LGBT+ book collector donates vast collection to University of London after his death

LGBT+ book collector and Gay's The Word bookshop founder has donated his extensive collection of queer literature to the University of London.

The exterior of a bookshop with a sign reading 'Gay's The Word'

Jonathan Cutbill, the co-founder of Gay’s The Word bookshop has left his personal collection of LGBT+ books, dating back to 1760, to the University of London following his death last year. 

As reported by BBC, the LGBT+ book collector was described as “passionate about justice.” Over his lifetime, Jonathan Cutbill gathered 30,000 pieces. His collection includes novels, pamphlets and newspapers, as well as all the copies of Gay News, which ran for 11 years. 

Friend of Cutbill, Geoff Hardy, said there was an “incredible legacy” within the collection as it highlights an immense history of LGBT+ issues and the oppression people faced. The book collector started gathering the pieces in the 1970’s, before the bookshop had been opened.

Books on a shelf, some of the books in the LGBT+ collection being sent to the University of London.

Hardy first met Cutbill in a military parade in London’s Blackheath. He said, “In the middle of this military tattoo there are two youngish guys hand-in-hand with hennaed hair swishing their way through and kissing – this is 1976. And I just thought, ‘I have to get to know this man’.”

Speaking to the BBC about how the collection came about, Hardy said, “The idea was to stock the books that other people were not stocking, but also to become a bookshop with the knowledge of LGBTQ history and literature. Not only is it a phenomenal collection dating way back to 1760, it is also catalogued and cross referenced – he was a museum man.”

A Daily Mirror article from 1949, which shows the story of a soldier dressing up as a woman and eating fire

Head of special collections and engagement at London University’s Senate House Library, Maria Castrillo wholeheartedly welcomed the collection, saying it would fill “fundamental gaps” in queer history. She further said that they “recognise the unique qualities of the collection and would like to develop it.”

Cutbill’s collection has sparked a renewed interest in LGBT+ history and the possibility for community outreach projects through the University of London. Through his diligent work at gathering various sources, he has left behind material which will inspire future generations and help towards understanding what has come before. 

On the 14th August 2019, the Guardian published Cutbill’s obituary, which details the origins of his bookshop. It looks back on the history of the book collector and how in 1984, he was faced with imprisonment after HM Customs and Excise raided the bookshop. He was accused of conspiring to import and sell indecent literature, with 144 titles being seized by customs officers.

A defence campaign was set up to fight the charges and have the books returned. However, as the fight stretched on, it was suggested that the book shop give in but Cutbill silenced this idea by famously crying out, “We go on.” In 1986, all criminal charges were dropped.

Shelves of Cutbill's LGBT+ book collection, which will be moved to the University of London.

The significance of Cutbill’s words carry on to this day as his own collection goes on to another home, continuing his legacy and ensuring it will further grow. As Hardy said, “He was passionate about justice. And not just LGBTQ justice. Justice.”

Gay’s the Word manager, Jim MacSweeney, told the Bookseller, “When I joined the bookshop in 1989, Jonathan was hugely supportive and I often turned to him for advice on difficult issues or simply to chat and perhaps glean some of his enormous knowledge of gay literature. He was outspoken and had strong views on many issues, not suffering fools gladly. A great activist, I had enormous respect for him.”

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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