For GLBT* people and communities, being invisible over the past century in Canada has meant having no voice. It has meant having no media or self- representation. It meant not hearing stories about people who were like you and having limited ways to connect.
“For the longest time, I couldn’t put a name to who I was. I didn’t have an image of anybody else who was like me. And, it was torturous!” These words come from actress Jane Lynch in the documentary Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema.
Social stigma and systemic oppression are, broadly, what prevent GLBT* stories from being told.
Stephen Gutwillig of Outfest, a Los Angeles-based queer film organization, said, “Many of us grew up during a period where there was a de facto mainstream media blackout on our lives. Stories about us were not allowed to be told. And literal queer representation was completely forbidden.”
Enter the queer press. Its existence is due to and gave birth to movements for GLBT* liberation.
Today, in most major cities in Canada, there is at least one gay and lesbian paper or magazine that publishes regularly.
Queer publications have a murky past, but Les Mouches Fantastiques, first published in 1917 in Montréal, is believed to be the first in Canada. It was an underground magazine that was mimeographed 100 times. Part literary and part political, the poetry and politics contained within were largely arguments for the acceptance of queer people. It was published for only a couple of years before its creators moved on to New York City.
Skipping forward to the pre-Stonewall ’60s, Canada saw its first periodical use the term “gay” in the title, with a Toronto publication bearing the plain name. Gay was remarkable because not only were few gay magazines published anywhere in the world at the time, but this one, in its two years of publication, outsold all other gay publications then available. In his book, A Brief History of GAY, Donald McLeod said Gay was a tabloid that was received with mixed reactions from the GLBT* community. It featured gossip columns, poetry, fiction, photography and discussions on individuals’ right to live free from censorship and arbitrary arrest, and things like the treatment of queers by police and the media. Gay also served an important role with personal ads at a time when it was very difficult for queer people to meet. It listed international gay groups and informed readers about the fledgling homophile movement in the U.S. The magazine eventually branched out to Montréal and New York City, and a year after it began, was selling 8,000 copies.
Moving forward to the early ’70s, a voice that would grow to be predominant in the Canadian queer media landscape was born. The Body Politic, published in Toronto, was run by a non-hierarchical collective with a political vision. Early on, the organization put together the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), which are today the second- largest queer history archives in the world.
The Body Politic’s collective ownership meant the writers, photographers and editors all worked for each other. According to the University of Western Ontario’s facility for gay and lesbian studies, only a handful of people were ever paid for their work on it, and the few who did receive a payment received a small, one-time lump sum rather than salaries. The Body Politic was a work of love and passion.
The paper is considered the leading gay and lesbian Canadian periodical of the time, and an internationally respected voice of queer, radical thought, according to the CLGA.
The Body Politic, as it grew into the ’80s, changed into something new. Pink Triangle Press, its publisher and board of directors, launched Xtra in 1984, which according to its website was meant to be more accessible and upbeat than The Body Politic. The Body Politic ceased publication in 1987.
Today Pink Triangle Press operates the three largest gay and lesbian publications in Canada, which are the three Xtra newspapers.
Robin Perelle, managing editor at Xtra West in Vancouver, said the more recent change has been the launch of DailyXtra.com as a daily online news source.
“I think we’re the only gay news source like that, doing original journalism, in Canada.”
Small newsletters born out of the need for organizations to communicate have also been common in the history of GLBT* publications in Canada. Newsletters from AIDS service organizations, gay and lesbian business associations, and calendars of activities from groups like the Communautaire Homosexuelle at the Université de Montréal, served a purpose similar to queer media in a different way. Some of these would eventually become bigger publications, such as with Perceptions magazine.
Prairie legend lost
Gens Hellquist’s will not be forgotten
By Larkin Schiemdl
A gay Canadian prairie legend passed away in late 2013 at age 66. Longtime editor of Perceptions magazine, Gens Hellquist, is described as “one of the true pioneers of gay activism and queer health advocacy in Canada,” by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
Hellquist edited Perceptions for 30 years, founded the first queer organization in Saskatoon in 1971 which was one of Canada’s earliest gay and lesbian community centres and helped launch the Queen Men’s Sexual Health Clinic.
Described as gentle and courageous, Hellquist was involved in AIDS work. He was also a counsellor and spent years supporting and educating gay men living with HIV.
He founded the national non-profit, Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, to address health disparities faced by queer Canadians.
He will be deeply missed and we thank him for his contributions to the GLBT* community.
– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about queer stuff, and social and ecological justice.
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