Canada
3 min

Border battles

Whose stories are we willing to leave at the border now?

On Apr 15, 1983, the day Little Sister’s opened its doors, I was in Grade 3 playing football with the boys.

On Dec 8, 1986, the day Canada Customs seized 59 titles bound for the bookstore and declared them obscene, I was fantasizing about my Grade 6 teacher. But I was still several years away from coming out and seeking my community’s stories to show me I wasn’t alone.

Lucky for me, when I finally was ready to come out, those stories were there to sustain and uplift me, thanks in no small part to Little Sister’s determination to import them and ensure their availability. Only I didn’t know that part then.

But I know it now. I know that Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth could have walked away when our country’s border guards starting seizing their imports and banning our stories. They didn’t.

Deva and Smyth “are my heroes,” says archivist Guy Cribdon. “Just seeing what they went through. It was a war of attrition. Let’s wear them down so they’ll throw up their hands and stop. You could totally understand if they had thrown up their hands. But they haven’t. I just have a whole new respect for them.”

So do I. It’s funny; I’ve covered Little Sister’s since the day I got here but I never sat back and studied the entire 25-year saga before. It’s been an eye opening, moving experience.

I feel lucky to have spent so much time with these guys, and the whole Little Sister’s crew for that matter. But Deva and Smyth in particular.

I still remember the time they drove me all the way to Prince George and back so I could report on a young gay man’s suicide and his school’s failure to address the harassment that eventually drove him to kill himself. That man’s death still haunts me, Deva tells me. I don’t doubt it. That’s the kind of person he is. He cares. Deeply.

The bookstore and its commitment to our community’s stories has never just been a job to him or Smyth. “It’s actually been our life for 25 years,” he says. “It’s not been a business, it’s not been court trial after court trial. It’s been our life.”

It’s been a big part of many of our lives as well; though less so, it seems, in the last few years.

When Little Sister’s first went public with Customs’ seizures in 1986, the community rallied immediately with protests and fundraisers. But in 2001, when Customs seized several SM books, that support began to fizzle.

Granted, by then Little Sister’s had taken its first case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and won at least a partial victory telling Customs to stop targeting gay shipments. And the store didn’t launch the same scale campaign over 2001’s seizures as it had in previous years, so it’s hard to truly compare levels of support. But I suspect fewer people care about gay SM books being banned at the border.

Customs’ early seizures were “blatantly and simply out of order,” Deva says, noting they targeted a broad spectrum of gay literature, engaging every part of our community. Not so now.

The most recent seizures specifically target edgy gay erotica and sexual fantasy. “That probably will be the next battle and it needs to be fought but I don’t know if the community will engage in that battle,” he says. “I doubt it.”

I doubt it too. With marriage won, acceptance levels climbing and most of our stories clearing Customs, who cares if a few fringe stories get seized?

We all should, says Deva. Just like we should all care about Bill C-10’s censorship through tax credits. That bill will “directly affect the future of our imagery,” he warns, yet our community has yet to stage a single protest here.

The history of Little Sister’s is not just the story of a courageous bookstore with the guts to stand up to government and defy its obscenity laws. It’s also the story of our community, our own outrage at being censored, and our activism.

With that activism now seemingly on the wane and complacency setting in, it’s worth asking whose stories we’re willing to leave at the border — and what the battle was all about in the first place.