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Co-founder of pioneering LGBT+ bookshop ‘Gay’s the Word’ dies aged 82

Emma Powys Maurice August 16, 2019

LGBT+ bookseller Jonathan Cutbill has died after a period of ill health (The Guardian)

The co-founder of the famous Gay’s the Word bookshop in London has sadly passed away at the age of 82.

Jonathan Cutbill was known as Britain’s foremost collector of books of LGBT+ relevance. He co-founded the bookshop in 1979, when gay titles were generally not available in ordinary bookstores.

The Bloomsbury bookshop is run by a small group of people from Gay Icebreakers, a gay socialist group, and has become an iconic cornerstone of queer history.

It featured prominently in the award-winning film Pride as the epicentre of the Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners activist movement in the 1980s.

Gay’s the Word linked up with mining communities in south Wales to offer support against pit closures

Gay’s the Word’s current manager, Jim MacSweeney, said of Cutbill: “He was outspoken and had strong views on many issues, not suffering fools gladly. A great activist, I had enormous respect for him.”

The historic store received considerable pushback in its early days – and even before it opened, with Camden council initially ignoring the owners’ request to lease the premises.

Later, in 1984, Cutbill faced imprisonment after HM Customs and Excise raided the store, which it assumed was selling porn.

Custom officials confiscated 144 titles worth thousands of pounds that were deemed obscene by the British government.

Among the books seized were works by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Jean Genet, as well as the Joy of Gay Sex and Joy of Lesbian Sex. Cutbill and the shop’s other co-founders were charged with conspiracy to import indecent material.

The bookshop on Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury (Twitter/@Gaystheword)

A defence campaign set up to fight the charges and recover the confiscated stock raised more than £55,000 from the public, authors and publishers.

At one point it was suggested that the shop should cease trying to fight, but Cutbill refused to let LGBT+ experiences be erased.

Cutbill’s friend Andrew Lumsden remembers his defiant response: “We go on!” The charges were eventually dropped in 1986.

The cherished bookshop continued to stand against hatred and bigotry, and didn’t stop trading “for a single second” when its windows were smashed by vandals last year.

Cutbill retired from bookselling in 1993 and moved to Shropshire. Having had a “lifelong affection for the natural world”, he reportedly chose a green burial.

Arrangements are being made for the preservation of his extensive LGBT+ book collection.

More: Gay's the Word, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, obituary

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