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The $200 that started it all

Xtra's parent celebrates 35 years of liberation

FOUNDING DOLLARS. Peter Zorzi and Charles Dobie helped cover the printing costs for the first issue of The Body Politic, Xtra's predecessor.(Jules Chamberlain)

Thirty-five years after the founding of The Body Politic — the gay liberation magazine whose progeny includes Xtra newspapers in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, as well as websites and chatlines, which together generated more than $7.8 million in revenue in 2005 — it’s hard to believe that it all started with a loan of $200.

The money, lent by two of the 15 founding members of The Body Politic collective, paid to print the first issue of the magazine in October 1971.

Peter Zorzi and Charles Dobie, who now describe themselves as “two Lanark County geezers,” left the collective not long after that first loan, but have followed the press’s progress at a distance since then, through the founding of Pink Triangle Press, the not-for-profit formed in 1975 to publish The Body Politic, the founding of Xtra in 1984 as a supplement to the Body Politic, the demise of The Body Politic itself in 1987 and the birth of Xtra siblings in Vancouver and Ottawa in 1993.

Zorzi’s strict Catholic upbringing in the town of Saint-Eustache, just northwest of Montreal, told him homosexuals were deviant and abnormal. Even after he moved to Montreal at the age of 16 and began having sex with other men, Zorzi still thought of homosexuality as morally suspect.

By the time he moved to Toronto in 1969, Zorzi was comfortable with his sexuality. But he was still searching for a way to make sense of his difference. He eventually came upon a group of others struggling with the same questions — the Community Homophile Association Of Toronto (CHAT).

Charlie Dobie was on a similar quest. He considers the small town of Atikokan, west of Thunder Bay, as his hometown, although his family moved around quite a bit. He joined the navy at 19. It was in the navy that Dobie first learned that the word “gay” meant “homosexual.” Dobie moved to Toronto in 1963 and quickly got a job in the printing room of the Toronto Star.

“My straight friends were all getting married,” says Dobie, now 65. “There I was, 30 years old and never been kissed. So I decided to do something about that.”

His answer was to get involved with Guerilla, an underground alternative newspaper that had a few gay volunteers. As Guerilla’s photographer, he attended many community meetings, including those of Toronto Gay Action (TGA).

In 1971, Dobie and Zorzi met at a TGA meeting, and quickly began a relationship still going strong 35 years later. Through their involvement with these groups, the couple also became part of the founding Body Politic collective. Dobie was one of two founding members who had worked for a newspaper. And, it seems, one of the founding members who had a bit of cash to spare.

“The gay community will forever owe a debt of gratitude to Charlie and Peter for floating issue one of The Body Politic,” says early collective member Jearld Moldenhauer. “It provided the necessary link in the leap of faith between talk and action. Who would ever have guessed that what was soon to become Pink Triangle Press would grow into a multinational corporate success story?”

The idea for The Body Politic partly emerged out of tension in the ranks of Guerilla. While the weekly covered gay and lesbian issues, some straight people involved were wary of too much gay content.

“They thought gay stuff was cool because it was different,” says Dobie. “But the more gay content they ran, the more gay people got involved, and the more some of the straight guys felt threatened.”

People like Dobie, Zorzi and fellow Guerilla contributor Moldenhauer became increasingly frustrated with their limited access to the media. In August 1971, TGA organized a protest in Ottawa, a first in Canada. Despite that day’s torrential rains, about 100 activists took to Parliament Hill. To their surprise, media actually showed up. The primary goal was not necessarily to reach straight Canadians.

“We were announcing ourselves to other gay people,” he says. “The whole point of being an activist was to make room for ourselves as gay people…. This was about fighting self-oppression as much as anything.”

The rally empowered many of the TGA members to bypass straight people and start their own publication. Dobie and Zorzi, along with a handful of others including Moldenhauer, Aline Gregory, Herb Spears and Paul Macdonald, formed a collective intent on creating a lesbian and gay publication.

For a group of out and proud men and women, it is ironic that one of the most contentious first discussions was about contributors using their last names. The two women in the collective insisted that last names were marks of patriarchal authority, recalls Zorzi. So the collective decided against using last names.

There was more heated debate about the name of the publication itself. Among the suggestions were Mandala (a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” or “completion”), Radical Pervert and Cock And Cunt Sucker. According to Zorzi, collective member Tony Metie started suggesting names that had something to do with the body as well as with politics. Finally they picked The Body Politic, which also played off the word “bawdy.”

Though the collective members worked for free, printing came at a cost. That’s when Dobie and Zorzi loaned The Body Politic $200, which was repaid, then another few hundred dollars, which were also repaid.

Once the first issue was printed, collective members had to distribute it. Each member took bundles of the magazine and sold them for a quarter. Although gay bars were an obvious place to sell the paper, the bar owners — most of whom were straight — were not pleased.

“It was — surprise, surprise — our money that interested them, not our liberation,” says Zorzi.

Dobie and Zorzi had intended to stick with the collective after that first issue, but personality conflicts convinced the couple to put their energies elsewhere. In the early ’90s the couple moved out of the city. Today, they live on a farm in Smiths Falls, near Ottawa.

Dobie says that while the collective was a good model, it could only sustain itself for so long.

“I remember the screaming and arguing about putting in certain photographs of naked men because they were sexist or heterosexist or patriarchal or whatever. Everyone had the same power, but like a hung jury, one person had the power to block something from happening. The only way to break the stalemate was for that person to leave. And sometimes they did.”

By the mid-’80s, Zorzi says the community was different than it had been in 1971, which included the impact of AIDS. “Our lives had changed, so our institutions had to change with it,” he says.

Still, he wishes Xtra were a bit more like The Body Politic used to be. “I still see the activist theme in Xtra, but it’s not as challenging. Body Politic was more intellectual.”

Dobie laments that the community today is not as activist as it once was.

“Gay people are becoming very complacent nowadays. Now, we can even get married,” he says. “Now, gay people want to be just like straight people — respectable. To them, that means an engagement ring and a house in the suburbs.

“No one talks about different forms of sexuality or living arrangements, like communal marriages,” says Dobie.

Says Zorzi: “Back then, it wasn’t just a civil rights movement. It was a question of sex, sexuality and gender. It’s become simply about civil rights, but that’s not how it started.”