The RRJ’s Sean Young reports on new editorial directions at Xtra, while the publication reacts to a pandemic and police brutality protests in ways only queer community journalism can
“They’re a great way of archiving queer spaces when they’re gone.” Our tour guide gestures toward a rainbow of matchbooks, each from a different since-closed bar, club or business somewhere in the country. One from Chaps, a gay bar that used to be on Isabella Street in Toronto. One from Auberge (the French word for inn), a queer-friendly hostel in Montreal that’s since been renamed and rebranded. It’s just me and my friend who have booked tickets on this open house tour at the ArQuives (formerly the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives) in Toronto’s Village on a rainy evening in early December 2019.
A lot of the businesses on the table would have been in Xtra’s classifieds at some point during its print run (the publication went all digital in 2015), when the magazine made much of its money off advertising for local queer businesses. Now that the focus is global, the revenue has to come from somewhere else. Dating services are one stream, and a limited mix of local/more global ads helps as well. Xtra’s editorial director, Rachel Giese, told me she thinks advertising is “just not the future at all.” And the journalism landscape currently might be proving her right: the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dearth of advertising, which is being blamed for vast layoffs in the industry.
A lot of what inspired me to report this story for the Ryerson Review of Journalism was seeing shakeups and shutdowns across queer journalism. However, it looked like Xtra was growing.
While mainstream newsrooms seem to be increasingly covering queer stories, distinctly queer publications such as Xtra serve a niche that remains underserved by mainstream media, whose newsrooms in Canada are still majorly white, straight, and cis.
Xtra has been providing crucial work for LGBTQ2IA+ communities as multiple and overlapping public health crises ensue, between COVID-19 states of emergency and relentless anti-Black violence (recently declared a public health crisis in Toronto).
Senior editor Eternity Martis told me in an interview that when she was applying for her first job with Xtra in 2016, “it felt like a place where they would be open to something that’s progressive and open to different identities than in legacy media. And I was completely right.”
Since our RRJ spring 2020 issue went to print, the world has changed substantially. Xtra’s coverage reflects that, with an eye to what LGBTQ2IA+ communities need now. In May, the site featured an editorial series on the magic of masturbation, particularly in pandemic isolation. The publication collected stories on trans and non-binary mental health during the pandemic. Contributor Jessica Zucker wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic affects LGBTQ2 people with periods.
On May 31, as protests against anti-Black violence and police brutality spread across the world, Xtra responded with a Twitter thread expressing its solidarity. The thread included Martis’s 2019 explainer on why Toronto police don’t march in Pride, citing Black Lives Matter Toronto’s 2016 sit-in protesting against Pride Toronto’s history of anti-Blackness. Xtra, in the days since, has been bringing attention to the Black LGBTQ2IA+ voices in its digital pages, including contributor Almah LaVon Rice’s piece on how misogyny and anti-Black racism (or misogynoir) in the medical system keeps queer Black women from getting the care they need. The Globe and Mail, on June 3, announced it will be capitalizing “Black” in its stories when referring to Black people from now on. Xtra has had that style in place for a few years, spurred on by the work of Martis, who also helped the RRJ make the same change in its pages in 2016. Canadian Press finally followed suit on June 9.
What would have been the Pride parade weekend in Toronto has gone by without its usual fanfare. But in its place, we’ve seen queer people supporting their fellow community members in new ways, increasingly through digital channels.
For its part, in mid-June, Xtra decided to extend that support by dedicating some of their aforementioned ad space to LGBTQ2+ organizations that need the visibility amidst cancelled Pride events. Yonge Street didn’t see rainbow flags flying by on branded floats. But Xtra did what it does best, using community media to foster connection in uncertain times.
Editor’s note: J-Source editor-in-chief Sonya Fatah is an instructor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism.