As a young, out woman, the boxes, which contained Canada’s self-proclaimed gay and lesbian newspaper, always caught my eye. It felt like my own special paper— an ally for people like me, claiming space in a city dominated by straight media.
In January 2015, Xtra’s publisher, Pink Triangle Press, announced the paper would cease publication of its print edition, moving to a more affordable online-only model. (Full disclosure: I worked for the paper curating letters and as an occasional freelance writer from 2012 until its closure.) Soon, those pink boxes would begin to disappear from Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa and their surrounding neighbourhoods. About a year earlier, PTP also ceased the publication of its other free gay magazine, fab. (Xtra served as Canada’s source for LGBTQ news. Fab was an arts and culture magazine targeted specifically at gay men.)
Losing both publications within such a short span of time was a blow to LGBTQ Canadians. These tangible symbols of community were relegated to—and easily lost within—the internet. While Canadian LGBTQ publications still exist—outwords in Winnipeg, Fugues in Montreal and Outport in Atlantic Canada—they are much less known, and not stocked in in-your-face neon street boxes. In other words, a physical representations of queer communities have died along with PTP’s publications.
In Toronto, Xtra distributed 36,000 copies and 20,000 in Vancouver twice monthly, and 15,000 in Ottawa every three weeks. For a sector of the population already underserved, it is an overwhelming loss—one that mainstream papers don’t seem to be addressing.
Queer publications have long served as vehicles of protest, representation and visibility. This was especially pertinent during the gay liberation movement, when magazines like the U.S.’s ONE and The Ladder and Canada’s Guerilla came into existence. In November 1971, a collective of activists started one of Canada’s best-known gay magazines, The Body Politic, in response to Toronto’s changing LGBTQ landscape—just a few months after the city’s first Pride picnic, inspired by New York’s Stonewall Riots of 1969.
The collective churned out issues, according to the late Toronto queer activist Rick Bébout’s online history of The Body Politic, as a means of organization: the magazine was “connecting people, informing them, mobilizing them.” Its purpose was inherently political—and symbolic.
The Body Politic eventually led to the creation of Pink Triangle Press; and when the rag closed after 15 years, publisher Ken Popert established Xtra in 1987. He agrees print editions of Xtra also played a powerful symbolic role. For instance, “in Ottawa, we wanted to be sure that every time a supreme court justice or a member of cabinet or MP would walk down the street, they would be reminded there was a gay and lesbian community around them,” he says.
Despite the significance of the paper in the areas where it was distributed, the move to discontinue the printed publications was long in the works. About two years ago, Xtra, by then an already loss-leading PTP publication, became “more of a summary of what was on the website,” he says, than an individual entity. Eventually, the cost of printing the paper outweighed its benefit.
PTP’s revamped news site Daily Xtra received as many readers as Xtra’s print editions according to Popert—meaning that giving the paper the axe was what he calls “a subtraction from the presence in our community.” That subtraction affects older members of the queer community who may not necessarily read Xtra online.
Where, then, can queer Canadians turn for representation in journalism when the need to foster visibility is now (once again) unmet?
Sure, mainstream publications have, over the years, begun to cover more queer-centric stories—and they can afford to do so: Papers such as The Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star have more resources than most community publications combined. But readers are unlikely to find coverage as thorough and in-depth as that of a queer paper. Rarely do LGBTQ issues make the front page—unless, of course, there is a major human rights story (the recent Irish referendum for same-sex marriage, for instance), or unless it’s Pride week. In March, coverage of Toronto city council’s support for Canada’s first LGBTQ transitional shelter stood out as an example. Still, the Star was the lone paper to cover the story, quoting only the shelter’s spokesperson. Searches for coverage in the National Post and the Globe came up empty. Less newsy stories, such as the changing face of gaybourhoods or a raw look at the queer youth affected by homelessness—both of which were compelling Xtra cover stories—seem to go unrecognized.
Another one of Xtra’s biggest success stories came in 2011 at the hands of then-lead reporter Andrea Houston. Beginning with a short piece about students barred from starting a gay-straight alliance at their Catholic high school, Houston continued to follow queer teens looking to establish LGBTQ support groups in their schools. Eventually, mainstream media began covering the story—until it reached Queen’s Park in 2012. The result was the passage of the Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, which prohibits administration from banning the creation of GSAs.
For Houston, Xtra had the appeal of both reaching a specific, often underserved community and the potential to influence beyond queer Canadians—especially when covering major, politically charged stories, such as her GSA series. “It was about breaking stories that affected wider change,” she says.
But even when mainstream papers pick up these stories, the odds of a queer journalist covering a queer story in a mainstream paper are slim. This is despite the fact that often, reporters who are members of the LGBTQ community are able to produce content about queer issues that is more nuanced and thorough. The connection between queer reporter and source and a better understanding of the complex history of the community are factors. It’s also easier to overlook important stories when they don’t affect a community a reporter belongs to, as seen with stories of Ontario’s passage of Bill 77, which will ban LGBTQ conversion therapy in the province, or the attack of Toronto drag queen Ryan Boa.
The disconnect is even more obvious when considering columnists—from the likes of the Globe‘s Margaret Wente or the Post‘s Barbara Kay, both high-profile but straight women who have little personal connection to the LGBTQ community. The two have recently been criticized for their takes on transgender rights (when Wente claimed we, as a society, have “gone too far” with trans kids, or when Kay downplayed the importance of removing gender from birth certificates as a matter of semantics).
Some former Xtra journalists have vacated the industry—Danny Glenwright, former editor-in-chief, is executive director of the non-profit Journalists for Human Rights, and after a brief stint at NOW Magazine, Houston works as Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo’s executive assistant.
An openly queer former web producer for the National Post, Lauren Strapagiel sums the predicament up best: “Queer publications talk to their audiences. Mainstream publications talk about queer communities.”(Strapagiel recently moved to BuzzFeed Canada, where she is aiming to produce more LGBTQ content.)
Perhaps, following the death of Xtra, there is no solution. Instead, queer Canadians are left to lament the loss of a physical representation of their community—though some of those pink boxes still stand, empty, today—with the internet as the only source for queer-oriented news by queer journalists. With advertising revenue declining, many print publications are suffering a slow demise—something community papers would be hard-pressed to address.
But the lack of visibility—even if just the hopeful sight of bright pink boxes on a street corner—will be dearly missed, a loss for queer generations to come.