On 10th April 1984 Customs and Excise officers raided London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop and seized all their imported books. This was the start of so-called ‘Operation Tiger’.
The operation also included raids on the homes of the shop’s directors and the retention of thousands of pounds worth of other imported books at their ports of entry.
The basis for this assault was the Customs Consolidation Act of 1876. Just as Mary Whitehouse had used archaic blasphemy laws to prosecute Gay News in 1977, the British government was using antiquated legislation to attack this gay community bookshop. The 1876 Act is, in effect, a way of skirting round the provisions of the much more realistic Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
This latter Act allows for the defence of publications on the grounds of literary or artistic merit. However, it only applies to documents published in the UK. The Customs Consolidation Act, on the other hand, does not allow such a defence to be applied to imported material.
Given that the UK’s lesbian and gay publishing industry was still relatively small at that time, it follows that an LGBT community bookshop would necessarily seek stock from abroad.
But it was clear that Customs and Excise decreed any book imported by GTW to be obscene and, therefore, seized. This ‘obscene’ material included works by Oscar Wilde, Armistead Maupin, Tennessee Williams, Kate Millet and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Some works – such as The Joy of Gay Sex and the Joy of Lesbian Sex – were sexually explicit, yet their heterosexual equivalent (Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex) was never subjected to such measures. It seemed that Her Majesty’s Government saw ‘homosexuality’ and ‘obscenity’ as one and the same thing.
‘Operation Tiger’ represented a massive assault on Gay’s the Word. The raid on the bookshop itself had led to around one third of its stock being removed. They were also advised that a further £12,000 of stock had been seized in transit. And in October they received a further 20 seizure notices detailing 144 titles, many of which were standard academic texts.