Media madness

"Fucking confused"

Wedding bells & wimping out:
Xtra! 1999-2002



If any media were well-placed to bring some sense to the question of gay marriage, it was the spawn of Canada's most vital voice of gay liberation, The Body Politic. Born in 1971, gone by 1987, it left three local offspring: Xtra!, begun in Toronto in 1984, Vancouver's Xtra West! and Capital Xtra! in Ottawa, both launched in 1993.

These three papers are the only surviving link (apart from too few surviving people) to the dawning days of Canada's gay movement. All are published by Pink Triangle Press, set up by The Body Politic in 1975 to give that collectively run effort clear, non-individual, and not-for-profit ownership in law.

All three (and in fact all other operations of the Press, however commercial) are ostensibly guided by its Mission Statement, revised over the years if with substantially the same goals that guided their parent publication for more than 15 years -- briefly put, for most of its life, as "the building of the gay movement and the growth of gay consciousness."

Over time, "movement" morphed to "community." Or rather "communities" -- increasingly plural, diverse (more wildly than tacking on "lesbian," "bi," trans," "queer" or even "of colour" can signify) -- sometimes divided. And, some of those communities or parts of them, ever more organized, institutionalized, commercialized, even relatively secure.

"Gay consciousness" was not unitary. Nor universally gay. Nor just "gay." But it was real: distinct ways of seeing, from places long not secure, not even safe -- if offering views often richly instructive. Standing to one side of what most people see as the "real world," we got to see reality in ways others could not. At its root, ours was a consciousness of otherness, of distinctiveness, of differences -- even among each other.

What we had in common was consciousness of difference as valuable, offering alternative ways of being in the world; knowledge of our strength in sharing power to shape spaces -- emotional, intellectual, and physical -- where distinctiveness could thrive. And, too often, acute awareness of the need to defend those spaces, ourselves, and each other from assault.

I see I speak in the past tense: this consciousness can seem lost history. It is not. But it is, lately, less pondered. Gay media once devoted considerable space to thought. They are now mostly "consumer publications," entertainment guides, bearers of "news" often bite-sized -- buying that mantra of "industry wisdom": People won't read long articles.

Even risking more than 500 words at a pop, few gay mags get past mainstream journalism's breathless immediacy, its disdain for complexity, its blithe erasure of historical memory. The public spaces in which we once grew consciousness -- consciously -- have shrunk.

Some of us don't care. Abandoning the public forum for supposed domestic security -- ever more comfortable, more "accepted," more "normal" -- many hope to forget differences. Or to suppress them. Okay, we're gay -- but apart from what we do in bed (and that's private, right?) we're the same as everybody else. We have the same feelings. We aspire to the same things. We see the same world. We fit in.

And we deserve the same rights. Exactly the same. Including marriage. If that doesn't fit those who don't fit in, if honouring our sameness demeans others' difference, if our rights come at the cost of social wrongs -- well: Why don't you not tell me about it?

Mostly, Xtra! has not. The paper still takes unequivocal stands (as some gay media do not) on gay liberation's classic front: the defence of erotic expression from attacks by censors and cops. But its politics beyond sexual politics have grown more parochial than its parent's, its grasp on questions of social justice largely limited to "gay rights and equality" -- a rallying cry unlikely to rattle fiscal conservatives or "gay market" touts.

The Press's three papers have not been uniform in their treatment of The Tedious Issue. I don't mean to draw comparisons here (Capital Xtra! I rarely see; Xtra West! on a regular basis only in the last year or so) -- but for one: in April 2001 the managing editor of Xtra West! came out against gay marriage, seconding lesbian author Jane Rule's resistance to "the cage of coupledom," reported in the previous issue.

His unequivocal stand -- clearly engaging the issue, not just "reporting" on it or offering cautious commentary -- helped spur wider public discussion. The editors of Xtra! have, as you'll see, also expressed reservations -- if never clearly enough to effect even their own fervently fixated news hounds. Xtra! roared down the gay marriage track like a runaway locomotive -- its engineers occasionally leaning out of the cab to ask dazzled bystanders: Where are we going?

By the end of 2002, the paper's self-confessed "go-to girl on the queer marriage issue" had further confessed: "I'm so fucking confused!" She was not alone. Her smug rants, facile wisecracks, and tenuous grasp of hard facts -- ever passed off as "news" -- exposed Xtra!'s blithe reportorial disdain for clear thought on this tiresome cause.

In the three pieces below I explore Xtra!'s dither in considerable detail. And try to explain what led to that fucking confusion. As you'll see, I do not think it had much to do with what anyone there may think of gay marriage. Odd as that may seem.

I don't suspect anyone was knowingly hypocritical, secretly biased, sadly deluded, or just plain bad. I think it's more complex than that: more systemic than personal; more a matter of bureaucratic isolation and auto-pilot operations than of conscious editorial direction.

But, given that people create, control, and can change the systems they work within, I do think it's fair to say that some people at Xtra! simply wimped out.



Beyond dither?
Xtra! hosts a public forum: one smooth operator
shining amidst general confusion.
Gee, can't imagine why....

A report on the Oct 24, 2002 forum "Shotgun Wedding?" -- showing just how confused most of us are after ages of simple-minded "debate" on same-sex spousality. Linked to the next two pieces below, looking at one likely reason why we're all in such a dither.

Xtra!... Two solitudes
Confounding cohabitation:
Spouse touters & spouse doubters play house.
(And play us)

Does Xtra! back gay marriage? Or not? It depends on which page you read. A look at the paper's "real- world" working solitudes -- and why they may have more to do with the contrasts it offers in "news" and "opinion" (massively detailed below) than anything anyone there may believe on any issue at all.

Only disconnect
On the question of same-sex coupledom,
the record of one gay paper reflects a hidden agenda.
(If not the one you might suspect)

Four years of coverage, issue-by-issue, on the Tedious Issue in the pages of Xtra! -- showing not just what got said but how it got "framed." Endless details on endless stories on what its editors see as a doubtful cause. Two linked files with big charts for each year (for the record), more digestible summaries, a brief intro, and a conclusion maybe surprising.




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Ideas  in play  (List of contents)
Gay marriage? Wrong question  (Lead page)

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January 2003 / Last revised: January 10, 2003
Rick Bébout © 2003 / rick@rbebout.com