Archive | September, 2015

Thank you Venus Envy

30 Sep

Two stories flashed across my news feed today that made me profoundly angry. First: another treasured young trans person (Skylar Lee of Madison, Wisconsin) has taken their own life. Second: a local Ottawa sex shop received a bylaw infraction ticket for selling a chest compression vest to a trans youth under the age of 18. These stories are related.

For those who don’t live in Ottawa, Venus Envy is a education-oriented sex shop. Well, it started that way over a decade ago and has become much more than that to all of the queers in our city. It’s a well-lit, beautiful store where you can buy porn, dildos, vibrators and lube. They display local art in their stores, run workshops on a variety of topics related to sexuality, and they sponsor fundraising dances for their bursary fund, which has given out more than $15,000 in scholarships to LGBTQ students over the last 10 years. Venus Envy has truly become a cultural hub for the queer/trans community in Ottawa. Many of my friends have worked there, or continue to do so.

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My wife and I with writer Julia Serano at Venus Envy in 2007. Yes, that is a wall of dildos. Deal with it.

But in addition to the more explicit material for sale at Venus Envy, you can also purchase LGBT-friendly children’s books, an array of queer/trans literature and a couple of specialty items designed for folks who seek to better express their gender identities. This includes compression vests, also known as “binders.”

According to the store’s owner Shelley Taylor, the store typically sees four or five young people a week seeking binders or gaffs, usually with their parents. The store’s staff are trained to deal sensitively with requests of this nature and make sure young people can find a good and comfortable fit.

Last week, a person under the age of 18 bought a binder at the store without their parents’ knowledge. And when their parents discovered the purchase, they called the City of Ottawa and had the store charged with a bylaw infraction. Because technically Venus Envy is a sex store and people under the age of 18 are not supposed to be allowed through the doors.

Members of the local queer/trans community are understandably outraged. First of all: it seems absurd that sexually active young people should be barred from accessing information about safer sex. If they are permitted to buy condoms and lube from a pharmacy, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so from a store that specializes in sex education? But secondly, the fact that this is the only store that carries binders and gaffs (which are items not even remotely related to sex) points to a bigger problem. Trans youth need access to essential services and a sex shop shouldn’t be the only place for them to purchase items that are crucial to the expression of their gender identity.

There are lots of ideas brewing in the community about how to fix this. A benevolent anonymous purchasing program that allows adults to buy these items for the teens who may need them? An arrangement with a local social service agency to provide binders and gaffs? A campaign to change the bylaw, so young people can gain access to spaces that support their sexuality and gender identities?

I hope that the outrage over this ticket reaches the young person who was brave enough to enter Venus Envy last week and make a purchase that was obviously so important to them. I want this kid to know that we have their back. That there is a whole community to support them. That one day, they will be free of their parents’ authority. That their voice and their choices matter. I don’t want to lose another Skylar. We need to do better. In the meantime, I want to say this to the staff at Venus Envy: thank you.

You can support Venus Envy by buying from them, either in store or online. I have a feeling you may find something there you like. 

*** UPDATE: I just heard from Shelley Taylor that the ticket has been waived. Venus Envy is going to be granted an all-ages license to make sure that youth can access the store. The only concession they had to make was to stop selling porn DVDs, which is not a huge loss for them. They are also going to start a “par-it-forward” program so community members can help purchase binders and gaffs for the youth that need them. This is the best news. Special thanks goes to city councillor Catherine McKenney and her amazing staff for making this happen. ***