The Amazon Trail
Crying for Barbara Grier
She could raise you like a glorious garden. She could plough you under with the sharp tines of her raking words. She could see the promise of what you could yield or trample eager green first growth. Called a force of nature, she was more than that: she was the force itself and we were her fallow earth, her heritage seed, her variant crop of many colors.
Her megalomania was my own: improving our lot in life. She devoted herself, and all around her, to nourishing and encouraging lesbians: Lesbis sustineo! (Lesbian, stand up!). Her methods could be elevating or harsh. She praised with one hand and bullied with the other, intimidating both the meek and the strong among us. She made me cry frequently, yet I’d also cried with the utter triumph and pleasure of holding a book of my own.
Of course she had an oft cursed habit of calling her writers at the crack of dawn - it was her bounden duty to Wake Us Up. She told me in just these words to “light up the skies!” and she meant that quite literally. The lesbian skies had been full of storm clouds far too long. She willed the sun to shine on us and shine it did, in the form of book after book, story after story, until she saw a deluge of lesbian literature. Our work is taught in universities. Libraries offer lesbian children’s books. We sate ourselves on our harvest: mystery, romance, speculative fiction, classics, serious novels, historical stories, text books, poetry.
She would have us keep farmers’ hours. She was our rooster rousing us, our overseer pushing us, our scarecrow guarding us. Her crops were writers and poets, yes, but also editors, distributors, booksellers, organizers, reviewers, shippers, lecturers, students, critics, activists, publishers, and most of all, readers. We flourished, directly or indirectly, in her hands.
It didn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blew even for lesbians. Our time was here. She seized that time and assigned us our graven duty: to awaken Lesbian Nation. She did her darnedest to synchronize our revolution. She woke early, slept little, seldom set down her phone.
She wasn’t the only one, or even the first, but she had the vision, the will, the gay grit. She, and the strong, soft-spoken, laughing butch at her side for 41 years, Donna McBride. For Barbara Grier was the ultimate bossy femme. She knew what was best for us and would move heaven and earth to make us achieve that best if it killed us, or her. Donna made sure it didn’t kill her.
Barbara Grier’s job was sales. She sold us on our talents. She marketed what we wrote. She charmed academics and earned the enmity of writers. She inveigled booksellers everywhere and cut deals with straight devils. She discovered the power of profit and abandoned what no longer fed her bottom line.
Then her work was done. With one foot in the age of closets, the other leading gay pride parades, she’d pioneered the wilderness between, set her labyris to trees hard as rock, bulldozed stone walls, then fertilized and tilled the formerly shaded soil and made it bloom. Where once there were a few toiling at that stubborn rock and soil, now there were generations harvesting. An entire civilization had become more civil for lesbians and gay men.
Barbara was my mentor, my lesbian mother. I would have written, and written what I do, without her, but would any but the few have been able to read it? Would I have had this wealth of lesbian words to read? Much has been and should be made of Barbara Grier’s life. There should be mourning and forgiveness, gratitude and celebration. Whatever her accomplishments, successes and failures – her humanity - there is no denying that she is a mythic figure in our pantheon and will be remembered with reverence.
Copyright Lee Lynch 2010