vancouver, part 2: little sisters, or, from porn to politics and back again

Apart from picking apart the local dyke scene, I must also pay appropriate tribute to the queen of Canada’s queer bookstores: Little Sisters.

Oh, gentle reader, I could write splendiferous sonnets to this place if you let me, and sing soaring symphonies of praise. But I will try to remain content with a rather more straightforward approach so as not to scare you off entirely.

For those not familiar with the details, Little Sisters is basically at the centre of Canada’s most notorious – and still ongoing – censorship trial. An excerpt from a booklet I picked up there gives the summary:

“In December 1986, Canada Customs detained the first books and magazines destined for Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1990, the bookstore, B.C. Civil Liberties and owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth filed their Statement of Claim in B.C. Supreme Court instigating a constitutional challenge to Canada Customs’ practice of seizing materials destined specifically for a gay and lesbian bookstore. The case would tackle the federal government on the issue of freedom of expression. It also challenged Canada Customs’ power to seize a book at the border and force the bookstore that was ordering it to prove that the publication was not “obscene.” In October of 1994, after many adjournments, all precipitated by the government, the trial between Little Sisters and Canada Customs finally began.”

The full story can be found on their website, updated recently. The gist of it is that they won their case, eventually taking it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000, but Customs kept harassing them, and continues to do so now.

After my four (!) hours of browsing, and after depositing a stack of books on the counter for purchase, I asked the clerk what the latest news was; whether the store was in danger of going under (as rumour had it not long ago); what would happen next; and what it was like to work in a place so famed for its fight. He answered that they’re feeling the sting of having lost a recent bid for the court to award them the money to cover their legal fees, but that the store was not going under, thank goodness, and that they’re just as committed to continuing the fight as they always have been. He also told me that he used to be a high school teacher, and left the profession to freelance and work part-time at the store. He’s been there for three years and hasn’t regretted his decision for a second.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “One moment you’re acting as a counsellor to parents whose kid has just come out of the closet and they don’t know how to handle it. Next moment you’re recommending books and resources to a trans person who’s beginning to transition. And the next you’re helping someone choose the right size of double-headed dildo. It’s fantastic.” (Yes, there is a sex toy and novelties section to the store in addition to the books.)

Our brief conversation had a triple effect on me: it made me bitterly miss L’Androgyne, Montreal’s former counterpart to Little Sisters, and be extremely glad that Priape’s bid to buy Little Sisters was rejected (since gay porn / sex toy / clothing megachain Priape drove L’Androgyne into the ground within a year of purchasing it); and it made me want to support Little Sisters wholeheartedly in both my writing and my spending (and no, that’s not just an excuse to buy more books). And it reminded me of the ways in which there’s a really distinct difference between the “pink dollar” with its attendant aggressive marketing of high-end products to mainstream gays and lesbians, and the very real fact that the more grassroots of our queer-owned and queer-serving businesses do way, way more than sell us things we like. They are community services in their own right, providing meeting places, information and resources, support and friendship, and a sense of community that has nothing to do with profit and stock options and circuit parties and the latest hot gay cruise to Ibiza.

Okay, there’s my rant in support of queer small businesses.

But really, I’m wiggling in glee at all the cool shit I got there.

It’s no surprise that Little Sisters stocks a lot of work on the topic of Canadian queer legalities and censorship. Among other things, I picked up a hefty tome entitled Are We “Persons” Yet? Law and Sexuality in Canada, by Kathleen Lahey, which appears to do a rather impressive job of summing up the history and current state of Canadian law as it relates to queers – and yes, I do mean queers, she writes a lot about bi and trans folks and not just about same-sex marriage. Yee-haw! I also found a book called Bad Attitude/s On Trial: Pornography, Feminism and the Butler Decision, by Brenda Cossman, Shannon Bell (isn’t she a female ejaculation workshop facilitator?), Lise Gotell and Becki L. Ross, about the way Canadian law deals with porn, from an explicitly queer and SM-friendly point of view – they include a fair chunk about lesbian SM porn, which I’m surely going to find riveting once I get to it. Mmmm. Brain candy.

Interestingly, the store does its own form of… I certainly wouldn’t call it censorship, but perhaps strangely tiered judgment of what constitutes edgy literature. Not without reason I’m sure, but it did strike me as odd. In most places, it’s understood that “adult” means “sexual.” But when you’re in a queer bookstore, in which most of the material deals with sexuality in some form or another – not necessarily the explicit or erotic or pornographic kind, but nonetheless – the idea of having an “adult” section becomes an exercise in fine-line-walking.

Having browsed many shelves full of books about sexuality – from Califia’s scintillating sexual politics essays, to a desperately sad “let’s make safer sex erotic” manual-cum-stroke-book by John Preston published in high-AIDS-crisis 1986, to a compendium of troubleshooting tips entitled Sex Disasters by Charles Moser and Janet Hardy (which I bought for shits and giggles), to a book called Global Sex about the impact of globalization on international sexual politics – I was somewhat amused, when I cam upon the SM and fetish erotica shelves, to notice a small sign indicating that all the how-to manuals were now to be found in the Adult section.

“Adult”? Like, the kind of “adult” that’s more “adult” than books like Story of O and She’s On Top: Erotic Stories of Female Dominance and such? Ummm… okay. I guess “regular” SM and fetish literature is sort of like PG-13 in gay terms, whereas the books that actually show you how to do all those dirty things for real are rated R? I’m not quite sure what to make of it, except that if you want to learn about flogging or erotic slavery in concrete form, you must also be prepared to have vibrators dangling on wall hooks near your ear. Meh. Whatever works, I guess.

Luckily I’m not afraid of encroaching vibrators, so I did make my way over to the Adult section. It contained the standard fare, with a few additions that were new to me – mainly from an obscure Las Vegas press that seems to publish books with intriguing premises (D/s protocol manuals especially) that unfortunately read more like individual people’s lists of personal service preferences, which, while doubtless riveting to those individuals and those in service to them, are hardly the stuff of exciting and helpful how-to literature. Too bad.

I did, however, come upon a book that has single-handedly convinced me that I am not meant to be a tantrika after all. Sorry, folks; I’m still just as interested in learning more about chakras and such, and honing my energy play skills, but I just cannot stomach this tantra stuff. The book in question looked so promising, too… it’s entitled Tantric Sex for Women: A Guide for Lesbian, Bi, Hetero and Solo Lovers, by Christa Schulte. I know – how beautifully non-heterocentric! I was thrilled. But please read the following excerpt for an understanding of my instant turn-off.

“Now the rose begins to rub sesame or olive oil on the orchid. If you’re the orchid, you can be seated in the rose’s lap or between her legs, leaning back, or you can assume the yab-yum position to have your back anointed. It is important for the orchid to give in more and more to the hands of the rose, while, at the same time, maintaining your own wave motions.”

I have to be a fucking rose or an orchid in order to have tantric sex with a chick (or a trans boy, assuming the point of the manual is to show non-penis-endowed people how to do this together)? What the fuck? Didn’t we leave the flower descriptions behind with Georgia O’Keefe paintings and awful 1970s lesbian erotic poetry? I can’t stand it. Just can’t do it. No no no. I’m all for the energy play and the intensity and the focus of tantra, but not if I have to cloak my desire for a good raw fuck in appallingly treacly horticultural terms. I’m interested in cocks and cunts and sweat and skin, not petals and pistules and perfume. Crikey.

Anyway, I didn’t buy it, needless to say. I walked out with a bunch of things, of course, but I won’t bore you with a full list of my new treasures; they’ll surely make their way into my posts as I read them and reflect on them. This post is long enough already.

So to go from politics to porn and back again, I will conclude with a quote from Jane Rule’s testimony on behalf of Little Sisters. (Jane Rule is one of Canada’s seminal lesbian novelists; she wrote Desert of the Heart, which in 1985 was made into the film Desert Hearts, which fortunately my book club is reading and seeing, respectively, for our September meeting. Whee!) I wince a little bit at the potential sex-negative interpretation one could make of it, but I get her point and it’s a good one.

“Of course we have writers who are writing erotica, and so we should. I celebrate that. But we are not a community churning out sex tracts. We are a community speaking with our passion and our humanity in a world that is so homophobic that it sees us as nothing but sexual creatures instead of good Canadian citizens, fine artists, and brave people trying to make Canada a better place for everybody to speak freely and honestly about who they are.”

Fuck yeah.

4 Responses

  1. Orchids, daisies, and roses, oh my! Plus, olive oil? Sesame oil? That’s either a recipe for a dermatological nightmare or a yoni tragedy, depending on where it’s placed.

    In other news, I am working on a project item that I think you might be interested in. If it can make it past Canadian customs, I might send you one once it’s perfected.

  2. p.s…. I have this really hot awesome queer kinky vegan goth librarian friend that is going to be in Montreal to visit this girl she’s crazy about. Perhaps you two should go corset or book shopping?

  3. Oh. My. God. Riley, the world is RIDICULOUSLY small. Unless I am totally off the mark here, but my spidey-senses are tingling… the girl your friend is visiting wouldn’t happen to have a name beginning with an S and be a super-geeky evolutionary biologist-cum-drag king currently living in Cologne, now would she? Cuz if so, then I’m already slated to meet her, because said girlfriend is a good friend of mine. And said girlfriend has told me about the “hot goth librarian” in very, very flattering terms herself.

    Jeeeezis.

    Anyway, potentially censorship-worthy projects are most intriguing… do tell!

    And yes, though my focus was certainly on the flower factor, I take equal issue with yoni disasters and cringe-inducing dermatological advice.

  4. Yes, you’re slated to meet. Apparently, there are also photos. I’m not sure about the girlfriend other than the fact that my friend is all agog about her.

    So the censorship worthy project is something I’m calling The Black Pipe (as a visitor to the LA&M, you might recall this as a nod to the Los Angeles area leather bar from the 70s.) The Black Pipe is a toy I’m creating involving flexible metal conduit piping, foam pipe insulation, and some steel shot. In the end*, it should be very, very thuddy. I’ll be sure to send photos once it’s finished.

    *pun decidedly unintended.

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