5 min

Why does Xtra do some of the things it does?

Take a peek behind the curtain

“Xtra makes me hate myself,” scoffs my bona fide artfag friend while cranking open the lid of the purple Xtra box. He clutches his copy of the latest edition of Toronto’s gay and lesbian newspaper, shaking his head.

“Their agenda-setting lefty politics, their old-school thinking, the full-frontal nudity,” he quips, slapping the front cover with the backs of his fingers. “And to think they own fab. Geez!”

Just another angry reader, I think. I cut my frustrated friend some Xtra slack. Having some experience as a writer and editor in Toronto’s gay press, hearing irate readers bitch is actually music to my ears. It means he’s engaged.

But why bash Xtra? It has done some fantastic things. It has defined queer activist journalism in Canada for the last 25 years. It has passionately fought for the rights of queer people everywhere, pointing fingers at homophobia when homophobia strikes. It also supports queer communities, offering up ad space, editorial coverage and community relations support for causes as diverse as literary events, Pride Week and burlesque troupes.

But I suppose it isn’t easy being a newspaper that has to report all the bad news. In a post-raids, post-AIDS crisis, post-same-sex marriage world, it must not be easy to engage readers with stories about gaybashing, alleged homophobia and calls to defeat Stephen Harper’s government. The last thing queer readers want is more bad news.

Ironically when Xtra first launched in March 1984 (coincidently the same year the now-defunct Second Cup with its famous steps opened on Toronto’s Church St) it wasn’t the politically minded newspaper you see today. It was more or less a party and community guide, a lighter alternative to the political, radical, intellectual, oh-so-serious tone of The Body Politic, the gay liberation magazine of the ’70s and ’80s.

Both titles were produced by the not-for-profit Pink Triangle Press (PTP). Founded in 1971, PTP has grown a lot. Its flagship Xtra brand includes and papers in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. PTP also publishes fab magazine and the international travel magazine The Guide, both of which also have online versions. Also crowded under the PTP umbrella are gay hookup services and Cruiseline, the international travel television show Bump and a stake in digital specialty channel OutTV.

“Xtra was an attempt to be more popular than The Body Politic,” says Ken Popert, PTP president and executive director. It was initially distributed as a compact, foldable pamphlet. “Something free that people could stuff in their pockets.”

Xtra’s early editions brimmed with gay party listings, personal ads and advertisements for the popular gay bars of the day, like Chaps and Colby’s. It had a flashy, hot-pink design and eventually published accessible stories that appealed even to coked-out Crisco queens.

How The Body Politic was compared to the early editions of Xtra seems eerily similar to some of today’s comparisons between Xtra and fab.

“People called Xtra a clone paper,” says PTP publisher and editor-at-large David Walberg, who started at Xtra in 1989 as a part-time production assistant. The clones in those days were the moustache, tight jeans and bulging package set.

“It was the dawn of desktop publishing,” recalls Walberg. “We had just bought a Macintosh computer that cost like $10,000. We developed our own photos. We had a darkroom.”

The Body Politic folded in 1987 and as events transpired and times changed Xtra grew and adapted, reporting on the political battles of the 1990s and 2000s: the defeat of the Ontario NDP’s Bill 167, which would have granted spousal rights to same-sex couples; the raids at Remington’s, the Bijou and Pussy Palace; the censorship battles of Little Sister’s and Glad Day bookshops; same-sex marriage and, more recently, the debate surrounding the criminalization of HIV/AIDS.

During Canada’s most seminal queer times over the last 25 years, of which only a few are mentioned here, Xtra was there, notepad and pen in hand, reporting and conspiring on issues of huge import to gay and lesbian Canadians.

As my Xtra-bashing friend so pointedly demonstrates, it’s the paper’s contemporary approach to activist journalism that earns it a love/hate relationship with some of its readers. Xtra’s top dogs know that and eagerly point out that the paper is fuelled by a political agenda of activism and sexual liberation, not a desire to make money on the backs of a blissfully ignorant readership.

 “It’s our job to make people uncomfortable and poke them in the eye,” says Popert. “We encourage people to be self-critical.”

That’s true even — or maybe especially — if it means criticizing people and institutions within Toronto’s gay and lesbian communities.

“Gay and lesbian people deserve to know what’s really going on in their communities,” says Matt Mills, Xtra’s editorial director. “As part of its work Xtra tries to ensure that gay and lesbian community organizations, and the people who lead them, are transparent and accountable to gay and lesbian people. It’s not about being mean or tearing people down, it’s about ensuring frank and open discourse. No question is off limits in Xtra’s pages, no matter who or what is at issue.”

But after all that has happened over the last 25 years is the gay press still relevant? (See The Next 25 Years for more on this question.)

“Community newspapers are niche publications that give readers something they can’t get elsewhere,” says Xtra’s publisher and editor-in-chief Brandon Matheson. “Even though the mainstream press has more gay and lesbian content than it used to, it doesn’t do the job as effectively as the lesbian and gay press does. No one newspaper can be all things to all people. That’s a false premise.”

What some readers tend to forget is that Xtra embodies a form of advocacy journalism.

“Pink Triangle Press is a political organization,” says Matheson. And Xtra, he says, is an advocacy tool that provides a gay and lesbian perspective to issues not otherwise covered fairly in the mainstream press.

Can you call it bias? Of course you can. Hell, Xtra operates under a mission statement.

“There’s never been a word written by a journalist that wasn’t biased,” says Popert. “The kind of journalism we try to engage in is journalism intended to move people to action, make people think about aspects of their everyday lives.”

Even if it means scrapping the pesky pressure to be objective.

“Objectivity in the mainstream press is highly overrated,” says Matheson. “Advocacy journalism is something that has a point of view. It’s more honest. It puts forward ideas that don’t get expressed elsewhere. Our goal is to get people to think. Rather than being objective, journalism should focus on being fair.”

And what about the overt sexuality in the paper, the full-frontal nudity? Why does Xtra seem so in-your-face with the sex even when it seems to offend some people?

“Sexual expression, homosexual expression, is the defining element of our communities of homosexuals,” says Mills. “Sexual outlaws, those who express their sexualities honestly and openly, are still persecuted even though the battles for sexual liberation were precipitated by them and for them. People are sexual beings. By sanitizing our publications of sexual imagery and ideas we’d really just be repressing those honest and real elements of ourselves. We’d be sacrificing, on the altar of popular respectability, everything queer people have fought for. Besides, it’s sexy, people dig it.”

I suppose my Xtra-bashing friend was right all along. The newspaper is everything he says it is. And, like others, he still continues to read it, even when it makes him angry.