Gay Bookstores and Community Activism in the 1980s: A Case Study of Washington D.C.

The 1980s saw a dramatic increase in visibility for the lgbtq community. This social change was due in part to the AIDS epidemic as well as the efforts of the Religious Right to vilify an entire population thus giving the community a chance to defend themselves in the media. This increased visibility led to substantial progress in lgbtq rights and legislation. Gay and lesbian Americans saw a change in their everyday lives as more and more organizations and businesses were created that catered to them.

The emergence of gay and lesbian bookstores in the 1980s led to a more cohesive and active movement for lgbtq rights as it was easier for the community to find and interact with one another in these public spaces. These bookstores normalized the gay and lesbian experience by making a formerly private lifestyle mainstream. Gay bookstores saw the genesis of many social movements in the 70s and 80s. Washington D.C. exemplifies this idea as the gay and lesbian bookstores in the city were the hubs of community organizing and social justice efforts.

Washington D.C. has always had a substantial gay and lesbian population however the shift towards a gay neighborhood in the nation’s capital only appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dupont Circle is the most famous gay neighborhood in D.C. although today, Shaw and Logan Circle are also gay neighborhoods (Meinke). Dupont in the 1970s is described as “seedy” but it was affordable causing gay men to seize the opportunity to live there (Meinke). By the 1980s the neighborhood was a well-known lgbtq center boasting the Whitman-Walker clinic (first lgbtq health center) as well as the headquarters of The Washington Blade, one of the lgbtq newspaper of D.C. (Peters).

Washington has been at the forefront of lgbtq legislation efforts for more than half a century. It was the first major US city to enact an anti-discrimination law based on sexual orientation (Beemyn). The city has also been the birthplace of countless advocacy organizations and human rights groups. The city has a long history with the lgbtq community, a history that is valued to this day as Washington still features bookstores, clinics, restaurants, and bars enjoyed by lgbtq residents.

Gay bookstores played a large role in lgbtq advocacy in the 1980s as the community found a creative and social outlet that was not possible before. Gay and lesbian literature was beginning to find a niche in big-time publishing, making those books accessible on a larger scale (Brophy). There are varying opinions as to why this literature moved from independent presses to mainstream publishing houses, although the AIDS epidemic is a potential factor. “AIDS which might have bee expected to depress and inhibit gay writing, seems instead to have galvanized it.” (Clemons). The 1980s saw an increase in acceptance of the lgbtq lifestyle which may have been indirectly caused by the surge in art related to that population.

One case study from the 1980s helps illustrate the impact of gay and lesbian literature. Kyle Martin, the owner of The Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago said “Everyone shops here. We carry general fiction and nonfiction, children’s books, everything. But the shop has had a strong gay section ever since it opened in 1980.” (Clemons). However, in 1987 the gay sector of the store took off. “The sale of gay books amount to about one-third of our total. They used to come mostly from smaller presses. Now the mainstream media has woken up.” (Clemons). Although it took time lgbtq authors were able to make their voices heard through popular publishing houses.

The books that found their way onto shelves in the 1980s were not narrow in focus but rather they catered to a larger audience. “These books explored universal themes – love and loss, the search for identity and family relationships – that appeal to a wide audience. It’s too significant a market to overlook.” (Brophy). Through the book industry the lgbtq community was making their mark on popular culture and also giving people a way to find each other, in their neighborhood gay bookstore.

Gay writers found an increasingly broad audience as the 1980s went on. Publishers became increasingly more willing to produce their work. “More and more people recognize that there are people in their lives who are gay. The novels are becoming more social and reaching out to include more everyday life.” (Clemons). Gay and lesbian authors used their writing as a medium to foster social change. They normalized a life that was already normal for so many people in the world but was not yet being written about.

Gay bookstores were also making their own mark on the world through substantial sales records. In the 1980s gay bookstores were seen as surprisingly profitable. Michael Denneny, founding editor of St. Martin’s Stonewall Inn Editions said that “gay bookstores alone can sell a few thousand copies of a book, and in publishing, a book is viable if you can sell 5,000 copies” (Brophy). These stores were generating impressive revenue which is why they were taken seriously by the commercial world.

Before even addressing how gay bookstores helped the lgbtq community on a daily basis, it is important to note the role these stores played in broadcasting a perspective. “Without independent bookstores and small presses some of us could be silenced and the next generation of authors with important ideas might never be found,” (Summer). An lgbtq movement without bookselling oases is almost unthinkable since that is how knowledge was primarily shared in a time before the internet. It was challenging for non-majoritarian voices to be heard in the 1980s but gay and lesbian bookstores spoke up for an entire population.

Washington’s lgbtq scene inevitably led to the creation of numerous gay and lesbian bookstores which served multiple purposes in the 80s and 90s. The activities of gay bookstores in D.C. show that these establishments did much more than sell books, rather they helped people find each other. These bookstores served as community centers as well as intellectual hubs. A great deal of community organizing came through the businesses in Dupont Circle, allowing for social change and increased visibility.

Deacon Maccubbin’s brainchild Lambda Rising is the most famous example of a bookstore affecting social change and helping the lgbtq community find each other. As a gay activist Maccubbin “has given lesbians and gays in Washington visibility, a public presence, and institutions that they never had before.” (Rainbow History). Maccubbin was responsible for countless community groups include youth outreach and business organizations.

Efforts of gay and lesbian business owners changed the culture for members of their community. Maccubbin’s store is remembered fondly as “one of the area’s first places to buy books or magazines that catered to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, well before mainstream retailers caught on.” (Proctor). His life’s work meant a great deal to people and made the community feel more comfortable being themselves.

The microcosm of Dupont Circle and its gay-owned businesses was an incubator for many community groups. Dupont was the birthplace of The Blade, off our backs, Roadwork, and many other lgbtq publications all of which came together in the 70s and 80s (Rainbow History). The leaders of these movements took great risks in expressing their true selves and fighting for equality. Maccubbin himself received countless threatening phone calls, bricks thrown though his window as well as a bomb threat all because he was an openly gay business owner trying to serve his community effectively.

In a time when people lacked the ease of communicating digitally gay and lesbian bookstores provided a space in which to be open and comfortable. Although it was a risk to ,even enter the building it was easier for the lgbtq community to find one another and form a unified front in the struggle for equality. Lambda Rising was the center of countless civil disobedience efforts specifically the crusade for legislative change in the District as well as the fight against federal inaction on AIDS research.

Finally having recognition in the form of a gay or lesbian bookstore or even a shelf in a mainstream bookstore represented a dynamic shift for the lgbtq community. It came as a form of visibility that had not existed before (Gieseking 162). These spaces also created a sense of safety as it had previously been so taboo to purchase gay and lesbian literature. When Deacon Maccubbin had tried to buy a gay-oriented book at his local bookstore he was told ‘We don’t carry those kinds of books,’ Their idea of gay books was porn.” (Proctor). Lgbtq authors as well as bookstores helped change this misconception in the 1980s.

The most interesting aspect of Lambda Rising is undoubtedly the emergence of the D.C. Pride Parade from within the walls of the bookstore. In 1975 Maccubbin led a group of 2,000 people from his store through the D.C. streets and this event was the first ever occurrence of the D.C. Pride Parade. He says that he started the event because he saw a need, which is also why he started his famous bookstore (Proctor). He recognized a cultural deficiency and wanted to do something about it.

Forty years later Capital Pride is a 12-day celebration with 350,000 attendees, sponsored by corporations like Starbucks, Hilton, Chipotle, and Walgreens (Capital Pride). It is clear that the groundwork laid by revolutionaries of the 80s created an environment in which social changes could be made. Deacon Maccubbin and people like him have certainly left their mark on the lgbtq community of the District.

Lammas Women’s Shop is another example of a business in D.C. that brought about positive social change. Mary Farmer bought the shop from a previous owner in 1976 and it immediately became a hub for feminist and lesbian issues as well as community building. She recently acknowledged the important role her store played in the 80s and 90s “Lammas intentionally existed as a place to gather and a nexus for organizing.” (Rainbow History).

The store did much more than sell books as all gay and lesbian bookstores did, it created a safe space and a breeding ground for new ideas. Since the store was disjoint from Washington’s primary shopping district it meant a separate trip for most women but it was a trip that was well worthwhile as Lammas provided something extraordinary to a community in need (Sturgis). “Farmer’s ownership and leadership of Lammas was as much about providing a public space for women, women’s organizing, new ideas and issues affecting women and lesbians, as it was about selling books.” (Rainbow History).

It is clear that bookstores played a huge role in organizing and part of Lammas’ work was the distribution of women’s ideas, music, and films throughout in the world. Public spaces allow for the creation of networks which is exactly what happened when people like Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker came to speak at Lammas. The sharing of ideas in person led to the birth of community organizations and social groups that could not have occurred without the public space of bookstores.

Lammas also created a community around itself as the store relied so heavily on Washingtonians supporting the mission. In an interview with off our backs in 1981 Mary Farmer said “Community support is absolutely necessary. Lammas has had incredible support over the years. People come and spend their money, whether it’s a little or a lot, who wouldn’t think of spending it anywhere else. It’s so important to realize that bookstores are only part of the cycle, that we have to be conscious about where we put our money.” (Kelly). Men and women in the 80s were voting with their money in a way that no longer exists today with the inception of global chain stores.

Looking back on my initial reflections paper from September I managed to find a research paper topic that related directly to my feelings about the 1980s. In the paper I said “Everyday citizens became historic role models in their crusades for justice; social movements gained strength at rates never seen before.” That is exactly what I saw through my research, the community organizations of the 80s were all about grassroots efforts from everyday citizens not huge NGOs with limitless funds. Everyday people made positive social changes through their bravery and outspokenness.

In my first paper I also acknowledged that all forms of art took on new meanings as they sought to affect change which is what I found through my study of gay and lesbian literature in the 80s. These authors were seeking to change how people thought of the lgbtq community and improve the quality of life for an entire population.

In this research paper I have argued that leaders of the 80s set a standard for change-makers of today which is also how I felt in my reflections paper. “It appears as though that decade made life better for those who were white, heterosexual, and affluent. However, many groups gained voices when they had none before. The 1980’s set a standard for social change that has affected many of the great efforts of the 21st century.” Deacon Maccubbin’s efforts in creating Capital Pride started a revolution in advocacy in the nation’s capital.

My research shows that bookstores as a public space gave a voice to those who had been silenced before. Mary Farmer’s work throughout her life has increased visibility for the lesbian community as well as female artists and thinkers. The 1980s left us with stunning examples of community mobilization and social justice campaigns. Understanding how bookstores affected life in the 80s and helped me to comprehend how social movements are organized around public spaces. In the age before internet these public spaces were essential to effective social change. The developments of the 80s hinged upon the lgbtq community being able to find one another and share ideas, which would have been impossible without the keystone space of bookstores.




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Brophy, Beth. “Books by and about Gays Find a Niche in Big-time Publishing.” U.S. News &

            World Report, April 16, 1990, Business sec. Accessed December 13, 2015.


Clemons, Walter. “Out of the Closet and Onto the Shelves.” Newsweek, March 21, 1988, 72.


“Deacon Maccubbin.” Rainbow History Project. Accessed December 13, 2015.


Gieseking, Jen Jack. “Living in an (In)Visible World: Lesbians’ and Queer Women’s Spaces and

Experiences of Justice and Oppression in New York City, 1983-2008.” 2013. Accessed

December 14, 2015.



Kelly, Janis, and Mary Farmer. 1981. “Lammas Women’s Shop”. Off Our Backs 11 (8). off our

backs, inc.: 23–32.


“Mary Farmer.” Rainbow History Project. Accessed December 14, 2015.


Meinke, Mark. 2015. Interview: Gay Bookstores in D.C. in the 1980s. On phone.


Peters, Jeremy. “The Gayest Place in America?” The New York Times. November 16, 2013.

Accessed December 14, 2015.



Proctor, Carolyn. “How Deacon Maccubbin’s Lambda Rising Became an Unexpected Launchpad

for an Iconic Celebration.” Washington Business Journal. June 19, 2015. Accessed

December 13, 2015.



“Sponsors – Capital Pride Alliance.” Capital Pride Alliance. 2015. Accessed December 15, 2015.


Sturgis, Susanna. “Death of an Indy Bookstore.” Death of an Indy Bookstore. January 28, 2012.

Accessed December 14, 2015.



Summer, Bob. “Taking the Pledge.” 1995. Accessed December 14, 2015.



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