Sunday, May 8, 2011

Androgyny Bookstore and First Gay Love

At the first meeting of Gay Mcgill the following Fall, when we were attempting to expand the newly formed organization into the community beyond the University, a newly arrived graduate student was present: an American who did his undergraduate work at the University of Missouri in Columbia and had come to McGill to study film.  He was about twenty-three at the time, close to six feet tall, broad shouldered with narrow hips, and long, dark hair; in the sunlight it took on an auburn hue and fell down his back far beyond his shoulders. He was rather sultry looking at the meeting and, as I recall, didn't say anything, although he had been quite active in gay liberation and the anti-war movement as a student. I was immediately attracted, but having trained myself in years of teaching to refrain from evincing an interest in students, as much as that's feasible given the strength of sexual attraction and the weakness of attempts to control non-voluntary communication, I don't believe I showed any interest. His name was Will Aitken and he later told me that, walking out of the meeting, he said to a friend, "I want the tall one with the beard."

I met him again on my way to the residence where I was a professor in residence and it emerged he was living in the graduate residence just meters away. At that meeting I permitted myself to be somewhat more flirtatious. It was after the next meeting of Gay McGill, when we all went out for a few beers after the meeting, that we sat next to each other and the serious cruising took place. Under the influence of our strong, mutual sexual attraction and several beers, we walked back to the residences together, and, as was the norm in gay culture at that period of time, proceeded directly to my apartment and our first sexual encounter. It was a resoundingly exciting sexual romp and the beginning of our fourteen years together as boyfriends/partners/lovers.

My journal entry not too long afterwards reads:

                             Yesterday, he told me that he loves me, but was afraid the
                              admission would freak me out. It didn't; not only because
                              I expected it, but also because I had been feeling that way
                              myself. He is the only person I have had a relationship with
                              for even this long without seeing elements in his character
                              that I don't like. I feel that I'm in love with him, but I'm being
                              my characteristically "cool" self.  (October, 1973)

Love, as they say, is blind.

Three caveats are appropriate at this point in time: firstly, I dislike all of the terms used to refer to gay couples. "Boyfriend" reminds me of high school dating and of my Mother referring to her "girlfriends", who were in their sixties or seventies. "Partner" reminds me of a business association, as though we were in a legal firm together. "Lover" sounds to me like a mainly sexual relationship and doesn't capture the reality of a committed couple. The newly applied term, "spouse", causes me to cringe. Not because I object to gay marriage (some of my best friends are married), but because it's difficult for me not to continue perceiving marriage as a patriarchal, property-based institution, as it was largely viewed by progressive folks in the sixties and seventies. Second caveat: I'm terrible with remembering dates, even those in the recent past which directly concern me, like how long I've been in my current relationship and in what year it began. Many people, Will amongst them, are much better in their memory of things factual. I gladly stand corrected when I am grossly inaccurate; it is for that the comments option exists.  Third caveat: as I related in my very first blog, I'm sensitive to the invasion of privacy; to a certain extent my own; to a larger extent that of people in my life who may draw their privacy boundaries in a more restricted way than I. Accordingly, I'm only using last names when I'm sure the person wouldn't mind or that what I'm relating is part of public record. In the case of Will, he has offered that he's comfortable with my sharing my reflections about him and our relationship. Writing about my two sons poses a dilemma: I can't share what has been important in my life without talking about them and I can't really talk about them anonymously. I can only hope that they're comfortable with what I've chosen to write about them and that seems to be the case.

It was Will who suggested opening a bookstore. We were in a sort of interim period where Will was finishing his Masters and working in a copy shop and I was receiving a salary from the University. but not teaching; waiting for the process of applying to the School of Social Work to be completed. As a student he had specialized in gay literature, writing his Master's thesis on Isherwood, and was very familiar with the genre in both its American and European expressions; a genre to which he would later add his own writings. It was Will who introduced me to the vast range of gay and lesbian literature that had gone almost entirely unrecognized as such until the seventies, as well as to the broader world of gay aesthetics. There was no bookstore in Montreal where one could purchase the significant number of publications related to gay liberation becoming available: political and sociological studies; novels and autobiographies that were openly gay;  gay and lesbian newspapers and periodicals; not to mention the many novels by gay and lesbian authors with clear gay content written over the last two centuries and never grouped and available together as an expression of the culture of sexual minorities.

John Southin offered to provide financial backing to enable us to stock the store, while Will and I would work in the store itself, living on my salary and whatever income the store might generate. Happily, it was never really our intention to be able to live on income from the bookstore; there was never an income to support anyone adequately, though later some did try. For us any profits were plowed back into the store to purchase stock and pay expenses. It had always been the intention to reimburse John for his initial investment, but that never happened; he graciously accepted his investment becoming a contribution. The objective of the three of us was that the store serve primarily a community purpose: providing resources and a sense of history and pride to the community and serving as a non-bar gathering place for the burgeoning gay movement; coffee was always available and people were encouraged to come, browse, meet others and, hopefully, make a purchase. The name "Androgyny" was chosen by Will and myself because we wanted to signal an openness, not only towards different sexual orientations, but also toward different gender expressions. At the time the word was unknown to most people, even in the gay and lesbian communities, and we were regarded as rather foolish to have chosen it; however the store survived more than twenty-five years and made L'Androgyne/Androgyny a familiar term in the Montreal community.

Peter and Sheila, the other couple in the collective where I had lived with my wife. supported us in establishing the bookstore.  Peter did the carpentry on the shelves, while Will and I painted them.  Sheila offered to join us in organizing a feminist section of the store, but my former wife forbade her involvement, saying she would leave the collective if Sheila were to do so. We turned to a close friend and former student, Barbara Scales, to join us. She became close to me during our collaboration with the McGill Daily in writing of gay oppression at the University; her partner/boyfriend/lover at the time was an editor of the Daily and a very talented editorial cartoonist. Barbara was active in the feminist movement and a "red diaper" child of communist parents in New York City; close associates of the Rosenbergs. Almost immediately, Barbara became a full partner and worked with us in staffing and managing the bookstore. She developed a significant selection of feminist titles and, later, of non-sexist children's books. Legally, Androgyny was a corporation with John, Will, Barbara and myself as owners; in practice it was a cooperative staffed mainly by volunteers. Many years after its inception ownership was freely transferred to new owner/managers, who shared our vision of the store; the first, I believe, was Lawrence and the second, Philip.

The last community owners of Androgyny were a lesbian couple, who, shortly after acquiring it, sold the store to Priape, a gay owned sex boutique. Rumour had it that Priape wanted to acquire the store in order to expand their business in books and videos, mainly of the pornographic persuasion, but they liquidated and closed it in 2002 after about a year of operation. Either they found that Androgyny did not bring in the revenue they expected or it had always been their intention to simply eliminate competition to their own business. At any rate the store would probably not have survived much longer. For many years the major bookstore chains had organized gay and lesbian sections in their stores, which disappeared shortly after their competition in the form of specialized, independent stores had disappeared. The internet likely would have provided the coup de grace; there are now, to my knowledge, only three or four independent bookstores serving the GLBT community that remain in North America.

The original stocking of Androgyny was both challenging and amusing. We consulted with Jerald Moldenhauer, the owner of the recently opened Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto, and with Craig Rodwell, owner of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in New York City, to learn from their experience how to go about establishing Androgyny. While we learned much about titles and publishing houses, it turned out that distribution was a more local matter and issues with Canadian Customs tended to differ from province to province; though one would have thought they shouldn't. In Montreal distribution of mass market paper backs and periodicals was the monopoly of Benjamin News, an organization that had a bit of a rough and tumble reputation. Will called them relating that we were opening a gay and lesbian bookstore and the person answering the phone at first thought it was some kind of joke, then stated that there were no gay or lesbian books amongst those they distributed. Will insisted they were listed as distributors for some of the titles we wanted to carry and it was suggested that he drop into their  warehouse to check that out.

On arriving at the premises of Benjamin News the man at the counter proceeded to call over his colleagues to take a look at the guy who was opening the gay and lesbian bookstore; proving to them he hadn't been lying. Having established this was not a joke, he gave Will the list of titles they distributed. Among them were many works by gay and lesbian authors, such as Oscar Wilde, Mary Renault, Andre Gide, Yukio Mishima, Jean Genet, Radcliff Hall and James Baldwin; none of which had been associated by the distributors with anything gay. It was a complete shock to them that they carried so many titles that would be of interest to our bookstore; the joke became a business opportunity; especially since they were aware that they had several publications amongst the periodicals and soft core porn they distributed that would appeal to a gay clientele. Among them was The Advocate, a bi-weekly gay newspaper with a much-read classified section. Before the arrival of the internet those classifieds were the stuff of fantasy for many gay men; offering possibilities they had never dreamed existed. We sold more than a hundred copies of each edition, along with After Dark, In Touch and very tame gay porn in plastic covers.

Dealing with Canada Customs was considerably more oppositional. They would almost invariably hold for inspection any title with the words "gay", "lesbian" or "sex" in the title. That meant that either Will or myself would have to go to the Customs House, while they went through the delivery title by title; mainly looking for salacious illustrations, but occasionally looking for corrupting text as well. Sometimes the would call over a colleague, allegedly for consultation, but clearly to share their prurient interest and have a good chuckle; however, they almost always ended by passing the books through customs. If they didn't, we just tried again later. Inspectors in Quebec didn't seem to use the same "community standards" in their decisions as were applied in refusing to admit publications for either Glad Day in Toronto or the Little Sisters Bookstore in Vancouver.

Androgyny quickly became a gathering place for people influenced by and participating in the various sexual liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. Women would bring in their children to look at children's books, sharing the space with gay men browsing through periodicals for shirtless guys. While we always expected there to be some conflict between our varied constituencies, that never happened; perhaps because of the accepting attitudes modelled by ourselves and Barbara. For a short period of time, we shared our space with an anarchist publishing house, Black Rose Books, but theirs was a clientele not as comfortable mixing with our own. We would frequently see men repeatedly passing by the book store, looking non-chalantly at the titles in the windows with each pass, before gathering the courage to enter. I've encountered many men years later who told me that their first step in coming out was walking through the door of the bookstore, which gave them the courage and resources they needed to move further.

Working in the bookstore was almost always interesting and sometimes exciting. For many of the customers we were the first openly gay person with whom they had ever talked and some would hang around until there were no other customers in the store to share a bit about their lives and struggles with their sexuality; a conversation that often involved a flirtatious component, given that you were the only gay man they knew to pursue. Talking with those customers re-enforced my interest in becoming a therapist, though the problem was that working in the store you were a captive listener. Occasionally, a customer would literally talk for hours, stopping when another customer entered the store, then taking up the conversation again when they left. It was often tiring and annoying, sometimes, even anger producing; but you were stuck listening and available until closing time arrived. There's much to be said for limiting a counselling session, whether peer or professional, to a specific period of time. Unbeknownst to us when we first moved onto the street, there happened to be a gay sauna in the same building. Interestingly, there were many gay men who found it more frightening to come into the bookstore than going to the sauna; the latter being, however intimate, a much more anonymous venture than the former.

After approximately two years of running the bookstore with Barbara, Will ended his active involvement to become a film reviewer for the CBC and, later, a college teacher; I to study social work and, later, organizing the Gay Social Services Project. In the meantime. we were dealing with a new reality: being a gay couple learning how to live with my two boys, who had begun to be living with us for most of the week. At the time there was no script for being gay parents.

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