Introduction for the Gallery: Glad Day Bookshop Boston
I tend to tire of my surroundings rather easily and this usually triggers the need for change. So, in 1978, I made the decision to go on a trip around the contiguous 48 states with the idea of scouting out a possible location for a second Glad Day Bookshop. When I first moved to Toronto, my knowledge of American cities was limited to New York, and to a far lesser degree, Los Angeles. That summer, I bought a cross-country Greyhound bus ticket and headed south to explore the country of my birth.
In those days, I was still living something of a subsistence life and I never even thought about staying in a hotel. Besides, gay saunas were everywhere, offering shelter, security, and, if one was lucky, the pleasures of companionship. Otherwise, I sought out local activists and would usually be invited to stay with them. Such was the spirit of the times. In this manner, I visited Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Key West, Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Within my chosen field, I had come to realize the pricing of new books, especially cloth or hardcover editions, was calculated to be just below the perceived point of resistance for the American book buying public. However, during much of my career, the differential between the U.S. and Canadian currencies was such that new hardcover books were priced so high that only the wealthiest or most committed Canadian customers were able to give in to the temptation of buying a brand new release while its commercial ad campaign and public book reviews were still capable of having any influence or impact on the consumer.
Adding to this problematic equation, was the constant threat of arbitrary censorship by the Canadian government. Back in the 1970s, long before future Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, introduced his notorious Memorandum D9-1-1, the occasional parcel coming from the States was seized, destroyed, or sometimes returned to sender. This was a clear challenge to any illusion about unfettered 'freedom of expression', existing north of the U.S. border (... but at nowhere near the life threatening level it later assumed!) So there was a thought, in the back of my mind, that having a base in the U.S. book world, would no doubt benefit the variety of literature sold in the Canadian operation.
Typical of all of my travels, I didn’t rush things and returned to Toronto after two months or so on the road. As it had turned out, it was in Boston that I bonded best with other gay male activists. The members of Fag Rag, the American east coast counterpart of The Body Politic, received me with a degree of brotherhood I had never experienced before ... and quite frankly, have never experienced since.
In those days, Boston was much more of a gritty town than it is now, (... perhaps this can be said for all cities everywhere in both North America and Europe.) Its volatile mix of classes, races, and ethnic concentrations - within a general stew of both corruption and occasional enlightenment - appealed to me. Boston was also home to innumerable bookstores (especially used and antiquarian shops), several big publishing houses, and of course, many of the largest and most famous universities in North America. Its gay scene offered a lot of possibilities ranging from political organizations to an active gay press to a 'fun' cruising scene. Gay men were beginning to move into the South End in large numbers. There was also a concentration of lesbians in a part of Cambridge near the highly regarded women’s bookstore, New Words, as well as gay and lesbian footholds in several other neighbourhoods. What seemed, to me at least, to be obviously missing was a serious gay and lesbian bookstore (an earlier effort at creating such a shop had already failed.) Indeed, it seemed that many of the locals with whom I spoke with really didn’t have much of an idea about what might actually be possible there.
During most of my life in Canada, I had experienced a vacillating reaction between resentment - sometimes almost a hatred - of America (often related to the absurd foreign war it had embarked upon) to an adoration of all things American! These vastly different reactions had much to do with the ongoing struggle to arrive at a separate Canadian identity. Living among English Canadians forced me to think about and analyze the psychological differences between these two groups. This placed me - firmly - as an Outsider in both the U.S. and Canada, not that this status needed further enhancement.
Few, if any, people in the Canadian movement seemed to grasp the reality and depth of my dual American-Canadian identity ... let alone the internationalism that put those aspects of my worldview into high relief. (Within its own separate dynamic, the same could be said of the American movement's interest in all things Canadian.)
[As I recall, in its 21 year history, the main Toronto gay press (The Body Politic followed by Xtra) never once mentioned the Boston Glad Day store. So except for those Canadians who visited Boston, there was little awareness of this other dimension to my activist life.]
It was the core American value of 'Freedom of Expression', grounded in the First Amendment to the Constitution (introduced to me in Grade 6 or 7, if I recall correctly) that gave me the determination and fortitude to fight against Mulroney and his utterly anti-democratic Memorandum. It certainly didn’t matter to his government that it went totally against the spirit and intent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, the Memorandum’s real purpose, hidden below all the jargon about obscenity, was to stifle an open dialogue on gay subjects and in doing so, help to destroy the fragile network of gay and lesbian bookshops in Canada. Most Canadians reacted to this heavy handed and blatant censorship with total ... passivity.
Indeed, it might be difficult today for some people to understand that, when Glad Day brought the banning of The Joy of Gay Sex before the courts, Mr. Serge Lavoix, then Executive Director of the Canadian Booksellers Association, refused - outright - to aid or support our action! Even the gay Canadian press (represented by Pink Triangle Press) seemed not to understand the seriousness of the war until it was nearing its final stages.
Throughout the decades of this conflict, as activists were able to influence and slowly change policies and attitudes, there was never any admission that the Federal Government had ever been in the wrong. There was never to be any public ‘truth and reconciliation’ forum addressing the suffering and injustices heaped upon thousands of lives while their prejudiced laws and regulations were enforced.
The fact that my constant wanderings sensitized me to variations found in other world’s cultures eluded most everyone, except those I met who had themselves grown up ‘over there.’ Too much is made out of the melting pot vs. the (more quaint) cultural mosaic. In most cases, it takes just a decade of a child’s life to shape the cultural base of his/her identity. In my case, things worked in reverse form: my cultural identity, always intrigued by difference, kept absorbing the things I found admirable in foreign cultures.
As they related to my professional life as a gay and lesbian bookseller, my insatiable wanderlust and embrace of cultural differences - as a way to both understand ourselves and the rest of the evolving gay world - regularly led me to other countries to search out gay and lesbian authors. Both Glad Days included queer literature in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Chinese. I personally traveled to European countries and to Mexico in order to attend book fairs, visit publishers, and to network with the gay bookshops which had emerged in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. (In matters of Chinese culture, - Siong-Huat Chua in Boston and Alan Li in Toronto - both helped seek out literature of Asian origin.)
Within my own intellectual evolution, I had first shed the brainwashing 'files' programmed into me about religion. I moved on to overwrite the cultural brainwashing about sexuality. It was an easy next step to shed nationalism ( a necessary component for the war mongering masses and their political bosses). Thus, I could never get on the bandwagon of the pre-packaged, ever more assimilationist values, that seemed ever present when many within our self-appointed gay leadership started to express themselves. I saw the universality of homosexuality as one sure way to transcend all this nonsense and to reconnect with my primal, male, mammalian feelings that I correctly assume to be curious, but which also offered the promise of universal empathy for humankind, and even more so, with all life on Earth.
The goal of gay rights was certainly a necessary step ... and building a culturally aware and politically active community seemed a useful goal to which I could devote myself. However, I never saw this as an end unto itself, but rather as a beginning. In my youthful naivety, (over which religion and repressive state ideologies had constructed a false, solely heterosexual world) - with homosexuality as the primal instinct - could somehow change the way we lived our lives as well as the way we treat our fellow creatures.
I would like to be able to say that such a genuine liberation is in the cards for humanity, but I see little reason for optimism. The more I have learned about humanity, the more it has seemed to resemble a herd of ‘domesticated’ beasts, not unlike sheep or goats. And the overpopulated herd is fast approaching a precipice!
This may seem a strange way to conclude a statement about a gay activist bookseller’s motivations. However, some of us weren’t motivated by capitalist interests, but instead had an analysis and a philosophy behind what we did, and wanted to see done, with our lives.