5 min

Remember your first Xtra?

Hide it under your bed or your mom will see it

COVER ME. After 400 issues, we've got the look down pat. Credit: Xtra files

It’s telling that people can remember where they were, who they were with and what they were doing when they first picked up Xtra. But they usually can’t remember its contents.

People remember the personal ads, the community contact numbers, the events listings. They remember where they hid it – or where they didn’t.

But a first Xtra is more than a sum of its parts. It doesn’t matter what it contained – it was a gay newspaper, damn it, and that fact overshadowed all others. Love it or hate it, Xtra is closely connected to many Torontonians’ experiences of coming out. Maybe that’s why the emotions Xtra draws are so passionate.

To mark Xtra’s 400th issue, we asked readers about their first experience with Toronto’s Gay And Lesbian Biweekly – or The Body Politic’s Guide To Gay Life In Toronto, as it might have been.

I read The Body Politic, so when Xtra came out, I found it fluffier. It was an easier thing. I was working at Trax in those days. All I remember is there was a lot of pink in the first one.

– Peter Croke, bartender at The 501

I knew Xtra was a follow-up to The Body Politic, so I was looking for it. When I saw it, I thought Xtra was a lot better; the other one was too heavy on the politics, it didn’t give very much information about the gay area, social activities. Xtra was more colourful. I still like Xtra for that.

– Frank Deturse, volunteer at the 519 Church Street Community Centre

I was trying to research a paper about same-sex domestic violence for school about four years ago. There wasn’t a whole lot written about it. I was lucky that I found some articles by Ailsa Craig in Xtra at the Lesbian And Gay Archives. It was a three part article and it wasn’t just telling you about it. It was written in first person and it seemed like one of the first times that the public was talking about it. It was the first time I saw the community recognize the fact that we have problems too.

– Jenn Kuo, graphic artist

I was still living at home. I had come out to a few people. The first time I heard about Xtra was on CKLN. I can’t remember where I picked it up. I took it home to read at my parent’s home. Obviously it had to be hidden. I remember thinking that I wanted to look through it in public, but I couldn’t. It was in early ’92. The one thing that stands out in my head was that there’d be pictures of two women together or two men together. I thought it was so erotic and sexual. I was so hungry for images.

– Vashti, co-director of Desh Pardesh

I was living in Winnipeg and was visiting Toronto. I was surprised to find out there was such a publication. I think I took it back to the hotel and read through it. By the time I moved to Toronto it was everywhere.

– Bruce McDonald, director-at-large, The Fraternity

I was living in Kitchener-Waterloo and I was supposed to be going to my girlfriend’s formal. It was 1988. I faked being sick and got in her dad’s convertible Jag. I knew about Toronto’s gay area. I went to Chaps in a tuxedo. I picked up what I thought was Now magazine, but it turned out to be Xtra. I took it home and hid it under my bed. I used it for the contact numbers and the personal ads, for a long time. I realized there was actually a community out there, looking for the same things I was. I was shocked and thrilled at the same time. It was showing me an area of Toronto I didn’t really know. I don’t know if it was the first one, but I remember the cover with Fruit Cocktail.

– Steve Hertel, bartender at Buddies

It was at the Women’s Book Stop in Hamilton when I was 15 about six years ago. Xtra was sitting in one of those wire frame holders and I picked it up without knowing what it was. I remember thinking, “Wow, a whole newspaper full of gay people.” It gave me a real sense of comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone and that at least in Toronto there were people like me. Of course I’ve met people in Hamilton since then but I remember thinking that I had to go to Toronto for university because I had to be part of this community that even had its own paper.

– Carys Carmani, student

At 16, Xtra magazine was a saviour to me, liberation from a state of uncertainty and anguish that came with the onslaught of puberty. I don’t think I could ever forget my first encounter with it. It was a rainy Tuesday night in May of 1991 when I sauntered onto the TTC in Scarborough. Max Ophüls’ The Earrings Of Madame De… was playing at the Bloor Cinema. As I made my way out of the theatre I picked up all of the weeklies including the weirdly folded one called Xtra. Back on the subway train I opened it up and was ushered into a world I had been desperate to find. I couldn’t believe my eyes. When I got home I hurried into my room and read the paper from cover to cover, lingering on the ads for Wega Video that seemed to satisfy a long and torturous craving. I couldn’t wait for the new issue to hit the stands. I’d make the two-hour trek all the way back to the Bloor Cinema just to grab a copy of Xtra. I’d approach it the same way you would the porn section in a convenience store, waiting in front of the stands looking at the other papers until no one was around, then quickly slipping it between the covers of Now.

– Ryan Bissoon, marketing associate

I’m from a small town and everything gay was taboo. It was at my best friend’s apartment, late ’97 or early ’98. He had it out somewhere. It stunned me, really. Xtra was so completely different from anything I’d seen. I couldn’t believe there were actual gay activities.

– Michelle Chowns, participant of Summer ’99 theatre project

When I first came out ten years ago in my late teens, I would come downtown and hang out in the ghetto and explore my newly discovered sexuality. I would pick up a copy of Xtra at Glad Day and go for coffee. These first readings of Xtra opened up the wide and glorious gay world for me and showed me that in spite of being seemingly a unique and solitary creature, that there were many more people like me, just maybe not in Whitby. I would stand tall and gorgeous when I read an article or saw an image of our city’s divine divas and my heart would quicken reading the personals as I would imagine the rendezvous that I would be party to later on.

– Nigel Lezama, writer

I was still living in Hamilton. It was one of my first few visits to the gay area of Toronto, around 1991. I’d check out the bookshops, the coffee shops. I hadn’t heard of Xtra before, but I when I found it, I was glad it existed. In 1992, I moved to Toronto to go to school. Nowadays I just flip through it to get an idea of what’s going on in the neighbourhood. I don’t read the articles. I used to.

– Jim Lopez, sales clerk at Out On The Street

I saw my first Xtra, oh, about 100 years ago. I remember the ads in Xtra struck me at the time – I didn’t know anything about gay life, so I was surprised. Our son came out in the ’70s but we didn’t get involved in PFLAG until about 12 years ago. Now I read almost every issue. We’re members of the Metropolitan Community Church and I pick it up there.

– Ruby Hamilton, president of PFLAG Toronto

I had paid for a full subscription to The Body Politic and then it folded and all that was left was Xtra. I don’t remember picking up my first issue, it was just there. I saw it as a commercial venture and a watered-down version of The Body Politic, so my initial impression was disappointment.

– Frank Chester, works at the Pride office

It was through my brother Ian in the summer of 1985. I was in high school and he was, I think, home visiting between high school and university. I found it in his room. He’s always been my arbiter of cool. I thought it was Now [magazine], but it must have been cooler because it was hidden. It was a drag queen on the cover, I think.

– Janis Purdy, Central Toronto Youth Services