Nestled on Marchmont Street in King’s Cross, defiantly sits a gay bookshop. It’s pretty hard to miss, or even to assume it’s an average, privileged male literature filled den. For one thing, it proudly displays the name Gay’s the Word in between the pink triangles that once were a symbol for LGBT prisoners- but since have been reclaimed by gay activists. And it’s bloody brilliant.
When Ernest Hole started this bookshop in 1979 he probably didn’t know how iconic and important for so many people, all over the world, it would become. The shop started off as a touring archive of LGBTQ+ books after Ernest was particularly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Memorial Bookshop in New York in the late 60s. Pretty soon though, the foundations for “Gay’s the word” were laid- and forty years later, people come from all over the world to visit.
It’s a pretty amazing legacy- but one that almost didn’t happen. In 1984, the bookshop was raided by custom and excise officers. They took thousands of pounds worth of books they said were “obscene.” Jim MacSweeney, who is now manager of the bookshop, said: “They assumed it was a porn shop. They took books such as The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex, but also Christopher Isherwood novels and poetry by Allen Ginsberg.”
This isn’t surprising at all, which is sad and says so much about the society that once was- but there is something almost hopeful about the juxtaposition between the shame and fear first associated with the shop, compared to the celebrated excitement and joy that now surround it. This is not to say we are anywhere near where we should be-but we are moving slowly and surely, carried on the determined shoulders of the young people that make up the future generation.
Gay’s The Word does not only play a crucial role in self-acceptance and self-love for so many people, but in the 80s it also played a crucial role in education: It was a place where people could get information on HIV/AIDS before it was more widely available on the NHS. Today, it does both. It’s a place where you can go to get a non-fiction book about the LGBTQ+ equality movement, but just as equally, a place you can go to follow the adventures of a queer heroine.
Rowan is 17 years old, and Gays The Word played an important role in self-acceptance for them. They first visited the bookshop a few years ago, and at 15, they said it was one of the most important things they did for themselves:
“I felt truly part of a community in a way that online spaces can’t exactly replicate, and that meant so much to me, especially as a younger person with less of that in real life.”
“I heard about the bookshop after my friend went around Christmas 2019 and then I was planning a trip to London a few months later with my mum and actually came out to her so I could ask to visit! I wanted to visit so much that it helped me feel less scared about quite a big important thing.”
Of course, as I was interviewing Rowan about a gay bookshop, I had to ask them what book they would recommend to every young person:
“That’s a tricky one! I think I would choose The Miseducation of Cameron Post because it deals with wider teenage issues as well as the impact of conversion therapy, and I think far too many people are completely unaware of how damaging it is to victims of the horrendous practice.”
Rowan also says that the importance of the bookstore should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to the safety and mental health of young people:
“Today, although it’s more widely accepted to be LGBTQ+, it’s still so important to have spaces for queer people that aren’t nightclubs and bars, in part so that younger people can visit (I was 15 when I first went) and also due to the higher rate of alcohol and drug addiction amongst LGBTQ+ people.”
Feminism and the LGTBQ+ equality movement are thoroughly intertwined in many ways, but perhaps most glaringly, both want to undo the hold that traditional gender constructs and understandings have on our society. Gay’s the Word is a key soldier in this uphill battle, a soldier that this world needs more of. See also: The world needs more gay bookshops like this, of course, it does. Put them on every street.
Gay’s the Word- hell yeah, it is.