Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Toronto 2016: The Meaning of Pride

Staff from Toronto's Glad Day Bookshop circa 2000. L to R: Toshiya Kuwabara, Andrew Cecil, then store owner John Scythes, Alex Rowlson, Marcin Wisniewski, and Prodan Nedev. Photo Credit: Jearld Moldenhauer

"I hope we can keep finding new ways to be closer. There must be lots of joys of being closer that we haven't found yet. I hope you're hopeful and not discouraged about us."
Sam Wagstaff in a letter to Robert Mapplethorpe 

Just over a week from today Toronto will celebrate Pride weekend 2016. More than 40 years after the Gay Liberation movement came to Canada, Pride is now a city sanctioned month-long happening. It's a chance for events usually packed into 2 days to be spread across an entire month, which I'm all for.

I've always believed Pride does an important service for Toronto's gay community. It of course serves as a giant party where people can dance their asses off, and is a chance to see friends and acquaintances you wouldn't normally cross paths with. Secondly, Pride is a chance to connect in meaningful ways with friends and foes alike. It demands we answer an important question - which I'll get into later in this post. 

Pride allows us to celebrate our community's achievements and remember the people and institutions that made our victories possible. Two of those institutions are Pink Triangle Press and Glad Day Bookshop. Until 2015 Pink Triangle Press published print editions of the Xtra! newspaper in Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. For decades the press has been vital to LGBT intellectual life and community building in these 3 cities. 

Glad Day Bookshop is North America's oldest gay and lesbian bookstore. It was founded in 1970 by Jearld Moldenhauer, who also founded the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) and had a hand in the creation of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA). His website is an excellent resource for those who want to learn about Toronto's queer history. I was involved with Glad Day for several years as then owner John Scythes's personal assistant and sometime Cashier.

Though little known, Glad Day and Pink Triangle Press started out as two halves of a whole. The Body Politic movement for a time shared space with the bookstore at 65 Kendal Ave., and later at 139 Seaton St. Members of the Body Politic Collective shared living space as a sort of gay commune. Moldenhauer would later break from the Collective to make a full-time living as a bookseller - a smart business move in the movement's early years. Glad Day Bookshop would later have a Boston location as well.

Both the Boston and Toronto stores thrived for much of the 1980s' and 1990s'.

Fast forward to 2016 and the game has changed. Xtra!, the paper that succeeded The Body Politic after TBP folded in 1986, is now found only online. Glad Day Bookshop remains at 598A Yonge St., where it has been for several years. Though not for much longer. The collective that currently owns the store is fundraising to move to an undisclosed location on Church Street. Given the sums owner Michael Erickson mentions in interviews, the stakes are high.

“We’re hoping to crowdfund $50,000, we’ll probably borrow $120,000, and then we’ll raise $50,000 from the current owners and some new owners,” Erickson told Xtra's Jeremy Willard. Since they purchased the store in 2012 from John Scythes, collective members have faced the challenges every independent bookseller faces. They've done their best in the face of those challenges.

If Glad Day Bookshop closes, Toronto would lose one of the most vocal advocates for freedom of expression and freedom from censorship. Jearld Moldenhauer and John Scythes put their necks on the line many times to fight court battles with the Ontario government. The Joy of Gay Sex, Descent, and Bad Attitude are just a few of the titles that sparked these battles.

Pre-Internet Glad Day was a major gathering point for the community and an important stepping stone for many people. Both Glad Day Bookshop and the gay press have been there through the 1980s' bathhouse raids, the fight for gay marriage, and too many other important events to name here. 

As someone who helped out behind the counter and behind the scenes at Glad Day, I will always be proud of the work I did there. It's my hope that the proposed move to Church Street goes smoothly, and the new business model of a hybrid café / bookstore / event space proves profitable.

I've also worked with the gay press. For a brief time I interned at Xtra!, and I wrote several articles for fab magazine, Xtra's competitor from 1994 through 2013. As the, "gay scene magazine" it provided a counterpoint to the sometimes dry and serious tone Xtra! struck. It was at fab where I met Paul Bellini - who, as far as I'm concerned, is the best columnist Toronto's gay press ever had. 

Bellini is known for being The Towel Guy from Kids in the Hall. This was a walk on role - he was primarily a writer for the CBC comedy series. We've been friends for years now, and have worked on several fun side projects together. 

Back to my main point - with the press gone from our newspaper boxes and Glad Day's future uncertain, it's more important than ever to be visible as a community and continue the fight they started. The dangers of being complacent and resting on our laurels are succinctly stated in Ken Popert's 2014 article While we weren't looking. The article is about Rob Ford, and more broadly the dangers of politicians who don't have our best interests at heart. 

Popert's article concludes: "I’m looking at Ford and looking at a possible future. That future does not look friendly. But it is just one possibility; if we start looking, the future can still be ours to make."

Coming Together for Pride

Which brings me to the key part of this entry: because we risk losing the gay press and bookstore - the voices of our community - this Pride is more important than ever. Jearld Moldenhauer would sometimes refer to Pride as, "Bury the Knives Week" with his uniquely dark sense of humour.

He meant that people forgive each other for slights both perceived and real. And that for one week we come together and treat each other well.

This touches on what I think is the heart of the matter. The heart of the question Pride asks us, even as we dance to the beat. "What kind of people should we be? How should we treat each other?" The question applies to friends and foes alike. The quote that leads off this entry is from a book about Sam Wagstaff.

For people who know me, it's no secret that Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe is one of my favourite books. In addition to being Robert Mapplethorpe's boyfriend, Sam Wagstaff was a friend to many and patron of some of America's most well-known Pop artists.

This excerpt is from a letter he mailed to Mapplethorpe when they lived mere blocks from each other in downtown Manhattan.

To the question, then: What kind of people should we be?

I think he gave us the answer.

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