It was 1990 and I was an underage smartass with a buzz cut when the feminist publishing movement taught me how to imagine greater things for my sex life. That was the year I found Susie Bright’s Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World standing up on a shelf at my campus bookstore. At the time, it seemed like a tiny miracle that Bright’s instructions on how to slide a fist sweetly inside another girl ever made it into my inexperienced hands—but it wasn’t a miracle. It was Cleis Press.
One of the many independent book publishers to have emerged from the literary ferment of ’70s feminism, Cleis is probably the institution that’s most responsible for shaping the sexual imagination of my generation of queer girls. Just look at our bookshelves: By giving us Bright on fisting, Pat Califia on the exquisite tenderness of s/m, Tristan Taormino on safe anal sex, fiction by Achy Obejas, new age sex-positive cheerleading by Annie Sprinkle, and transgendered portraits by Loren Cameron, the press simply taught us how to think about desire. “Oh, sodomy . . . ,” Bright joked in that first book. “It doesn’t come naturally just because you’re gay.” Even the sluttiest among us needed some instruction once.
This season, Professor Cleis turns 20. But don’t bother asking Cleis’s cofounders, Felice Newman and Frédérique Delacoste, about it. They will tell you lots of things about amazon.com, good writing, and lesbian sex. (“Being opposed to amazon.com,” says Newman, “is like being opposed to the rain. You’re better off floating little sailboats in the gutter than whining about the wet.”) But they won’t tell you how Cleis survived the Meese Commission ’80s and Bertelsmann ’90s—years when so many feminist publishers (like Kitchen Table, Motherroot, Daughters Incorporated) crashed—to become one of the most financially solvent and politically relevant queer publishing houses around today. They’re not even celebrating the press’s birthday. “We’re too busy publishing books,” says Newman, who manages the editorial side of Cleis. (Delacoste handles production and business.)
But I’ll give you two reasons why Cleis made it past her adolescence healthy and happy: the sex manual and the anthology. Founded by Newman and Delacoste in 1980 when they were both grad students, Cleis arrived late to the feminist publishing movement, but built on its foundation: Delacoste worked, in the ’70s, with poet Joan Larkin at Out and Out Books (now defunct); Newman fell in love with an older married woman at Know Press (also defunct), publisher of the feminist classic “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” But Cleis quickly became known as the “bad girl” of feminist publishing. Throughout the 1980s the young press produced books that served as ammunition for feminist soldiers on the naughty side of the porn wars. In 1987, just a year after the Meese Commission issued its infamously sex-negative report, Cleis made waves in feminist circles by publishing Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, a pioneering book of feminist voices from the porn world. But it wasn’t until 1990 that Cleis really hit pay dirt. That was the year the bad girl discovered the queer instructional in the form of Susie Bright’s snappy guide to the ins and outs of vibrators, ass fucking, fisting, labia piercing, and the like. (If any of that sounds tame today, it’s thanks in part to Cleis.) Right away, the press turned prosperous enough to buy itself an office building in Pittsburgh. Similar titles—including Cleis’s all-time bestseller, The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, the first ever proporn, proqueer, and prosextoy feminist sex manual—soon followed with similar results. (To date, two editions of the Good Vibrations Guide have sold upwards of 80,000 copies.)
Smart enough to recognize a good thing when they saw it, Newman and Delacoste set out to experiment with and perfect this genre, building a list that’s filled mostly with titles that are either sex guides or anthologies or (like Bright’s collections of previously published essays) both at once. They range from straightforward resources, like Putting Out: The Essential Publishing Resource for Lesbian and Gay Writers, to manuals that combine feminist theory and self-help, such as this month’s The Ultimate Guide to Strap-on Sex: A Resource for Men and Women. Want to learn how to blow a girl wearing a six-inch dildo? Dating an FTM? Cleis has a book and advice on how to do it.
But as its marketing slogan (“queer books for smart people”) suggests, Cleis has always reached out to a range of underserved readers. “Our readers,” Newman says, “aren’t necessarily gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered; they’re just edgy and intelligent.” What is consistent is that because its founders are unwilling to give up on politics even in our sound-bite-driven times, Cleis has reversed that old feminist cliché: With passionate editing and smart writing, it insists, you can write about the political in the guise of the personal. Take, for example, a book published last year—Rachel Pepper’s The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians. In addition to listing things like herbal remedies for morning sickness, Pepper’s peerless guide also provides a sample “donor-recipient agreement form,” lists lesbian-friendly sperm banks, and addresses the legal rights of the girlfriend—all things writers like Dr. Spock never get around to. You could complain that such a book has little space for treating thorny questions about the effects that the recent surge of child-centered queer families have had on the gay community and culture. But you’d also be hard-pressed to find another book that explores the hazards of bondage play during pregnancy, or one that so directly tackles the day-to-day consequences of things queer activists are currently battling out in the courts.
“Our authors have always led us, at Cleis, by the nose,” Newman admits. “I mean, it wasn’t until I was copyediting Susie Bright’s book that I finally understood that fisting was anatomically possible.” That’s why, in the ’90s, as feminists and queers tired of the sex-as-danger versus sex-as-pleasure debate and took up questions like “What do you call a woman with a fully functional penis?” instead, Cleis was there with pronoun instructions.
But these days, now that mainstream organs like salon.com and Simon & Schuster publish writers like Susie Bright, the bad girlis out looking for new feathers to ruffle. And she’s already found some: Next fall, for instance, Cleis launches a new imprint called Midnight Editions. Dedicated to international human rights journalism, the imprint’s first book, Diary of a Political Idiot: Normal Life in Belgrade, does the same thing Cleis has done for two decades, just on a different battleground: It provides literary ammo for combatants fighting a brutal war.