Toronto
3 min

A villain unchallenged

It used to be that when gay and lesbian people — or any marginalized group for that matter — were driven to resist oppression, the villains were easy to spot and confront.

The giant, hairy-knuckled hand of government harassed, arrested, silenced and imprisoned gay people under the presumption that doing so was necessary to the maintenance of peace, order and good government. Gay activists assessed rightly that biting, slapping and ripping at that brutish hand until change was effected was key to our liberation.

Change is the way of things. There are still fights to be fought but the rules are different now and the villains are harder to spot.

This issue we’re pleased to present a five-page feature about Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore. The store is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. After fighting for 23 of those years against a government that thought it reasonable to root through other people’s mail to stop the dissemination of gay and lesbian ideas, the proprietors are ready to rest.

One day early in 2007, while we waited for a ruling on whether Little Sister’s would be granted the money it needed to continue its critical battle against government censorship, I asked the store’s co-owner Jim Deva how much that fight weighed on his mind.

After almost a quarter century of always wondering if the next ruling would be the one to put the store out of business I wanted to know if it got easier. I wanted to know what, if anything, kept him staring at the ceiling at night.

His answer surprised me.

He hadn’t lost sleep over the ruling, he told me. The part that kept him awake at night, the part that got harder every year, was finding ways to keep the store afloat.

Since the emergence of Chapters and Indigo some 15 years ago, the big-box bookseller’s stranglehold on the Canadian book business has made life for independent shops like Little Sister’s much more difficult. Scores of independent booksellers are gone. Little Sister’s adapted by, among other things, broadening its selection of sex toys and gay porn. The rise of the internet added pressure to that end of the business and then in 2005 a well-known retailer of gay porn and sex toys that enjoys a competitive wholesale advantage in its market opened an outlet just a stone’s throw from Deva’s store. Again Little Sister’s adapted to survive.

All this illustrates that economic forces — disparity of wealth, homo-genization of media and culture, commodification of knowledge and its delivery, deregulation of big business — can be a villain every bit as dangerous to sexual minorities today as tyrannical government has been in the past.

Another case in point is our story this issue on OutTV’s ongoing battle with Shaw Communications. I asked OutTV chief operating officer Brad Danks about Shaw’s power to marginalize the gay television station and to control Canadian expression and morality.

“The last thing we should be doing as a society is giving more power to companies that simply provide a technology pipe,” he said. “They are, by virtue of how that business was developed, in control of the consumer relationship. No one should underestimate the power that that gives them.”

Another illustrative case in point is the ongoing prattle about the death of Toronto’s gay village. Church St is prospering but it’s clear that the economics of downtown Toronto, and by extension the gay village, are changing. It’s becoming much harder to afford to live here.

“It’s not the government that’s the problem anymore; it’s really the market working so effectively that it’s making the neighbourhoods incredibly valuable for new real estate developers,” urban thinker and business professor Richard Florida told me in March. “When Jane [Jacobs] wrote about Toronto she wanted to protect it from the heavy hand of government urban planners. Now, I don’t want to say it’s the reverse, but now those neighbourhoods have become valuable again so it’s the market that’s reshaping them, not the heavy hand of government planners. That’s going to take a very, very different kind of strategy.”

That new strategy may need to develop from the premise that the invisible hand of the free market, if left entirely to its own devices, is quickly becoming the 21st-century’s great oppressive villain.