Guest Column: Gay’s The Word: Celebrating LGBTQ identity and history all year long
This piece reflects the views of the author, Rachel Benner, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected]
Even the air seemed to glitter on the second Sunday in July. Rainbow-clad supporters danced with signs, children scrambled for candy and drag queens burst into spontaneous lip-sync. Fifty years after Parliament decriminalized gay relationships, queer people gathered in London to celebrate their identities and victories for one campy, jubilant afternoon.
And then, the day ended. Men, women and those in-between wiped off their face paint and went to bed. The next morning, street cleaners brushed the residual glitter into the gutters of Regent Street. Another Pride festival had come and gone.
But on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, Gay’s The Word bookshop opened at 10 a.m., as it does every day. The shop is an enduring symbol of queer pride and community in London, and one that won’t be going away anytime soon.
Store manager Jim MacSweeney sits across from me in the back room of Gay’s The Word on a cloudy summer afternoon, surrounded by unshelved novels and post-it notes. Moments earlier, he rang up a customer for fifteen minutes, chatting enthusiastically between each tap on the register.
As we speak, customers wander under rainbow flags hung from the ceiling, flipping through books and talking with each other. The color and clutter give a feeling of buried-treasure suspense, as if you might happen upon your next life-changing read if you look long enough.
Though he wasn’t sitting behind the desk when Gay’s The Word opened in 1979, MacSweeney remembers the novelty of this “serious bookshop” in Bloomsbury. In a time when LGBT spaces and stores were generally limited to men’s magazines and hole-in-the-wall sex shops, Gay’s The Word’s wide variety of fiction and nonfiction offered something new.
The shop’s original owner and his friends owned Gay’s The Word collectively, buzzing with the radical political energy of the late 1970s. In the spirit of the women’s liberation movement and lesbian bookshops of the time, they created “a different sort of space” — one that included women and people of color, and today embraces anyone who falls on the queer identity spectrum.
It was once almost impossible to find and purchase LGBT books, but in the 1990s, mainstream booksellers began to see the queer community as a promising market. The advent of Amazon and other online retailers also threatened small, niche booksellers like Gay’s The Word. Today it is the last standing LGBT bookstore in the UK.
So why, then, has this shop endured? Though I don’t know the answer, looking around the shop I am certainly grateful that it has. As someone who makes a beeline for the “Gay and Lesbian” shelf in any typical bookstore, and who combs the shelves of shops for validation through poetry and fiction, this space is a revelation.
MacSweeney sees wide-eyed, queer bibliophiles like me nearly every day. “People come from all over the world to visit the bookshop,” he says. “Often from countries where [LGBTQ relationships are] illegal. And are often surprised at the amount of books that are out there.”
So despite the advent of online ordering and mainstream representation, Gay’s The Word prevails. There is something remarkable in the experience of browsing, something that goes beyond the merchandise itself.
Working in the shop is about more than the inventory for its employees, as well. “For me, working here, I think it’s important that it’s a safe, welcoming space. I never know when people come in, where they are in their lives,” MacSweeney says. “You can have people come in and coming out, at any age.”
Though originally founded to cater to gay men and lesbians, Gay’s The Word has evolved with the community — perhaps another reason for its enduring presence. The shop’s section on trans issues and identity, for example, has expanded over the last several years. What was once a single shelf is now an entire bay.
MacSweeney smiles as he recalls one example of the evolving queer community. “In the old days, people would come in and say ‘I’ve just come out to my mother and she’s having a break down, do you have a book for her?’” he says. “And these days, you see parents come in and say, ‘my son or daughter has just come out and they’re 14, do you have a book for them?’ And that’s very touching. It’s less of a threat.”
“I’m loving the new generation,” he adds. “The way language changes, the way they claim this space, their confidence in who they are, their excitement when they come in.” New people are coming out and joining the LGBTQ+ community all the time, and as they do, they discover Gay’s The Word.
Queer expression may be in something of a vogue, with shows like RuPaul’s drag race commanding cult followings and Twitter fame. Yet when the shows conclude and performances end, queer lives go on. Gay’s The Word celebrates the beauty in that persistent ordinary, and in all the facets of queer experience that may never make it on a screen or into a parade.
“Most lesbian and gay people are so ordinary and dull like anybody else,” MacSweeney says. “And fabulous within that, of course. But it’s the sheer ordinariness that matters. And you get that at Pride– the volume of people who are just people.”
Pride is, of course, a beautiful celebration. It’s a symbol of community and allyship. Stores plaster their display windows with rainbow flags. Bookshops move their LGBTQ+ shelf out of the corner and into the front of the store.
But while each year Pride must end, Gay’s The Word continues. It is a meeting space, a community hub and, for me and many others, a site of discovery and validation.
Despite a history of oppression and the challenges facing independent bookshops, Gay’s The Word remains beloved and important. Its tables are scattered with community announcements and pamphlets. Its cluttered shelves are full and ever-evolving. Like the LGBTQ+ community, it persists with pride.
Rachel Benner spent the summer studying abroad through the GEO Journalism in London program. She explored British sports, arts and culture through writing, which led her to sites like Gay’s The Word.
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