It can't have been much of a surprise to anyone when Pink Triangle Press announced that it would run the last non-electronic edition of Xtra this month. The paper, which serves the queer communities in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, had been getting wafer-thin – part of the advertising shift that has been pummelling print journalism.
Since 1991, I've been penning stories for Xtra, which launched in 1984 as a Toronto-only publication. But long before I began writing for it, I used to pick it up and read about issues facing sexual minorities. While the mainstream press was still having a difficult time covering the AIDS crisis in the eighties, Charles Grochmal, a Toronto-based activist who had AIDS, wrote lucidly and angrily from the trenches of the epidemic. Titled simply Chuck, his column – the first of its kind in the Canadian press – did precisely what advocacy journalism should do: give voice to a person dealing with the crisis.
Mr. Grochmal's writing was so intimate, it gave me that unreal sense that I knew him, though we'd never met. I remember getting choked up when I read his obituary in 1990.
Some have argued that, with greater acceptance of LGBTQ people and awareness of the issues that face them, we no longer need a queer press. We do. The storied history of both Xtra and the long-defunct Pink Triangle magazine The Body Politic – which published from 1971 to 1987 – give reason to believe in the impact that an independent queer press can have. In fact, I'd argue that if it weren't for Xtra and TBP we wouldn't be where we are now: full legal equality, far greater acceptance and awareness of queer people, and a younger generation for whom homophobia is not the default position.
It's important to recall that when The Body Politic began publishing, sodomy had only recently been removed from the Criminal Code, and gays and lesbians still faced the prospect of job loss if their sexual orientation became known. Noteworthy for its mix of agitprop reportage and keen reflections on culture, TBP was home to some of the best writers of a couple of generations, including Stan Persky, Richard Dyer, Jane Rule, Gerald Hannon, Sue Golding and Thomas Waugh.
TBP courted controversy in a manner that antagonized many in the queer community (not to mention the straight majority). To this day, some argue that Mr. Hannon's articles on "man-boy," or intergenerational, love reflected a twisted logic at best. But others said that even unpopular opinions had a right to be heard. Pink Triangle was charged with publishing "immoral, indecent or scurrilous material" in regard to the Hannon piece; and it faced similar charges a few years later for an article entitled Lust With a Very Proper Stranger. In both cases, the publisher prevailed in court.
But there was a bigger reason Pink Triangle chose to cease printing The Body Politic: It was simply proving too difficult to get national advertisers for a magazine with such a niche market. (An anthology of TBP writing, Flaunting It!, was published by New Star Books in 1982, and every issue of the magazine will soon be available online thanks to a joint venture by PTP and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.) That local-advertising need would come to be met by the Toronto launch of Xtra, a publication that many critics initially dismissed as a bar rag (due in part to its local-tavern-heavy ad content).
In 1993, Xtra spawned siblings in Ottawa and Vancouver, and set about to continue the TBP's legacy, albeit with articles that were often a bit shorter and less international in scope.
But despite its critics and those who lamented the loss of The Body Politic, PTP editors were determined that it continue to create a space where queer writers could analyze issues and express opinions not always found in mainstream media.
And indeed, Xtra continued to blaze trails. When the legal battles over same-sex marriage were being fought and won in Canada in the early 2000s, most mainstream papers were endorsing same-sex marriage, seemingly nervous about appearing homophobic. Xtra, by contrast, ran a series of editorials and articles questioning whether it was good for the queer community to be making marriage rights a priority. University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman wrote a particularly thoughtful column, pointing out that giving married people more benefits would leave out those who were single or in non-traditional relationships.
As recently as 2013, Xtra ran a series of articles examining the new drug Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which allows users to engage in condom-free sex with little fear of contracting HIV. While PrEP sounded like a breakthrough, Xtra questioned whether a widespread abandonment of condoms could lead to other outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections. While that risk did receive some coverage in mainstream media, Xtra explored it with an unparalleled depth.
Progress has been made, obviously, and publications such as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star have undoubtedly done exceptional reporting on queer issues and have employed many openly LGBTQ writers. But progress is not always permanent. All it takes is for one election to provide us with politicians hostile to the idea of a rainbow flag in a public square, and we're back to square one. For those reasons it is imperative that we have a press for and by Canada's evolving queer communities.
David Walberg, chief executive officer of digital media at Pink Triangle Press, insists that the publication continues to grow on its website and YouTube channel. That's a good thing, because the legacy of The Body Politic and Xtra proves that Canada needs and deserves a vibrant, independent queer press.