Peter Dorey: Co-founder of Britain’s first LGBT+ bookshop

Marcus Williamson
·4 min read
Peter Dorey (left) and Ernest Hole outside the shop on its opening day in 1979 (Gay’s the Word)
Peter Dorey (left) and Ernest Hole outside the shop on its opening day in 1979 (Gay’s the Word)

Peter Dorey was the co-founder of Gay’s the Word, the first bookshop in the UK dedicated to selling books and magazines for the LGBT+ community.

Dorey, who has died aged 73, founded the shop in Bloomsbury, central London, together with Ernest Hole and Jonathan Cutbill, in 1979. Naming the shop after the Ivor Novello musical, the trio aimed to provide a safe space where LGBT+ people could meet and share a love of books, including many titles that were not available elsewhere. Organisations including the Lesbian Discussion Group and Trans London still meet regularly at the shop to this day.

During the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the bookstore became the meeting hub for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), a group which raised funds for striking coalminers in south Wales. Their story is celebrated in the film Pride (2014), directed by Matthew Warchus. The film won a Queer Palm at Cannes and gained a Bafta for its writer, Stephen Beresford. A blue plaque memorial at Gay’s the Word remembers the life of Mark Ashton (1960-1987), the inspirational co-founder of LGSM.

As the subject of long-term surveillance and institutional homophobia, Gay’s the Word was raided in 1984 by HM Customs and Excise, which claimed that “indecent or obscene” material was being held there. Thousands of pounds of stock was removed by Customs officers whilst Dorey and his colleagues were charged with conspiracy to import indecent books, under the archaic Customs Consolidation Act of 1876.

Giving evidence in court, a customs officer reported: “I examined a parcel on 13 February 1981. I had selected it because it was addressed to the Gay’s the Word bookshop which suggested a homosexual content.” They went on to describe finding copies of The Joy of Gay Sex in the package.

Questions in parliament from Chris Smith and Frank Dobson and pressure from campaigners forced a review of the case. A crowdfunding campaign raised £55,000, including £3,000 donated by the author Gore Vidal. In a memorable exchange in the House of Commons, Dobson asked the chancellor: “Does he think that the Customs and Excise should give priority to stopping the import of heroin, rather than playing the fool with a bookshop?” Smith came out as Britain’s first openly gay MP a few months later. The charges against Dorey and his co-directors were eventually dropped.

During the Eighties, Gay’s the Word became an important resource for information on HIV/Aids before such details became more widely available from NHS sources.

However, despite its renown and popularity, the shop’s financial situation was not always secure. And, with the increased use of the internet for book buying, by 2007 the future of Gay’s the Word hung in the balance. A widespread media awareness and funding campaign has since provided it with much-needed financial security. The novelist Sarah Waters described it at the time as “one of those places you went to when you first arrived in London; it had its noticeboard and it was a meeting place. It felt very empowering that it was here and it is still important that there is a visible place for people to go.”

Peter Dorey was born in 1947 in London to Frederick and Irene Dorey and educated at Preston Manor Grammar School in Wembley. Whilst at the University of Leeds he became interested in broadcasting, working for the student radio station on campus. Upon graduating he joined the BBC as a sound engineer, spending more than 20 years at studios in Belfast and Bristol. It was at a meeting of Gay Icebreakers, a social group, that he and his colleagues came up with the idea of a specialist bookshop for the LGBT+ community, with Dorey providing the funding.

The shop’s current manager, Jim MacSweeney, said: “Gay’s the Word has been an important part of the LGBTQ+ community for many years and we get visitors from all over the world. We owe Peter Dorey a great deal of thanks for his part in setting up our bookshop.”

Dorey met Timothy Groom in 1985 and they were partners until his death in 2010.

Peter Dorey, bookshop owner, born 13 December 1947, died 12 February 2021

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