Fifty Years of Defending Queer Expression

Glad Day Bookshop Celebrates a Milestone Anniversary

by Marcus McCann

This article was adapted from a speech that Marcus McCann gave at Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto on February 27, 2019, during Freedom to Read Week.

Glad Day is an interesting place to talk about censorship. Three of its staff have been convicted of criminal obscenity for stocking queer material. The first was Kevin Orr in 1983. Orr was charged with possession of obscene material—two magazines named The Leathermen and Come Watch—for the purpose of sale. He was found guilty on March 4, 1983, and granted a conditional discharge with two years’ probation.

John Scythes and Thomas Frank Ivison, Glad Day’s owner and manager, respectively, were later convicted in the 1990s for distributing Bad Attitude, a lesbian erotic magazine with BDSM themes.

However, Glad Day did not set out to be a hero of freedom of expression. The battles came to the bookstore, not the other way around.

A police officer came to Glad Day to rifle through its wares. In the case of Bad Attitude, the police confiscated the magazine on site and then waited almost a month to return and lay charges. Scythes, Ivison and Glad Day were charged on April 30, 1992, and all were convicted on February 16, 1993. There was no jail time, but the store was fined $200 and got a criminal record.

Another important site of resistance, from a legal standpoint, was the Canadian border. Once again, Glad Day did not seek a fight over the seizure of imported books. Canada Customs had a watch list which included many gay and lesbian bookstores. During the 1980s, there were 400 to 500 seizures at the border. Tom Warner, author of Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada and a former Ontario human rights commissioner, estimates that 75% of books bound for gay and lesbian bookstores in 1990 were detained.

Glad Day challenged these confiscations in what became a 20-year legal battle. In 1987, the bookstore successfully challenged the seizure of The Joy of Gay Sex. The District Court of Ontario found that anal sex was integral to gay men’s sex. Judge Bruce Hawkins wrote: “To write about homosexual practices without dealing with anal intercourse would be equivalent to writing a history of music and omitting Mozart.”

Another area where Glad Day had a legal impact was film censorship. Glad Day successfully challenged a section of the Theatres Act which required films to be submitted to the censor board before they could be shown or distributed in Ontario. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that it was incredibly invasive to require folks to show their films to the government before they could be released.

One lesson of these legal battles is that censorship is never about whether anyone should be able to read or see something. It’s about who can read or see it. Customs officials: yes. Willing audience: no. Judges and lawyers: yes. Public: no.

A poignant example: under the Theatres Act, films had to be vetted. The government had to set up a whole office of bureaucrats who watched films all day. They were allowed, even required, to watch anything and everything. Only the public wasn’t allowed to.

A second lesson: we cannot care about the passage of books but not people at the border. The border continues to be a site of terror and torment for many: transgender and non-binary, non-status, Muslim and HIV-positive people. Border reform is urgently needed.

Finally, these battles highlight the fact that sexuality is an important part of expression that is often censored. Sexual expression, especially queer expression, can break down the sexual monolith, provide examples of benign sexual variation and alleviate the loneliness of desire. Sexual expression is an integral part of human flourishing. This is the unfinished business of decisions like the Bad Attitude case.

Exterior of Glad Day Bookshop, September 2019.
Glad Day Bookshop, 2019
photo by Jaclyn Law

Approximately half of the most often challenged books in Canadian libraries are non-sexual LGBTQ-themed books: children’s books with queer and trans characters or themes. For me, this lays it bare: any idea that LGBTQ people can “clean up,” presenting only non-sexual images and being safe from censorship, is bogus. Our lives continue to be so offensive that any depiction of them is still worthy of censorship.

I take this history as a call to vigorously defend queer expression from state oppression: the seizure of books, magazines and films; fines; and the risk of jail time. We must defend freedom of expression, but note: such a defence does not mean that we owe our adversaries a platform to attack us, and we need not refrain from criticizing them when they say stupid things in public. I have no doubt that Glad Day will continue to be a part of this vital story.

Marcus McCann is an employment and human rights lawyer who owns part of Glad Day Bookshop. Visit gladdaybookshop.com.


Timeline

by Dominique Bernier-Cormier

January 1, 2019

1970

Jearld Moldenhauer founds Glad Day because of the lack of gay literature in Toronto bookstores. He initially sells books out of his backpack. Moldenhauer eventually sets up shop in an apartment at 65 Kendal Avenue.

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1981

Glad Day moves to 598A Yonge Street, where patrons must walk up a flight of stairs to reach the second-storey retail space.

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April 21, 1982

Kevin Orr, a young employee, is charged by a senior morality officer with possession of obscene material—two magazines named The Leathermen and Come Watch—for the purpose of sale. Orr is convicted later of criminal obscenity, but the decision is overturned on appeal.

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March 5, 1986

Canadian customs officials seize and detain The Joy of Gay Sex, which Glad Day was importing from the United States. Officials say the book is obscene according to Section 159(8) of the Criminal Code.

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March 20, 1987

Glad Day successfully appeals the seizure of The Joy of Gay Sex. Judge Bruce Hawkins rules that the book is not obscene under the law.

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1991

Moldenhauer sells Glad Day to John Scythes.

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April 30, 1992

Almost a month after seizing the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude from Glad Day, police charge owner John Scythes, manager Thomas Frank Ivison and Glad Day itself with possession and sale of obscene material.

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February 16, 1993

Scythes, Ivison and Glad Day are found guilty by Justice C.H. Paris of the Ontario Court. The store is fined $200.

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March 1, 1996

Breaking the Surface, the autobiography of Olympic diver Greg Louganis, becomes the first gay book on the bestseller list of The New York Times. Former Glad Day manager Scott Dagostino recalls that the bookstore was “selling cartons of it.”

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January 21, 2002

Scythes and Glad Day are convicted under the Theatres Act for distributing a film that had not been approved by the Ontario Film Review Board.

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April 30, 2004

Scythes and Glad Day successfully appeal their conviction. Justice Russell Juriansz of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice finds that “the statutory scheme that requires the Board’s approval before films can be distributed or exhibited in Ontario violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom’s [sic] guarantee of freedom of expression.”

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March 29, 2009

When New York City’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop closes, Glad Day becomes the oldest surviving LGBTQ bookstore in North America.

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2011

Faced with declining sales, Scythes puts Glad Day up for sale. In February 2012, a group of 22 community members purchases the store to save it from going under.

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July 2016

Glad Day moves to a bright, wheelchair-accessible space in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village. The store also functions as a café, bar and events venue.

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2019

Glad Day celebrates its 50th anniversary.

January 1, 2019

A Message from Glad Day’s Founder

Glad Day Bookshop, as well as all other gay and lesbian bookshops, helped create a community. As homosexuals, most of us grew up as isolated individuals, without the support of family or like-minded people. Literature, therefore, played a unique role in connecting us to each other and giving us a voice in society. Together we have been able to change our circumstances and alter the course of political and social evolution in the societies where we have been able to organize.

For about a decade, the Canadian government sought to destroy Glad Day and the other gay and lesbian bookshops by banning much of our literature and seizing, even destroying, thousands of gay books, magazines, films and greeting cards. At the time, I called it cultural genocide. The terminology shocked many who didn’t understand how literature played a major role in not only bringing us together as a community, but in helping us forge the political muscle necessary to change laws and bring about greater social equality. In addition, gay studies have given us depth and perspective in understanding the forces behind our oppression as well as the history of countless individual gays and lesbians and their contributions to society.

Glad Day may have begun out of a backpack full of books carried on a bicycle, but it was my dream to one day be able to purchase a building to help give the bookstore more permanence. That dream was shattered by the censorship wars set into motion by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his notorious Memorandum D9-1-1.*

It is nothing short of an amazing dream that Glad Day has survived to celebrate its 50th birthday. This incredible endurance and ability to adapt proves, more than anything, its importance to Toronto’s lesbian and gay communities.

My congratulations to all who have helped make this possible!

Jearld F. Moldenhauer

*Memorandum D9-1-1 is a Canadian government document. It explains a section of the Customs Tariff. Customs officers use the memorandum to determine which imported publications are obscene and illegal. For many years, the memorandum prohibited publications with homosexual themes.


Book cover: Bad Attitude/s on Trial: Pornography, Feminism, and the Butler Decision

Further Reading

Bad Attitude/s on Trial: Pornography, Feminism, and the Butler Decision by Brenda Cossman, Shannon Bell, Lise Gotell and Becki L. Ross examines conflicts over pornography within Canadian feminism as well as the growing public and legal influence of anti-pornography feminism. Originally published in 1997, it was reprinted in 2017 as part of the University of Toronto Press’s Canada 150 Collection.

University of Toronto Press, 2017

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2020.