became a close friend, and came to live with us in 1972.

[1]Reissued in 2018 by Verso.

Though the utopian aspirations of GLF burned themselves out, the energy it had generated inspired a flowering of new ventures – from social venues to theatre troupes, switchboards and helplines to chess and rugby clubs, as well as a professional newspaper (Gay News). It took a while, however, until this energy percolated into the world of books, though the 1970s saw the launch of many radical publishers – Verso, Pluto, Writers and Readers, Women’s Press and Zed, to name some of the most prominent. But gay publishing was already under way in the US, and the opening of Gay’s The Word bookshop in 1979 signalled a possible space for a gay book publisher in Britain.

Aubrey and I were both 34 at the time, Richard was 28; between us we had a range of skills quite relevant to the publishing trade. Aubrey had a background in art and graphic design, and had worked as a bookseller in the 1960s. Richard managed a bookshop in north London; though his degree was in sociology, his focus of interest was always English literature. I was a freelance editor and translator.

Richard Dipple (1951-1991)

We initially had no plan to start a regular publishing house. What set the ball rolling was looking through the old copies of Come Together, and an unwillingness to see this side of Gay Liberation, with its heady aspirations and rich imaginative content, be forgotten with the shift in the movement towards civil rights and law reform. But as we began to work on this one book, ideas for other possible publications followed. A few months earlier I had discovered Mario Mieli’s Elementi da critica omosessuale, and tried to interest Verso in an English edition. Their negative response highlighted for me the gap in publishing that we could fill. On 1 August 1979, we officially set up Gay Men’s Press as a legal partnership, preparing to publish our first titles the next spring. These would be the Mario Mieli book, translated as Homosexuality and Liberation,[2]and Army of Lovers, interviews with a wide spectrum of gay movements in the US by the filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim. Come Togetherfollowed in autumn 1980, along with The Men With the Pink Triangleby Heinz Heger, a unique first-hand account of the sufferings of gay prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps.[3]

[2]Reissued in 2019 by Pluto in an expanded edition, as Towards a Gay Communism.

[3]The Men With the Pink Triangle remained our all-time bestseller, though the bulk of the sales were in the US, where we had licensed the book to Alyson Publications.

[2]Reissued in 2019 by Pluto in an expanded edition, as Towards a Gay Communism.

[3]The Men With the Pink Triangle remained our all-time bestseller, though the bulk of the sales were in the US, where we had licensed the book to Alyson Publications.

Aubrey creating the Gay Men’s Press logo, summer 1979

These books all featured the distinctive Gay Men’s Press logo with its symmetrical faces. And on the frontispiece they carried our statement of principles: ‘Gay Men’s Press is an independent publishing project set up to serve the gay community and promote the aims of gay liberation’. This made clear that we saw ourselves as a movement project rather than a commercial one. Within a few years, however, as our output expanded and we took on paid staff, the inevitable compromises led us to drop this maxim.

After a good start in our first year, the five books we published in 1981 made less of an impact, though that autumn saw two important developments. Aubrey brought out the first book in his art series, Tom Pilgrim’s Progress by Mario Dubsky,[4]and our fiction list was launched with a collection of short stories, Cracks in the Image. Here Richard published the first works of both Adam Mars-Jones and Simon Burt, and attracted David Rees and other established authors who went on to produce competent novels for our list.

[4]The full title of this book of drawings was Tom Pilgrim’s Progress Among the Consequences of Christianity. It came with an introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith.

Even at this early stage our list was marked by its diversity; it was a great strength that the three of us had distinct but complementary interests. As yet, however, we were still working from home, and both Richard and I had to continue our former jobs.

It was in our third publishing year, 1982, that we began to make a stronger mark in both sales terms and profile. David Rees’s novel The Milkman’s On His Wayappeared in the spring, and the combination of a sexy but sensitive coming-out story with a striking cover proved a winning formula. Our lead title for the autumn was Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England, reviewed the same day in glowing terms by both Christopher Hill in the Observer and Hugh Trevor‑Roper in the Sunday Times. Though the two autumn novels were less remarkable, Ian Everton’s Alienationpresented a rare fictional portrait of a Gay Liberation group in a northern city.

After the first couple of years, we had to decide whether to remain a very small ‘kitchen-table’ operation, or develop into a more professional outfit. We reorganised ourselves as a limited company, GMP Publishers Ltd, and I followed Aubrey in giving up outside work to devote myself completely to our business. Before long, Richard was able to follow.

The future direction we would take was influenced by two particular factors. First of all, we had a beneficial cooperation with Alyson Publications in Boston, the closest to us in spirit of the US gay publishers. They started publishing in the same year as us, having already built up a network as a distributor of radical books. They distributed our books in the US (though never exclusively, given the great distances involved), while we marketed their list in Britain along with our own. This prompted the decision to take on the distribution side ourselves – in keeping with the ‘movementist’ philosophy. John Duncan, who had previously run Gay’s The Word, now joined us as sales manager. It led in due course to our handling other foreign publishers as well, mainly American but also the Spartacus guide. But having our own sales team meant pressure to produce a greater output, and take on titles rather further from our centre of interest.

A small extra in this mix was Heretic Books. Aubrey and I wanted the facility to publish occasional books of radical politics beyond the specifically gay, contributing to the Green movement that was just finding its feet. This always remained a modest add-on to the growing Gay Men’s Press list, though it also brought the US publisher New Society into our distribution package, and led GMP to be selected as book trade distributor of the Green Party programme in the 1987 election. It was also under the Heretic imprint that we published Peter Tatchell’s first book, The Battle for Bermondsey, the story of the infamous 1982 by-election.

In the initial period, our output was limited by lack of financial resources. We had realised from the start that book publishing was capital-intensive, and in this stage were prepared to wait until income from sales made new titles possible. Our print-runs were generally 2,500 to 3,000, and would rarely rise above this. But although two of our first few books needed reprinting within a year (The Men With the Pink Triangleand Cracks in the Image), and The Milkman’s On His Way sold an exceptional 16,000 in twelve months, the expansion we now envisaged required new capital input and a more professional approach.

Though our output in 1983 only rose to eight new titles,[5]we were now recognised as a regular component of the book trade. It was at this time that the Waterstone’s chain mushroomed, and we always enjoyed a good relationship with them. Other bookstores also learned that, just as they had particular sections for ‘Gardening’ and ‘Royal Family’, so they needed to make room for ‘Gay and Lesbian’. In due course, we had rotating stands with our books in some twenty Waterstone’s branches, under the motto ‘Books of Gay and General Interest’.

[5]There were also five Heretic titles, a figure that would not be matched again. As well as the Peter Tatchell book, these included two others of gay or lesbian interest: a reissue of Pat Arrowsmith’s Jericho(a novel of the peace camps), and Notes From a Waiting-Roomby Alan Reeve.

Michael Leonard’s Changing, in a distinctive square format, was only the second of Aubrey’s art series, but proved one of the most successful. Its release coincided with an exhibition of his work at Fisher Fine Art, which was alone responsible for several hundred sales. Tom Wakefield’s Mateswas another success on the fiction list, helping establish our position in the mainstream literary world. Homosexuality in Renaissance Englandhad shown that we could produce serious scholarly works, and this was now followed by Lorca: The Gay Imagination by Paul Binding, a pioneering study which convincingly related the great Spanish poet’s work to his homosexuality. 

One book we published in 1983, however, though never reaching very high sales figures, brought by far the greatest publicity we would ever receive. This was Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, by the Danish children’s author Susanne Bösche. It innocuously tells the story of a child of six or seven who lives with her father and his boyfriend, while her mother comes to visit at weekend. Published just before the AIDS epidemic struck Britain, this was a time when progressive education authorities were responding to lesbian and gay pressure to present positive images to schoolchildren. Haringey, where we also happened to have our office, was among the few that adopted the book as part of their curriculum. It was favourably reviewed in the Times Education Supplement, but made no ripples in the mainstream media until the following year, when Margaret Thatcher, buoyed up by the Falklands war and the defeat of the miners, set her sights on the socialist strongholds of local government.

By 1984 we were up to some 15 new titles, with again some new strings to our bow. Richard launched the Gay Modern Classics series, with titles by Francis King, John Lehmann, James Purdy and others. David Rees and Tom Wakefield were joined as regular fiction authors by Timothy Ireland, and a little later by the historical novelist Chris Hunt. Fiction came to make up a good half of our list, and Aubrey’s art and photography list nearly a quarter of new titles. The rather diverse ‘non-fiction’ books, ranging from scholarly through memoirs to self-help, were generally my department.

Though we had been aware at least since GLF of Edward Carpenter’s pioneering contribution to the gay cause, Noel Greig’s 1979 play The Dear Love of Comrades, published in our Two Gay Sweatshop Plays volume, took our appreciation of Carpenter a step forward. Gay Modern Classics provided an appropriate format to republish Carpenter’s key works, and on his 140th birthday in September 1984 we released Volume One: Sex in a projected set of Carpenter’s Selected Writings, with a substantial introduction by Noel. Sadly the subsequent two volumes, Society and Spirit, never materialised (though we did follow on with Towards Democracy), but we did host for this occasion a fascinating launch event, at which Dora Russell and Fenner Brockway paid tribute to Edward Carpenter, Lord Brockway speaking from personal acquaintance in a most moving link with the past.

For a few years in the mid 1980s we suspended Gay Men’s Press imprint and logo, and published everything simply as ‘GMP’. There were a number of reasons for this. GMP Publishers Ltd was our company name; for the book trade, GMP was the supplier of both Gay Men’s Press books and our imported lists; increasingly readers also used the abbreviation. And it enabled us to launch series such as Gay Modern Classics and Gay Verse without a cumbersome duplication. We could also now publish occasional books of lesbian interest, and integrate the Heretic series more closely. In due course, the art and photography list would develop an imprint of its own as Editions Aubrey Walter. 

Clouds though were already gathering on the horizon. The darkest of these, undoubtedly, was the AIDS pandemic. Until the virus was isolated in early 1984 it still seemed basically an American problem. Our book AIDS: Your Questions Answered by Richard Fisher was the first UK publication on this subject. It went to press just prior to the discovery, but sided unambiguously with the virus theory. Among the first fatalities in Britain was Mario Dubsky, who died in summer 1984 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. We would go on to lose up to twenty writers and artists, two of our former staff (John Duncan and John Browning), and then Richard Dipple in 1991.

In its early years, moreover, the devastation of AIDS was doubled by the black propaganda of the ‘gay plague’. This chimed only too well with the rampant homophobia of the Thatcher administration, keen to put back the clock on the ‘permissive’ liberalism of the two previous decades. All gay organisations found themselves on the defensive,[6]though in due course the resilience of our community in the face of the pandemic would bring new confidence and strength.

[6]Gay’s The Word was an early target with ‘Operation Tiger’, a much-publicised prosecution for importing ‘obscene’ books that embarrassingly backfired. During the trial, a police superintendent stated that he saw any homosexual publication as obscene.

Just when solidarity was called for, however, we found ourselves under attack from those who should have been our friends. This started, perhaps, with a misunderstanding. A young man who helped us with deliveries noticed some parcels addressed to South Africa. Hadn’t the ANC called for a cultural boycott, which Gay Men’s Press was flagrantly breaking? The truth of the matter was that neither the ANC nor the Anti-Apartheid Movement had ever intended the cultural boycott to apply to books, let alone books from radical publishers if they could get past the apartheid censorship. Every radical publisher in Britain, whether socialist, feminist, or specifically anti-racist, had a wholesaler in South Africa to whom they regularly sent their books. This was hardly a profitable activity, as those books blocked by the censors were a net loss. We had begun to send a small quantity of books, perhaps a couple of dozen a month, to a small business in South Africa run by two lesbians. And if it was at all relevant, we had good personal relations with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London, and had recently donated to them a Gestetner duplicating machine.

But if the first stage was misunderstanding, the next stage was a spiteful attack on the front page of Capital Gay. ‘Gay Men’s Press in Deal With South Africa’, read the banner headline. The author had clearly done no research into the cultural boycott, and insinuated to the unsuspecting reader that we were making an illicit profit from some official ‘deal’ with the apartheid regime. It cost us substantially in terms of goodwill, and damaged our own sense of being part of a united gay community. To be generous, Capital Gay was probably concerned only to attract readers with a scurrilous story, and had the good grace to publish in their next issue a strong letter in our defence from Roger van Zwanenberg of Zed Press, of all UK publishers the one most closely associated with the anti-apartheid cause. 

What followed was less tragedy than farce. Some youngsters calling themselves the Lesbian and Gay Anti-Apartheid Group, whose parent body was not the official Anti-Apartheid Movement but a splinter group that attacked this as ‘not revolutionary’, started placing stickers on our books denouncing us (Paud Hegarty of Gay’s The Word chased them out with a broom), and one afternoon ‘occupied’ our office. In a rather surreal coda, we were having a launch party for our book of Philip Core’s paintings in a Soho venue with a rather sophisticated art-world crowd, and when demonstrators with placards appeared, some at least imagined this was a ‘happening’ of some kind we had organised ourselves. 

‘Three Friends’, from The Life and Work of Henry Scott Tuke

In spring 1985 we celebrated our fifth birthday at Waterstone’s Charing Cross Road, with a launch party for Peter Burton’s memoir Parallel Lives. Though we still had only 40 titles in print, our progress to this point seemed quite a success story. We now added to our team a full-time publicist, John Browning. Our output that year rose to 20 titles, and the Bookseller ran a very positive article on us. The following year we were able to launch a Gay Verse series edited by Martin Humphries, starting with the anthology Not Love Alone. Though it is notorious that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’, and most of these titles did fail to cover their costs, the series was made possible for some years by a grant from the GLC (and subsequently, Haringey council).

Frankfurt book fair, 1985

1985 was also the first year we had a stand at the Frankfurt book fair. This became an annual venue where we made valuable contacts with agents, writers, artists, distributors and other players in the publishing world. More sporadically, we also attended the American Booksellers Association trade fair, and occasionally other similar events across Europe.

One strand in our list we were always keen to develop was memoirs, whose merit was not so much the fame of their subject, or a special literary quality, but their interest as reports of distinctive gay experience. Our first title in this area was Flame: A Life on the Game, published in 1984. Almost half the books in this series would have a Liverpool connection,Flame being followed in due course by two Jack Robinson titles (Teardrops on My Drum and Jack and Jamie Go To War), then two by Richie McMullen (Enchanted Boy and Enchanted Youth). 

With the AIDS pandemic now devastating the gay community, the Thatcher government found homophobia a convenient weapon in its attack on progressive local authorities. One morning in 1986, the front page of the Sunflaunted the banner headline VILE BOOK IN SCHOOLS. The book in question wasJenny Lives With Eric and Martin. Pictures from it were reproduced, particularly one of Jenny in bed with her parents on Sunday morning. Haringey and other left-led local authorities were targeted with the paper’s habitual vituperative language. A flurry of similar coverage followed in other media, encouraging angry parents to protest against progressive teachers. One evening when we left our office, we noticed a bonfire outside a local Catholic primary school. A copy of Jennywas being ceremoniously burned.

When the 1987 election approached, the Conservative party promised to clamp down on ‘homosexual propaganda’. Our book was prominently featured in one of their election broadcasts, and in May 1988 a new Local Government Act included the notorious ‘section 28’, banning councils and schools from ‘promoting the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. The dire consequences for young lesbians and gay men growing up in the following years are well known.

By 1987 we had outgrown our original premises, and took a suite in a large building in Tottenham Hale. Though the surrounding industrial estate was dismal, the new offices were spacious and comfortable. In 1984, Jim Sprague had replaced John Duncan as sales manager, becoming a trusted member of our team. And soon after we took on Gwyn Rowlands as designer, responsible for all cover art and promotional material. With a sales rep to cover the London area, a bookkeeper, and a packer for mail order and other parcels, this made a staff of nine. It was pleasant for all of us to work in a gay environment, and only rarely were there any serious tensions.

In little over a decade, technological progress made substantial changes to book publishing. In 1983 we acquired our first computer, though this was used only on the sales side, and the software broke down on a weekly basis. Only in 1991 did we obtain a sophisticated purpose-built system. Also, until the late 1980s typescripts from authors would have to be keyed in afresh by an outside photosetter, and proofs returned at least once for corrections. From 1987 we began to supply a few authors with Amstrad word processors, files from which could be coded for typesetting by a rather laborious process. In 1991 we finally obtained a LaserMaster which produced camera‑ready copy in‑house, and began to expect authors to present their work in digital form.

As our fiction list took shape, it was clear that we would rarely venture into highbrow literature. On the other hand, we shied away from potboilers of a ‘Mills and Boon’ type. In this respect, we fell into the mainstream of the book trade. Our most prolific authors were those with a distinctive genre. Chris Hunt, whose first book Street Lavender appeared in 1988, produced a stream of well-researched historical fiction, in settings from the early twentieth century back to the Elizabethan age. An Australian writer, Mel Keegan, who joined our list in 1989, was a pioneer in gay science fiction (Death’s HeadEquinox). And in 1990 we had the first of several novels by Mike Seabrook, who focused on gay relationships in homophobic male milieus such as school, police and military.

Considerations of cost prevented us from doing more than a small number of translations, though our list eventually included The Pious Dance by Klaus Mann, two contemporary Spanish novels (The Naked Anarchist and The Carnivorous Lamb), When Jonathan Died by Tony Duvert, and For a Lost Soldier by Rudi van Dantzig.

Aubrey’s list developed into photography alongside paintings and drawings, starting with the remarkable New Orleansby George Dureau, mentor of Robert Mapplethorpe. Art photography was well represented, though glamour found a place here as well. Besides contemporary photographers, Aubrey published several volumes of historical physique photos. In 1986, the publication of Out in Art, in which Nick Stanley featured the work of five young British painters, was backed by an exhibition in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall – then still under the control of the GLC that Thatcher was preparing to abolish. 

Another new venture in 1987 was a series of Scene Guides, starting naturally with London Scene, which went through several editions, but expanding also to cover Paris, Northern England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Thailand, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and Los Angeles. The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw quite number of practical titles, such as Living With HIVTrouble With the LawHow To Be a Happy Homosexualand Being Lesbian.

‘Carp Boy Tatoo’, from Sadao Hasegawa

Richard had been increasingly unwell for a year, and in 1988 was diagnosed as HIV-positive. For the next two years he was intermittently in St Mary’s hospital, where the Broderick ward was devoted entirely to AIDS patients. Until the end of 1990 he was still able to maintain an editorial presence, but we took on Ben Goldstein to help with the fiction list. Richard died on 30 March 1991, just before his fortieth birthday.

Despite medical advances, AIDS continued its ravages in the gay community well into the 1990s. But our community’s response to the pandemic had won admiration, and acceptance of homosexuality significantly strengthened after the setbacks of the Thatcher years. Princess Diana set the new tone with her regular visits to AIDS patients. In the book trade, mainstream publishers were now less inhibited to enter the new space that Gay Men’s Press had opened up. In our early years, several authors already published by commercial houses came over to us because they wanted to write on explicitly gay themes. Ten years later, young authors who might previously have gravitated naturally to us could seek greater success in the mainstream without restricting themselves. Despite Richard’s death, we continued to produce good fiction titles. But without the prestige he had built up, and in a more competitive milieu, the momentum on this side tended to falter.

But this was not the reason for the crisis in our finances that opened up at this time. Our early decision to combine publishing with distribution had seemed a good move, but led to a staffing level never justified by our sales volume. For much of the time, the three editors had to get by on lower salaries than we paid our employees. We reached a ceiling in our level of borrowing, and remained in the black only by placing an unrealistic value on stocks in the warehouse. Our cash flow became ever more tight, and a relatively small shock to our revenue, when a US distributor went bankrupt, threatened us with imminent insolvency. 

We survived by a desperate reorganisation. In March 1994, we let go our remaining staff, closed our office, and farmed out distribution, publicity and design. Our long-time colleagues Jim Sprague and Gwyn Rowlands formed a mail-order business; Gwyn continued to do artwork for us on a freelance basis. Aubrey and I filled our flat with the rescued office equipment, and would now do all editorial and business work from home. For almost a year, production of new titles was cut back to a minimum, but by 1995 we were back to our regular output. I took over the orphaned fiction list, and the Editions Aubrey Walter imprint continued steadily. With overheads cut to a minimum, and backlist sales holding up well, we were able in due course to settle with all our creditors and repay loans.

We could have continued for a good while on this new basis, though it was certainly hard work. But once our finances were in good order, a certain ennui began to set in. We were aware of being out of touch with new trends in gay culture. Dynamic editorial and entrepreneurial input would be needed, but this was a direction we were not willing to take at our stage in life. We had friendly discussions with the Millivres company about their taking over our company, but this stumbled over technical problems. Finally, in 1999, we made a deal with Prowler Press (shortly before their own merger with Millivres) for them to take over the Gay Men’s Press imprint, i.e. the right to publish and market books with this label, while our company, renamed Heretic Books Ltd, kept the existing stocks in the warehouse. For a transition period, I worked as editor under the new arrangement, until Peter Burton took over. Sadly, Millivres/Prowler discontinued the imprint in 2008. Editions Aubrey Walter was not included in the deal with Prowler, but Aubrey drew a line under his list in 2002.

Looking back over our two decades of publishing, I like to think that, despite tacking more in a commercial direction than we originally intended, we made a worthwhile contribution to the advance of gay culture. There are certainly some books I am prouder of than others, and Aubrey feels the same, but hopefully even those rather less to our own taste gave enjoyable reading and positive images.

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