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Bigoted British tiger that bit off more than it could chew

Operation Tiger

Graham McKerrow, a contributor to ‘Queer Between the Covers’ (University of London Press, May 2021), looks at Operation Tiger, the British state’s attempt in the 1980s to prohibit the importation of all queer books, newspapers and magazines, including the latest information about the health crisis then devastating the community.

When the late Michael Mason and I launched Capital Gay newspaper in 1981 we did not anticipate the health crisis that would soon devastate our community nor the scale of the homophobia that would be fostered by the media, religious leaders, politicians and the state.

However, we expected there would be battles to fight and we wanted a newspaper that was in the readers’ hands within 24 hours of the last word being written compared to the 11 days it took the respected fortnightly Gay News so that if something bad happened on a Tuesday or Wednesday people would know about it by the Thursday or Friday and could protest about it over the weekend.

When Gay’s the Word, the queer bookshop in Marchmont Street, London WC1, and the homes of some of its directors were raided by staff from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise on Tuesday 10 April 1984 we devoted the front page to the report with a large headline ‘OPERATION TIGER: CUSTOMS SWOOP ON GAY BOOKS’ and after a description of the raids we were delighted to include a Stop Press at the end which read: ‘Public meeting has been arranged for Sunday at 3pm, County Hall, South Bank to launch a Gay’s the Word defence campaign and fund. Ask at reception for room number.’

We were happy because this was just the sort of reason why we had borrowed £12,500 against Michael’s house and my life insurance policies and worked seven days a week and often round the clock with a small team to create a newspaper so that our community could react fast – well it was fast for the era – to alert activists, inform non-activists and assist anyone organising our community’s defence.

More than 150 people attended that meeting, £500 was raised for the shop’s defence, an organisation was established and protests were planned. I’m not claiming the credit for this, these actions were taken by other people, our pleasure came from giving them the means to communicate quickly and reliably.

Over the two years following Operation Tiger, Customs detained thousands of volumes of hundreds of queer titles – newspapers, magazines, history, biography, autobiography, politics, sociology, humour, books for young people, health guides, sex guides, counselling guides, books about Aids, contemporary fiction, erotic fiction, drama and poetry – imported mostly from the US and destined for queer, radical and left-wing bookshops, mail order businesses, the Gay Christian Movement and the London International Feminist Book Fair. Customs staff were seizing books and newspapers from the port of Dover on the south coast to Prestwick airport in Scotland. Essentially Gay, a mail order service, was put out of business by Customs’ seizure of its books. None of the other businesses went to court to challenge the seizure notices because they couldn’t afford to, or they had no faith that the courts would give them a fair hearing. Only Gay’s the Word decided it would launch a campaign and ask for donations so it could fight for the right to import books.

Customs and Excise responded by continuing to seize books destined for Gay’s the Word and other booksellers. They seized a total of 142 titles amounting to thousands of volumes from Gay’s the Word alone. The authors of the seized titles included Djuna Barnes, Dr Kevin Cahill, Renaud Camus, Edward Carpenter, Lillian Faderman, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, Bertha Harris, James Kirkwood, Robin Maugham, Marge Piercy, Christine de Pizan (1364–1430), Jean-Paul Sartre, Dr Charles Silverstein, Dr Emily Sisely, Gore Vidal, Edmund White and Oscar Wilde (attrib). The books would be destroyed without compensation unless the shop challenged the seizures in court.

When the bookshop declared it would raise the money, go to court and campaign to have Customs’ extensive powers of search and seizure brought into line with police powers, which are supervised by the courts, Customs responded by bringing exactly 100 charges against the nine staff and volunteer directors alleging that they had conspired to import indecent or obscene material, and carrying a penalty of up to life in prison and fines.

The defence campaign was expanded to win the support of bookshops and activists around the world, the publishing industry, writers, civil rights groups, allies in the media, politicians, organisations and individuals but it seemed impossible to move Customs and Excise or their political rulers in the right-wing Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. An Old Bailey trial as important as the censorship trial of Penguin Books for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 was in the diary for October 1986.

The defence campaign hired two co-ordinators, of which I was one, to intensify and expand the campaign but suddenly in June, following a judgment by the European court about the importation of sex dolls and a change of the minister responsible for Customs and Excise, the charges were dropped and 123 titles were returned to Gay’s the Word, and 19 titles that Customs claimed were obscene were sent back to the supplier in the US. Copies of The Joy of Gay Sex were returned to the Gay Christian Movement. None of the books seized from Gay’s the Word was destroyed, no-one was fined or jailed, but there was no compensation either and Customs retains to this day the right to enter any building by force and search and seize any goods liable to forfeiture.

It had been a major attempt by the state over the course of two years to halt the importation of all queer books, newspapers and magazines into this country, which would have cut us off from thought and information from abroad and left our community isolated when we were in the middle of a health crisis and a political crisis and desperately needed these resources, some of which specifically related to Aids. It was an action worthy of a totalitarian regime and it failed because Gay’s the Word was run by politically motivated people who stood their ground and built support, and allies rallied to their cause so that every time Customs and Excise escalated their actions the shop, the defendants and the defence campaign escalated their response until they won.

Graham McKerrow is a journalist and founding editor of Capital Gay, a weekly gay newspaper in circulation across London and Brighton between 1981 and 1995 that is widely credited as being the first publication in the world to use the term HIV and the first to host a regular column on AIDS during the health crisis in the 1980s.

Queer Between the Covers, histories of queer publishing and publishing queer voices’, edited by Leila Kassir and Dr Richard Espley, will be published by Senate House Library and the University of London Press in May 2021.

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