4 min

Vandals target Xtra newspaper boxes

Window display papers deliberately removed

A religious message was left inside the window of at least two Xtra boxes in Toronto. Credit: Andrea Houston

Religious messages have been left in at least two Xtra boxes in Toronto.

The small, hand-written, square notes quote the Bible, from Matthew 25:41: “Everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels. The Devil deceives (keeps people from God’s absolute truth – ‘Except ye be born again. Ye cannot enter heaven.’) He deceives angels into turning from serving God to follow him out of heaven!”

Craig Palmer, distribution coordinator for Xtra and fab magazines, says that while the notes are upsetting, he’s relieved they were not glued to box windows.

This is not the first time gay-press newspaper boxes have been deliberately targeted. People have been scrawling hateful messages and homophobic slurs on Xtra and fab boxes for years. (More examples here , here and here.)

In February, stickers printed in a font similar to Xtra‘s cover were posted on boxes that said, “Repent, remember Sodom and Gomorrah.” They were often stuck to plastic box windows, making them difficult to remove. There are about 200 Xtra boxes throughout Toronto, 100 of which are pink combo boxes that also hold fab. Each box costs about $250 to replace.

“That was quite an issue,” Palmer says. “They were difficult to take off.”

Now the vandals have a new method.

Over the past three months, someone has also been making a determined effort to ensure copies of Xtra are not picked up at all, by removing the display copies from the boxes’ front windows. 

“Not to give them credit, but this is the smartest way they can do it, taking out the papers in the window,” Palmer says. “That gives the impression that there are no papers remaining inside the box, so our message is not getting out to people. It’s very damaging.

“This has been happening in all of downtown; 60 or more boxes have been hit so far, Parliament to Parkdale. Other cities with Xtra have also been hit with this kind of targeting.”

Palmer says he is launching a campaign in the latest edition of Xtra and fab — a friendly request to readers to replace the removed display paper if it’s missing. “We’re asking our readers to help us keep our papers in the box windows.

“This is a big issue. Maybe it doesn’t seem as violent as spray-painting the box with slurs, but it’s actually more dangerous,” he says. “The message is the most important thing.”

In the past, vandals have emptied the stacks of papers inside boxes and filled them with garbage, glued the doors shut or even set fire to the contents.

In some cases, the boxes have been knocked over and covered with spray-painted homophobic slurs, like “faggot” or “AIDS.”

After one series of attacks in Ottawa, in 2005, the vandal was caught and charged. At that time Xtra Ottawa newspaper boxes were repeatedly painted shut or had their doors screwed shut. Others were defaced with swastikas, while adjacent newspaper boxes were untouched.

Thomas Strain was charged with four counts of mischief under $5,000 and one count of mischief over $5,000 in connection with the incidents. The judge acknowledged that the vandalism was a hate crime and sentenced Strain to three months of house arrest. During Strain’s spree, Xtra Ottawa spent more than $10,000 in box upkeep.

Strain was caught after Xtra partnered with a local coffee shop that allowed the installation of cameras to monitor a box that was targeted repeatedly, says Gareth Kirkby, former director of engagement at Pink Triangle Press, Xtra‘s publisher. “We were able to get a visual. Then, undercover detectives eventually caught this person. He turned out to be quite disturbed, brought up by horribly homophobic parents and himself had a very complex sexuality.

“More than anything, we got him the help he needed. In the end, the courts treated it as a hate crime . . . My fear was that this person was on the verge of snapping. Everyone seemed to agree the community was right to be afraid.”

Kirkby says he has been fighting the deliberate targeting of Xtra boxes for almost 15 years, and he thinks attacks seem to be increasing.

“It appears to be getting worse in Toronto. I know for sure it’s getting worse in Vancouver. There’s no doubt that our boxes are targeted more now than when we first rolled them out in 1999 . . . In Vancouver we even have some people targeting our boxes by spreading shit on the inside.”

Kirkby says the culture in any city changes cyclically. Right now, he says, it feels all of Canada is facing an increased socially conservative influence. The boxes stand as a sign of our progress.

“Long ago we realized the boxes were not just boxes,” he says. “They are standing for all of us. They are symbols in our community. And they are symbols to those that hate us. To me, every time a box is attacked, it’s an attack on us. The box acts as a substitute. I believe the person would rather attack a queer person.”

Kirkby recalls one of the early days, as he was installing a box on a street in Toronto. An elderly gay man stopped him and thanked him. 

“He just couldn’t stop saying ‘thank you.’ He said, ‘Never in my life growing up in this city, growing up gay, and living life as a closeted, then out gay man, I never imagined a day when we would have gay newspaper boxes on the street next to the Sun and The Globe and Mail. You have no idea what that means to those of us that have been through it all.’ And I think our enemies get that in their own twisted way as well.”

Palmer hopes Xtra and fab readers will keep their eyes open to help catch the vandals in the act.

If you have information or spot other vandalized Xtra boxes, contact Xtra at 416-644-5204. If you see the vandals, snap a photo or video with your cellphone camera. You can also tweet @dreahouston or @xtra_canada.