Censor, Resist, Repeat: A History of Censorship of Gay and Lesbian Sexual Representation in Canada

By Cossman, Brenda | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Censor, Resist, Repeat: A History of Censorship of Gay and Lesbian Sexual Representation in Canada


Cossman, Brenda, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


I. Introduction

Canada has a long and illustrious history of censorship. Since 1867, it would seem that a defining characteristic of Canadian national identity has been to censor, particularly at our borders, to make sure that material that would "deprave and corrupt" was not permitted entry into our country. The censorship of gay and lesbian (1) materials is of a slightly more recent vintage, largely paralleling the rise of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. This is not to say that gay and lesbian themed material was not censored before the 1970s. It was. But the heyday of gay and lesbian censorship follows the emergence of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In this essay, I review this history of censorship, focusing on both customs censorship and criminal obscenity prosecutions. I argue that despite many legal defeats, the censorship of gay and lesbian sexual representations in Canada failed; indeed it failed precisely by its own internal contradictory nature. Censorship controversies, I argue, represent a site of public contestation over legitimate and illegitimate speech, and more specifically, that censorship controversies over sexual speech represent a contestation over sexual normativity. Relying on the new censorship studies literature, I argue that each moment of censorship mobilized resistance, making the story of censorship one of resistance and of redrawing the borders of legitimate sexual speech. By the 2000s, gay and lesbian sexual representations had crossed those borders, and their non-heterosexuality alone was no longer sufficient to cast them as non-normative and censorable.

I further argue that although the intense censorship struggles over gay and lesbian sexual representations have subsided, censorship continues. Non-normative sexualities, such as those with a sadomasochist fetish theme, continue to be targeted at our borders. The location of censorship battles has also shifted to a new, more ubiquitous censor--online, social media corporate censorship, from the sexual representation policies of Facebook to Apple's emerging forms of "i-Censorship". Gay and lesbian sexual expression still does get caught up in the web of this censorship, as do many forms of sexual expression. Yet in the digital public sphere, the increasing normativity of gay and lesbian sexual expression and the mobilizing nature of censorship create the conditions for censorship failure. It is a site of censorship that is not yet well understood; much of it remains locked in confidential algorithms, allowing what we do see and do not see to remain in a kind of digital closet. But, as I will argue, when the censorship of gay and lesbian sexual expression comes to light, it creates the conditions for its own failure.

II. RETHINKING CENSORSHIP

In recent years, censorship studies have challenged the traditional view of censorship as the deployment of repressive state power. (2) Scholars, influenced by Foucault and Bordieu, have sought to focus on the productive nature of censorship, seeing it as more diffuse and quotidian. For some, like Michael Holquist, censorship is ubiquitous: "To be for or against censorship as such is to assume a freedom no one has. Censorship is." (3) While others worry that the claim of censorship's ubiquity flattens important distinctions between types and forms of censorship, (4) they nonetheless welcome the reframing of censorship to include its productive and constitutive capacities. (5)

Yet, this new censorship scholarship presents a challenge to the more traditional terrain of state censorship. As Post describes, how do we "preserve the analytic force of the new scholarship without sacrificing the values and concerns of more traditional accounts. Recognizing always the pervasive, inescapable and productive silencing of expression, can we say anything distinctive about the particular province of what used to define the study of censorship: the 'direct control' of expression by the state? …

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