Seized Books! LGBTQ+ Books And Censorship in 1980s Britain 

London, 10 April 1984. Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise raid Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury. Without warning, or even much of a plan, officers order the shop to close and begin to ransack the shelves, stacking books in piles on the floor. Over the next six months, they seize over 140 titles from the shop, or that are on their way to the shop – around 2,000 individual books, or one third of the shop’s stock. Nine of Gay's the Word’s staff and directors are charged with conspiracy to import so-called ‘indecent or obscene’ material. 

Though disorganised, this devastating intervention marked an escalation of hostilities towards the LGBTQ+ community on the part of the British establishment. In the years before and after the raids, HM Customs continued to intercept parcels, confiscate mailbags and disrupt the workings of LGBTQ+ businesses. But ‘Operation Tiger’, as the raids on Gay’s the Word were known, remains the biggest single attack on queer book culture that the UK has seen, with far-reaching effects.

Storefront of Gay's the Word, photograph taken by Robert Workman.

Browse the gallery to find out more about the books that were seized in the ‘Operation Tiger’ raids on Gay’s the Word.  

Gay’s the Word’s supporters mounted a sustained campaign in defence of the shop, and all charges against the defendants were eventually dropped. All bar nineteen of the detained titles were eventually returned to Gay’s the Word following the collapse of the court case in June 1986. The copies on display here come for the most part from the collection of Jonathan Cutbill, one of Gay’s the Word’s directors, now held at Senate House Library. Known as the Haud Nominandum collection, it consists of around 30,000 English language books covering LGBTQ+ literature, social science, and history, alongside numerous pamphlets, newspapers, and cuttings. 

As HM Customs were eager to impound almost any book that had been imported, the titles in question are an eclectic array: everything from contemporary gay fiction to lesbian history, politics to poetry, medical literature on the emerging AIDS crisis to young adult novels. Mainstream publishers are represented, alongside self-published and small-press books, magazines, and newspapers. Most were published in the United States, but some of the seized books were also available in libraries across the UK – including Senate House Library.  

Using the Seized Books! gallery 

The cover of each book is shown alongside full bibliographic metadata and a short caption which provides contextual information. Each item is tagged. 

For terminology, we have used the Homosaurus, an international linked data vocabulary of LGBTQ+ terms, alongside the broad subject term vocabularies provided by the Library of Congress.

The list of books on display has been compiled from the October 1984 Defend Gay's the Word Briefing Note, 'Gay's the Word and H.M. Customs: The Seized Titles' and the list published in Capital Gay (2 November 1984), although some discrepancies between the two lists and titles mentioned in contemporary media coverage and court documents may remain. While every effort has been made to make the Seized Books! gallery as comprehensive as possible, it has not been possible to include every title. In some cases, bibliographic detail is sparse and the books have proved untraceable; in others, it has not been possible to locate an affordable copy for purchase. 

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