The story that gripped the Canadian television world last week seems to have a happy ending. But for the LGBTQ2S+ community, it’s barely a beginning – one that exposed bleak truths about how far we haven’t come in representing queer Canadians.
It started April 5 with a good-news story in Toronto’s Now magazine: BYUtv, the television arm of Utah’s Brigham Young University – which is part-owned by the arch-conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as LDS, or Mormon) – in partnership with the Toronto production company marblemedia, hired a Canadian all-BIPOC creative team, led by showrunner Anthony Q. Farrell, to completely rewrite the scripts for a pair of series about a Black and white blended family, because the first drafts did not authentically represent Black characters and experiences. This, all players agreed, was a huge step forward, because the LDS church has a history of anti-Black racism. (The two series, The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker, premiere back-to-back April 19 on Super Channel.)
But late in the Now story, Farrell dropped this sentence, like a pebble into a pond: BYUtv series “couldn’t feature characters who are clearly identified as queer.” Mormonism forbids same-sex relationships and BYUtv was bringing that discrimination into Canadian-made television. Their exclusionary policy was “unwritten, but spoken,” Farrell confirmed in an interview April 9.
Outrage rippled outward. BYUtv was using Canadian talent to become a major player in kids-and-family programming. In addition to Farrell’s two series, they were financing upcoming seasons of Holly Hobby; working with the production companies Aircraft and Shaftesbury; and partnering with CBC on the upcoming animated series Overlord and The Underwoods. Most importantly, their series were being partially funded with Canadian tax dollars (through media funds and tax incentives), even though discrimination based on sexual orientation is forbidden by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Queer writers and allies shared their anger and dismay privately and via social media. “I’m angry. I’m frustrated,” the screenwriter Aaron Martin (Degrassi: The Next Generation) told me. “I put gay teens on Degrassi 21 years ago. It feels gross that we’re still having these conversations.”
“BYUtv uses all these words – family content, co-viewing. Well, LGBTQ2S+ people do those things, too,” said the screenwriter Sean Reycraft (Killjoys, Coroner). “Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for teens in Utah. Queer kids are five times as likely to consider suicide as straight kids. Representation is important, so you’re not taught to be ashamed of who you are.”
To be clear, no one is suggesting that these kids’ series should include sex. Merely acknowledge that we live in a world where LGBTQ2S+ people are parents, family friends, coffee shop owners, etc. As well, the Mormon church is politically active in the United States. Would it use money earned from Canadian content to contribute to anti-LGBTQ2S+ legislation?
The Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) called an emergency meeting of its diversity committee, and drafted a statement of LGBTQ2S+ support, as did ACTRA (the actors’ guild) and BIPOC TV & Film. The journalist and screenwriter JP Larocque (Diggstown, Jann) organized a group Zoom; for nearly two hours, 50 queer TV writers exchanged myriad stories of how they’d been marginalized.
Here’s how fast things happened: On Thursday morning I sent an e-mail to CBC, asking how they could justify doing business with BYUtv. At 2:30 p.m., Chuck Thompson, the head of public affairs, sent back this statement: “In light of what has surfaced, our programming team has told the producers at marblemedia that for CBC to stay on as a partner, we need to be assured BYUTV’s values regarding diversity and inclusion are aligned with ours.”
Later that day, BYUtv released its own statement, which read in part, “We desire to address subjects – including LGBTQ+ – that are important to our growing and diverse audience.” Marblemedia announced that Overlord and The Underwoods will include queer characters, and said they were “having conversations with BYUtv about LGBTQ representation in future seasons of The Parker Andersons/Amelia Parker.”
Problem solved? Far from it.
First, it’s important to note that the LGBTQ2S+ creators I spoke to were not castigating Farrell or his writers for working with BYUtv. In fact, many acknowledged that white showrunners on other BYUtv series did not call out these exclusionary policies.
In a video interview on Friday, Farrell was frank about his reasons for working with BYUtv: “The truth is, there are doors we have to get into. Sometimes we all can’t get through at same time. I was never like, ‘We finished it!’ I was like, ‘This is a way to begin.’”
The Canadians to hold accountable for working with BYUtv are the ones who control the money: producers, production companies and networks. They can’t pretend they didn’t realize what BYUtv is about; Mormon ideology is well known. To understand how things got this far before BYUtv changed its policy (the optimistic view) or got caught (the cynical, or realistic, view), you have to understand the Canadian television landscape. It’s dire.
“Our TV industry has been decimated,” WGC president Alex Levine told me. “Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and others are dragging eyeballs away from traditional broadcasters, and paying nothing to Canada. Traditional broadcasters are failing. They cry poor to the CRTC, which reduces the amount they’re required to spend on Canadian content. So they’re not making Canadian shows.”
In 2015, Canada made 808 episodes of live-action television under WGC jurisdiction. In 2020 it made 447 episodes – a drop of nearly 45 per cent. Among the major broadcast groups, production is down at CBC by 24 per cent; at Rogers, 28 per cent; at Corus, 88 per cent; and at Bell, 96 per cent. “The end result is, Canadian producers are scrambling to find outside partners, and Canadian screenwriters are scrambling for work,” Levine said. “So many of our writers have fled to Los Angeles. A generation lost, and they don’t come back.”
So when BYUtv arrived with its deep pockets, some Canadians shook hands first and planned to tackle the problems later. In a video interview, two marblemedia executive producers – Mark Bishop, co-CEO; and Carrie Paupst Shaughnessy, vice president, scripted – said the same thing, word for word, to describe their “ongoing discussions” with BYUtv about queer representation: “It’s never been ‘no,’ it’s been, ‘We’re not quite ready for that yet.’” They used phrases like “open conversations about hard subjects” and “slow but positive evolution.”
Which is fine, as long as BYUtv delivers on its promises. There are a lot of eyes on them now, what Levine calls “watchful waiting.” But that’s hard to police. BYUtv could easily skirt around complying: queer characters could appear on its shows, but in retro, veiled ways. Queer stories could be shot, then edited away. It’s difficult to believe that in a matter of hours, an LDS-owned streamer could reverse long-standing church policy. The danger in the meantime is that by being so nakedly desperate for work, Canada sends a message to the world that we’re open for business, even to companies whose policies violate our beliefs.
There’s another layer to this story, too. As upsetting and enraging as BYUtv’s exclusion policy was, the fact that it was overt may be, ironically, a positive. Queer creators of television in Canada have long been marginalized and discriminated against – by fellow Canadians. It’s simply been subtler.
“Canadian producers do that gatekeeping all the time,” said writer/producer Noelle Carbone (Wynonna Earp, Cardinal). “They just say, ‘Oh, we like Story B better.’ I’ve had pitches thrown out because the producers ‘don’t connect’ with the story. I’ll change the sexuality to straight and suddenly it works.”
Writers create a gay or diverse character, and it’s cast with someone straight or white. They’ll get notes freighted with subliminal meaning, such as, “How is this a Canadian story?” The industry is so small, few writers dare to go on the record. Showrunners with histories of racist or homophobic behaviour continue working. “I don’t think there’s a marginalized person in the world who hasn’t had to give up some of our soul to make money to feed our family,” Farrell said.
“These last few days have been so powerful, sharing stories with my queer peers, heartbreaking experiences that we’ve never talked about, even over bottles of wine,” the screenwriter and producer Michael MacLennan (Bomb Girls, Tiny Pretty Things) told me. “I’m trying to understand why I haven’t.”
“Personally, this BYUtv situation opened up deep wounds,” Larocque said. “Hearing the slurs, the homophobic verbal violence people have endured. Thinking about all the times I would be hired, not as the writer, but as the consultant to the straight writer.”
The WGC plans to address these issues at its annual forum on April 24 and 25. It’s also planning a town hall in May, to bring together writers, producers, production companies and broadcasters.
But now, when people are galvanized, is the time to address these systemic problems, Carbone said: “This is a watershed moment for our industry. A moral watershed moment. There will never be enough money for Canadian TV. So if we don’t do a gut check now, who are we?”
“Whenever I’ve pitched queer-centric stories, I’ve always been told, ‘It’s too niche,’” MacLennan said. “But niche can be a sweet spot. Where’s our Book of Negroes, a miniseries about gay history, the bathhouse raids, AIDS? People think the battle has been won for queer representation? It clearly hasn’t.”
Reycraft summed it up: “Canada has done more series starring German shepherds than they have series starring gay people.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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