Opinion
4 min

Xtra’s digital universe is expanding

Continuing to champion sexual freedom and freedom of expression

Xtra celebrates its 200th issue back in 1992, with David Walberg standing on the right. Credit: Jake Peters

David Walberg: Just a brief note to let you know how much I appreciated you printing my letter. I was so thrilled I wanted to rush over and do your hair.
— letter from playwright and author Tomson Highway, Aug 31, 1997

Who doesn’t love receiving a letter? Or the promise of a new hairdo, for that matter?

I once received a letter from a Catholic priest in Saskatchewan. There was no local café or bar where he could collect his Xtra, so he had taken the bold step of purchasing a subscription. In those days, Xtra was mailed in plain brown envelopes, discreet as the kinkiest porn, because in some musty corners of Canada, a mere interest in gay news might destroy one’s life.

The priest expressed gratitude for the lifeline Xtra presented. A few weeks later, I received another letter, this one from a bishop ordering me to cancel the priest’s subscription. We continued to mail the brown envelopes and were saddened when they came back to us marked return-to-sender, having being intercepted by the Catholic Stasi.

Gay news was hard to come by in those days. Connecting to a community was even harder. Writing letters to the editor was a way even those in the closet or the boondocks could make contact and participate.

Missives took the form of angry screeds (these have proliferated, sadly, as trolls highjack the comments sections of websites everywhere) but also poetry, cartoons, homemade stickers, even lovingly crafted chapbooks.

For many scribes, the thrill of publication was greater than the rush of a hailstorm of Facebook likes. Tomson Highway, a Cree from northernmost Manitoba, captures it in the quote above.

Today, priests in Saskatchewan have a world of online gay connections at their fingertips. Gay news, porn, chat and hookups are available to all. These days, perhaps Tomson Highway is doing Arianna Huffington’s hair.

What does this crowded, chaotic queer virtual reality mean for Xtra as we focus our efforts on the digital universe?

Fortunately, we enjoy some unique positioning. We have deep roots in our traditional core communities in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, and we intend to continue to strengthen those ties. We already publish significantly more local journalism on Daily Xtra than we did in the Xtra print editions.

At the same time, we look to the wider world. Last fall, during the Toronto International Film Festival, the producers of a queer film from Kenya visited our offices. Fearing reprisals, they had submitted the film to TIFF anonymously, and we were honoured to interview them as they chose to publicly come out to the world.

“I am not afraid to go home,” producer George Gachara told Daily Xtra in a video interview. “Shit can happen, but I want to go back home.” Gachara was arrested when he returned to Kenya and is now out on bail. More recently, a video interview we shot with a lesbian Kenyan judge threatened to become headline news and the subject of parliamentary debate there.

We have begun to participate in international rights struggles, with all the risk and responsibility this involves. Our times are truly revolutionary for queer people around the world, and we are inspired to support these struggles.

It’s noteworthy many of these stories are breaking on video. We are one of the only consistent producers of queer video journalism in the world. Our videos are gaining in popularity across numerous platforms.

Last year, we released a video documentary called Wham, Bam, mr Pam. It’s the story of the lone major female producer of gay male porn. The doc provides a behind-the-scenes look at how one woman forms her own community in a subculture generally sensationalized for exploitation, drug addiction and suicide.

The film has screened at queer film festivals in Toronto, San Francisco, Copenhagen and Atlanta. This month, it will play to houses at Sydney’s Mardi Gras, and it has just been invited to a major European film festival. Once it completes its world tour, our doc will likely be broadcast on TV in various countries, as our past video productions have been. And then you’ll see it on our own channels on Daily Xtra, YouTube and Vimeo.

Our multichannel approach to video provides a model for expansion that we will extend to our journalism in other media — text stories, photos, audio, graphics — as we seek to broaden our reach.

Pink Triangle Press has a unique mission and editorial voice. For more than four decades, we have solidly championed sexual freedom and freedom of expression. We hunger not for an equal slice of a stale heterosexual pie, but for a heaping portion of sexual liberation, made to order from scratch.

Along the way, we have challenged conventional wisdom.

When queer activists fought for hate speech legislation, author and journalist Irshad Manji questioned in Xtra whether such laws were a form of thought policing.

When gay couples started taking their vows, our former board member Brenda Cossman advocated for revolutionary relationship recognition not exclusive to couples who fuck.

Whether practical or provocative, these positions have sparked debate and expanded our thinking around key issues of the day. These unique perspectives have saved us from aspiring to mediocrity in favour of creating communities that best suit our fabulous realities.

Over the years, we’ve also distinguished ourselves by tackling our not-so-fabulous realities, including drug abuse, HIV transmission and community infighting, or as Sharon Tate says in the film Valley of the Dolls, why “fags can be so bitchy.”

For our communities to be strong, we believe we need to speak candidly about hard issues, especially as some media prefer to present a whitewashed façade in exchange for mainstream acceptance.

We’ve delved into seemingly intractable disagreements between some radical feminists and trans communities. More recently, in 2013, we produced a video series about PrEP, the controversial HIV prevention treatment that critics warned would promote new sexually transmitted epidemics among gay men. That story was so underreported at the time that we garnered a Best Web Series nod at the Banff World Media Awards.

Arouse debate. Nurture communities. Incite action. Our mission statement implores us to work to these ends. We honour the legacy of Xtra and The Body Politic before it by continuing these efforts in the digital realm. Please join us.