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Canada Customs thumbs its nose at queer lit
Asked about the criteria for banning the importation of obscene materials, Canada Customs media relations officer Colette Gentes-Hawn replied, "I'm not going to discuss those guidelines."

How did the guidelines get drawn up?

"If you don't like them, you can appeal," said Gentes-Hawn, who then hung up without even saying bye.

Ah, Canada Customs.

Canada's famously homophobic federal government department is back in top form, less than two years after the Supreme Court Of Canada ordered it to stop picking on lesbian and gay bookstores.

Last month Customs detained a "very hot" lesbian erotic novel, published by a respected UK publisher, en route to Toronto's Glad Day Bookshop and Victoria's Bleeding Rose bookstore.

"We're definitely going to appeal," says Glad Day manager Toshiya Kuwabara. "The book isn't obscene, period."

Charlotte Cooper's Cherry is published by the Red Hot Diva erotic literature division of Millivres Prowler Group, Europe's largest gay and lesbian press.

"I will be sending the retailers reviews for the defence," says Gillian Rodgerson, who's publisher of Cherry. "It's a lesbian erotic novel. Charlotte's a good writer. It's a good book on it's own merit, but it's very hot."

A second book by another Millivres Prowler imprint, The Slave King by Ben Elliott, also disappeared in some shipments, although Bleeding Rose was told it was not officially detained. A third book, My First Time: Volume Three, from US publisher Alyson, disappeared on the way to Glad Day, too, even though it is available though Canadian mainstream booksellers Amazon.ca and Indigo.Chapters.ca.

"I don't want to sound paranoid, I'm trying hard not to be," says Kuwabara."But it's really mysterious."

In the detention notice for Cherry, Glad Day was told the novel included sex with degradation because it depicted fisting and urination. Customs' publicly-available guidelines prohibit depictions of "insertion of a fist or a foot into an anal or vaginal orifice" and "actual or implied urination."

The guidelines were created after the Little Sister's bookstore Supreme Court ruling in 2000, under the guise of making the prohibition criteria more transparent. But acts like fisting and urination are not mentioned in Canada's Criminal Code, on which Customs guidelines are supposed to be based; Customs won't say why these acts are listed.

The Cherry author says fisting is not obscene nor degrading.

"The policies concerning fisting discriminate against lesbians and bisexual women, many of whom enjoy this practice in their own bedrooms and might want to read about it, too," says Cooper.

Though artistic merit isn't mentioned in Customs guidelines, the stores were asked to submit arguments for Cherry's literary merit if they didn't want the material seized and destroyed.

Cooper says that's a ridiculous request.

"It is absurd to have to fight for the artistic merit of porn," she says. "I am lucky in some ways because Cherry does have a lot of artistic merit about it, that's the kind of writer gal I am. But I hate drawing distinctions between 'good' well-written erotica and 'bad' cheesy porn - ultimately it's all about what gets you off. Even the snobbiest gourmand likes a fix of junk food now and again."

The detention didn't surprise book sellers.

"This is the first time we've had anything detained," says April Grant, spokesperson for Bleeding Rose, a queer bookstore which opened two years ago in Victoria. "But we figured it was going to happen some time."

Oddly, copies of Cherry and Slave King destined for Little Sister's bookstore in Vancouver were not detained.

"It was sheer chance," says Little Sister's book buyer Mark Macdonald. "They opened another box in the same shipment."

Macdonald says there's no question the books have literary merit - though there are questions whether Customs officials read enough of them to determine the merit, though they are obliged to do so.

"On page 42, there's your first fisting scene," Macdonald says of Cherry. "They must have stopped there because there's other heavier stuff later on [not mentioned in the detention order]. The Customs officer didn't take the entire book into consideration. That's a serious mistake on their part."

The Vancouver store won its Supreme Court case against Customs, arguing that the department unfairly discriminated against gay and lesbian material. But it's going back to court, this time the BC Supreme Court, in June 2003 to argue that Customs has not respected the top court's orders.

The store's case is based on the seizure in March of two SM-themed comic books which are part of the Meatman series. These books are available through mainstream booksellers.

"It's the spirit of the ruling that Customs has rejected," says Macdonald. "We're not supposed to be targeted as importers and retailers, but they're still doing it.... There was a lull of a couple of months where they left us alone. They knew the PR was against them."

Before she hung up, Gentes-Hawn said Customs does not target importers; rather it uses risk assessment to decide which importers to target: "We look at the level of risk since we obviously can't look at it all."

In its 2000 decision, the Supreme Court wrote that the owners of Little Sister's "were entitled to the equal benefit of a fair and open customs procedure, and because they imported gay and lesbian erotica, which was and is perfectly lawful, they were adversely affected in comparison to other individuals importing comparable publications of a heterosexual nature."
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