Toronto
2 min

Xtra’s free spirit

20 years on, this paper still loves sex - who doesn't?

I once received a carefully handwritten letter from a clergyman in rural Saskatchewan. He wrote that he had learned, from reading Xtra, that gay men are preoccupied with the size of their penises. But that was an aside, really. His purpose in writing was to obtain some damning evidence.



He wrote that he had discovered copies of Xtra in the possession of a fellow priest. He sought my written confirmation that his colleague was a subscriber to our paper. Furthermore, he asked that I cancel the offending subscription.



I wrote the nosy parker back to inform him that I wouldn’t participate in his attempt to rat out his brother. (I also let him know that all men, and not just gay men, are preoccupied with the size of their penises.) Sadly, a couple of weeks later, the man named by the scribe cancelled his subscription.



This glimpse into an individual’s predicament serves to remind me of the breadth of Xtra’s readership. One is sometimes tempted to draw a portrait of a publication’s perceived readership, but such portraits are ultimately stereotypes.



Our published letters also reflect readers who defy easy categorization. If Xtra’s letter writers share anything, it’s passion, albeit passion expressed in all manner of assertions: we are too bourgeois and boring, some readers snort; we are too raunchy and radical, others seethe.



Given the changes in society during the 20 years we’ve been publishing Xtra, one might not expect the passion to endure. Mainstream media have made queers a pet cause, fawning all over our adorable relationships. But scratch the surface. When mainstream media start talking about sex, queer readers are still likely to be left scratching our heads and wondering if we’re from another planet.



In the Jan 31 weekend Globe And Mail, for instance, there’s a story on Internet sex addiction. A list of warning signs for addiction includes this one: “I use the Internet to experiment with different aspects of my sexuality (eg, bondage, homosexuality, anal sex, etc).” I can only hope that our readers use Xtra thus.



The old model of homosexuality as sickness may have been discredited last century amongst doctors, but journalists still spread it like syphilis.



Most media remain prudish and patronizing when discussing personal freedoms. Porn, pot or promiscuity may be staples of their readers’ – and their own – diets, but media refuse to discuss them honestly. Instead, and even when they put their best liberal face on, they peddle in moral fantasies, as though society would crumble if their coverage engaged those of us who enjoy freedoms we have not technically been granted.



Xtra has consciously opted to examine the sweetness and perversion of our realities, through an era where gay liberation has largely been seen as a matter of extending equal rights. While working to advance many of those rights struggles, we’ve always sought to explore new freedoms based on our differences and desires. But we avoid blind boosterism: We discuss the sordid along with the sublime.



In 20 years, we’ve been credited with varied achievements, from the triumphant return of a PWA penny jar which had violated corporate standards at the village Second Cup, to preventing Julian Fantino from becoming chief of police in the ’90s (the latter according to journalist Christie Blatchford). More recently, police and politicians posit Xtra as the defining pivot in the Pussy Palace debacle.



We are a unique community, where bathhouses are sacred spaces not to be violated by police, where gender is both revered and mocked, and often bent. Even those of us who live more conventional lives are marked by our difference.



Xtra succeeds as a focal point for Toronto queers, staking out turf in public discourse where we can debate and develop our ideas and our ways of living, ultimately asserting and celebrating our right to live as we choose.



* David Walberg is Xtra’s publisher.