2 min

Starting out in my career

I am extremely grateful to Xtra and the role it plays in shaping and reflecting the diverse communities it addresses

Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote regularly for Xtra from 1997 to 2003. Credit: Xtra file photo

To celebrate Xtra’s 30 years of publishing in Toronto, we’re running a series of memories and musings from community members, current staff, writers and former staff members. 

I still remember how much I got paid for my first story as a journalist and what I did with the money. For the princely sum of 50 bucks, Xtra’s then arts editor, Gordon Bowness, asked me to write a feature on a book about women and style and the role gay designers played in turning public figures into sartorial icons. For an unemployed, relatively new immigrant — I had been living in Toronto for only about eight months — the money meant a week’s grocery bill plus a satisfying number of pizza slices and falafel sandwiches when I felt like splurging on a meal out. But food be damned. I needed new clothes to help me get laid. The preppy look wasn’t cutting it. Even though my need for sensible winter clothes to get me through my first Canadian winter was greater, sex trumped necessity, as it always did for me. (How I would have loved to end the previous sentence on the present tense — “as it always does for me” — but practicality and lower sex drive came with my soon-to-be-over 40s.) I picked up my cheque from the old Pink Triangle Press headquarters on Church Street, deposited it, immediately withdrew $50 and walked to the Gap on Queen Street West, where I had my eye on a pair of khaki pants that I then paired with a hand-me-down black sweater from my roommate’s boyfriend.

If this sounds like an immigrant rags-to-riches tale, that’s because it is. Clichés and narrative tropes exist for a reason. That first byline in Xtra in January of 1997 marked the beginning of my career as a journalist (and now professor of journalism) in Canada, and for that I remain extremely grateful to this publication and aware of the role it plays in shaping and reflecting the diverse communities it addresses.

I’m always stunned by the number of stories in it that I can’t find anywhere else in mainstream or indie media. Gay magazines exist for a reason, too. Starting out in the gay press meant never having to write from the closet as a journalist, even when working for a national newspaper. That made me at once cavalier — I often inserted references to The Golden Girls and Barbra Streisand songs in my Globe and Mail theatre reviews that only diehard queens would get and no copy editor ever did — and careful not to be thought of just as a gay writer. The balance between identity politics and personal ambition marked (and still marks) my life as journalist and author. Thank you, Xtra.