Image: Katherine Singh

To this day, the memory of pink newspaper boxes—a relic and symbol of community support—are still mourned by LGBTQ2A+ Canadians in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa. “When a place in the [Toronto’s] Village would close, Daily Xtra would run a profile of the place or a news story of how the place was closing,” says Erica Lenti, the senior editor of Xtra. “We ran short reviews, art profiles, that kind of thing.” But in January 2015, Xtra’s not-for-profit publisher Pink Triangle Press (PTP) announced the paper was ceasing publication of its print newspaper, and a year before that, PTP’s fab, an arts and culture magazine targeted toward gay men, was also cancelled. “Losing both publications within such a short span of time was a blow to LGBTQ Canadians,” wrote Lenti for Canadaland in August 2015. “These tangible symbols of community were relegated to—and easily lost within—the internet.”  

But now that the neon pink boxes are just a memory, the publication is trying to shift the desolate narrative of queer and transgender media that was left by those boxes through a massive, existential transition in their editorial strategies.

According to Rachel Giese, editorial director of Xtra since November 2018, the publication is in the midst of developing those strategies. The shift will see a reduction on hyperlocal coverage, which Xtra has historically been used to, in order to focus on bigger-picture stories with more analysis, criticism, and context. This means more time to spend on the stories that everyone else is trying to break.

Engagement director Arnaud Baudry says this is a readers-oriented transition, provided by a survey by PTP that was put out last summer to get readers’ opinions of what they want to see covered. But it’s not only about giving the readers what they want—the transition will be taking the lack of resources that smaller publications, like Xtra, know all too well.

Around the time the paper became a digital-only publication, Giese says there hadn’t been much discussion around what benefits could come from such a move. “There were lots of questions about what Xtra should and could be.” After the year-in-the-making survey, Giese’s position was created in part because they needed an editorial director, but largely what she’s focused on now is overseeing that transition—one that is still in its infancy.

“These conversations are still evolving with the team, but what we’re moving toward over the next couple of months is being able to introduce ourselves, or reintroduce ourselves, with this new kind of formatted vision,” she says.

How progressive for the publication, and for LGBTQ2A+ news at large, will this essential move be? Lauren Strapagiel, reporter for BuzzFeed Canada, emphasizes the importance of hyperlocal stories, specifically for marginalized communities. “Hyperlocal LGBT news is not just consumed locally—it matters to the broader community,” Strapagiel says. “If a hate crime happens in the middle of Manitoba, I want to know about it. It really matters to me.”

Strapagiel, a self-ascribed “queer internet witch,” is widely known as a journalist who covers queer and transgender community stories. Her stories reach wide audiences, which is something that Strapagiel says is lost on legacy media. “I think that’s something that mainstream publications inherently don’t understand, which is maybe why they don’t go for those kinds of stories.”

Note that hyperlocal isn’t Xtra’s main focus. Giese emphasized they will still cover local news that warrants the resources, such as the notorious Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. But in those scenarios, there exists what Giese calls a “lovely problem.”

“We’re seeing mainstream news caring about issues having to do with the community, and at the same time, we’re having to compete with outlets that also have more resources,” she says. The monopoly that they once had on these issues is no more, so figuring out how to stay essential is one of Giese’s main goals.

Legacy media are upping the ante on their homepages with queer and trans coverage, but what does that look like? Strapagiel highlights some of their shortcomings and mistakes, such as misgendering the individual or using their dead name—the name they were assigned pre-transition that the individual may no longer go by. Strapagiel points out another example: covering Toronto police’s attendance at Pride—a major story over the past couple years in Toronto, which has required a nuanced approach to do it properly, yet is hardly the case.

In February 2017, the Toronto Star published an editorial with a headline that read “Toronto police should not have been forced out of Pride Parade: Editorial.” “There’s no getting around the fact that Pride Toronto has taken a big backward step by effectively telling the police that they aren’t welcome any more as official participants in the LGBTQ community’s biggest annual celebration.”

Further, the Star’s coverage of police at pride before 2018 brings up a bevy of negative headlines: “Gay cop worries first Pride could be his last after Black Lives Matter calls for ban,” “Mayor John Tory ‘disappointed and frustrated’ after police say they won’t participate in Pride parade” and “Shame on Pride and Black Lives Matter.” Save Desmond Cole’s opinion piece on how white, straight, cisgender politicians have no business defining Pride celebrations. And in February of this year, the Star published stories with sister headlines on opposing sides, with one op-ed on why police should be able to march and the other on why they shouldn’t.

Searching Xtra’s 2018 coverage, however, pulls up Cicely-Belle Blain’s: “If you want cops in Pride, you’re missing the next queer revolution.” In October, Anthony Oliveira wrote a beautiful, friendship love letter, which explored why he doesn’t need to explain why police shouldn’t march in Pride (but he explains it anyway.)

Lenti points out on the magazine side that Teen Vogue is “suddenly doing a lot of trans coverage, or running articles about anal sex that would never exist in Teen Vogue before. So that’s a really encouraging thing to see.” What she sees is hopeful: younger voices covering the community.

Strapagiel says it’s about telling the full story. “I think Xtra captures this nuance, and it’s really understood why this is such a heartfelt issue for communities, whereas someone at the Globe or the Star is looking at it from a perspective of the straight world, being like ‘Oh, I thought Pride was about inclusion.’” It’s lacking the context and history of the story, but the problem is that most people are likely to read the latter two publications’ coverage of it. “My parents don’t read Xtra. But they read the Star and the Globe everyday.”

“They’re making a really good effort,” Strapagiel said, but adds, “There’s just a world of difference between that and when queer people are talking to ourselves.”

“It’s unfortunate in a way,” Strapagiel says about the transition, “but what are you going to do? This is the same transition that everyone is going through.”

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