7 min

20 years of shining the light

Practising community journalism is vital, but it’s a difficult task

Capital Xtra publisher and editor Brandon Matheson (left) and advertising sales manager George Hartsgrove in 1993, as they appeared on the first page of the first edition. Credit: Shawn Scallen

Forty-two years ago, in August 1971, a group of about 100 activists braved a rainy day to gather on Parliament Hill for Canada’s first gay rights demonstration. On Sept 14, 1971, seven men gathered to form Ottawa’s first gay organization. The meeting was held at the home of Maurice Bélanger and Michael Black. On Oct 13, they adopted the name Gays of Ottawa (GO), and Bélanger and Paul Wise became co-chairs of the group.

Twenty-five years later, in 1996, we interviewed John Duggan, one of the community’s earliest leaders, and asked why so few records exist of those early years. “It didn’t occur to any of us at the time that any of this would be of importance,” he said.

“The creation of GO would transform the way Ottawa’s lesbian and gay population lived, because it would establish a community. Finally there was a formal and accessible way to connect with others,” Neil Herland wrote in Issue 36.

“Before then, you always had to know someone who was on the inside,” long-time activist Barry Deeprose recounted at the time.

Our community’s history has sometimes been lost. Other times it’s repeated itself. Periods are celebrated, others mourned. In victory and defeat, chaos and silence, our history never stops advancing. The importance of documenting it is one of the pillars of “Daring Together,” the mission statement that guides our publishing company, Pink Triangle Press (PTP), and informs our work at Xtra:

Gay life was built from social circumstance

by conscious will and daunting work

What came before is foundation, inspiration, a lesson and a warning.

We seek to own our history: we learn and teach and guard it.

As I flipped through old issues of Capital Xtra, daunted by thoughts of ever trying to do justice in this space to our 20 years in print, a common thread emerged from the pages that tied our paper’s work to that rainy August day in 1971 and to the men gathered in that living room: the importance of everyday people being visible.

From the beginning, Capital Xtra set out to provide a gay and lesbian newspaper that would speak to, and shine light on, a broader community by providing professional coverage of issues and events that shape our lives; stories about everyday people, being visible, working to create change.

In August 1993, I stepped away from my work as a news editor and reporter on Parliament Hill, hired by PTP to launch an Ottawa division. In Vancouver, Xtra West had launched a preview issue in July. The first issue of Capital Xtra hit streets on Sept 24. Both papers followed in the footsteps of our well-aged Toronto sibling, Xtra, founded in 1984 — itself an offspring of The Body Politic, the revolutionary paper that led to the creation of PTP.

The gay community press was alive and well in Ottawa decades before our arrival, but it had fallen victim to the ravages of time and political in-fighting, and it faced an identity crisis. Meanwhile, Ottawa’s gay community was developing at an ever-faster pace and entering a dynamic period of increased activity and visibility. The debut of Capital Xtra met the dawn of a new era in the 1990s and helped the light shine a bit brighter.

A city long characterized by the political and historical conservatism of being the Capital, Ottawa has never shed its small-town roots, and practising professional community journalism is not an easy task — nor is it work embraced by everyone in our community. Covering a group of often intimate and interwoven activists and community leaders — at times also neighbours and friends — has ranged from challenging to downright difficult.

Capital Xtra regularly receives heat for treating our community organizations and our leaders as newsworthy and newsmakers,” Tracey Clark observed in her Rude Girl column in 1996 — an understatement. Writing fearless but thoughtful news stories about your own community requires a commitment to fairness, accuracy and honesty over ideology and popularity. It requires a passionate fire in the belly to be not a writer, but a reporter. It will never be a popular or easy job.

Community news reporting is often the difficult and misunderstood part of our work, but as a newspaper we cannot turn a blind eye toward controversy, nor shortcomings in our community and its leaders. PTP and the Xtra papers exist to push for change, and the stories that we write encourage people to take part in pushing for change, as written in “Daring Together”:

Through the customs of their people, the web of their associations,

the output of their artists and the practice of their commerce,

communities are made and know themselves.

Through strife and argument
they grow.

Because communities give birth to movements, we nurture them.

Words are power and they always serve some purpose.

Others use them to oppress us. We use them to express our lives.

We assail the work of censors. Our drive is to arouse debate,

to inform and to enlighten in a fair and honest way.

It’s important to note and caution that, realistically, Xtra is not for everyone. It’s naive to think one publication (or any community organization) can be all things to all people. Xtra is not “the voice” of the gay and lesbian community — a mantle some eagerly want to bestow in their critiques and expectations. Xtra cannot claim to represent the entire community, no more than any mainstream Ottawa newspaper can claim to represent 100 percent of Ottawans. Our community is diverse in beliefs, ideas, desires and politics; we are our own voice in the community and just one of many.

While we exercise our voice, do not construe that to mean we do not listen. Constructive criticism still perks up our ears and garners our attention; and, after two decades of practice, it’s not hard to distinguish it from common refrains by nattering naysayers.

Milestones are a time of reflection. With the name Capital Xtra having fallen to history and now Xtra Ottawa celebrating our past 20 years working to build community, foremost in my thoughts are the staff and freelancers along the journey. So many people have contributed to our success that it’s impossible to list everyone here. To each of you whose name has appeared in our masthead, a sincere thank-you; for a period of time, each of you helped write our paper’s history and our community’s history.

I would like to acknowledge the paper’s first roster of regular columnists — Michael Graydon, Andrew Griffin, Don MacLean, Irshad Manji, Jim Oldham (who died of an AIDS-related illness in August 1997), Frank Shane and Maria Stewart — each instrumental to establishing Capital Xtra’s voice in the community. Photographer Shawn Scallen started snapping photos for Issue 1. Also, an incalculable amount of credit and thanks goes to George Hartsgrove, our first advertising manager, who tirelessly built an advertising foundation to support our editorial activities. These people were there in the beginning, and each brought to the table talent, insight, humour, dedication and friendship that made my job as the founding publisher and editor much easier. It was a special, exciting time that I am grateful to have been part of.

To staff today, who diligently and creatively produce each month the pages we read, thank you; you are an amazing team, with much to be proud of. Also, Xtra Ottawa exists today because of our faithful readers and advertisers; thank you — I am grateful for your participation and support. We need you, to continue our work.

Xtra Ottawa and PTP are not immune from the rapidly changing media landscape. To ensure this paper saw its 20th anniversary, we had to innovate. A few years back, I closed the Ottawa office and moved to a mobile staff; the savings enabled us to remain in print. It’s a bone of contention still today for a small group, but the reality was clear to me: the importance of 27,000 monthly readers being able to hold this paper in their hands easily won out over an office rarely visited by the public or a few community leaders.

Out of economic and operational necessity, with our sights set on building a new foundation for a stronger future, and to keep pace with a new era in media, PTP is now a digital-first company. As reading and advertising habits continue to change, today you will find more Ottawa stories on our website, dailyxtra.com, than you will ever find in print. We know our future is online.

To be honest, I do not know what future this printed newspaper has — but to be clear, as I write this, we have no plans yet to abandon print. Next year? Five years? Ten years? I honestly don’t know. None of us here at PTP knows. We’re feeling our way through history, adapting to change as need be, as we have been wont to do since The Body Politic started publishing in 1971. Our ability to change, innovate — and at times make difficult decisions to ensure a better future — is why today PTP is one of the oldest continuously operating community organizations in Canada. I am honoured and proud to be among the ranks of PTPers.

August marked 20 years of my 30-year media career spent at PTP. Personally, I have always been a “media guy” first, but somewhere en route I became an “accidental activist.” I’ve grown up gay in a world that owes much to those people in the rain on Parliament Hill, and, with 14 years of living in Ottawa under my belt, to those men in the living room. As I reflect on the past 20 years of Xtra’s work and that period of Ottawa’s history, among my thoughts is simply this:

Mr Duggan, I’m proud we were here to write it down.

More on Xtra Ottawa's 20th anniversary:

Thinking back to Frontlash, a column that sparked discussion and ruffled the status quo

Our spaces, September 1993 — a look back at where Ottawa's gay community gathered 20 years ago

Will & Grace versus La Petite Mort — Comparing 20 years of queer representation in Ottawa and in pop culture

Whither Ottawa's gay community — the early gay movement's shared aim is disappearing

Headlines from 10 years ago — Some of the stories from the 10th anniversary issue, Sept 11, 2003

Headlines from 20 years ago — some of the stories from our first issue

Memoirs of an Art Fag — this '90s scenester column tackled both politics and culture