Douglas Cudmore

The Little Gay Paper that Grew

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Xtra! is as sexually and politically provocative as ever. But that hasn't stopped mainstream advertisers from wanting a piece of the action

The green neon words that throb out into the street are the most noticeable part of the Carlsberg Light billboard that hangs on the red brick wall above Novack’s Drug Store. “Great Pride Makes a Great Beer” it reads in an obvious reference to the gay pride that fills the neighbourhood, the corner, the people who stroll by. It is the outest strip of real estate in Canada-the corner of Church and Wellesley, just east of Toronto’s Yonge Street.

The intersection is surrounded by stacks of apartments full of gays and lesbians. On the side streets, there are health clubs and spas. On Church Street, there are the bars-Sailor, Woody’s, Bulldog-each one packed with young men who look just too well dressed, too well cut to pass for straight. And, right above the Byzantium restaurant, the big glass windows that line the offices of Xtra! hang over the passing readership.

Xtra! is the voice of the gay community in Toronto, a combination bar guide and political muckracker with just the right amount of bare asses, sexual opinion pieces and gentital references to arouse both libidos and right-wing zealots. Depending on whom you talk to, the bi-weekly paper is “bold,” “flashy,” “too fluffy,” “too unfluffy,” “not serious enough” or “way too serious.” Here, at the paper’s office, I hook up with David Walberg, editor-in-chief and publisher. We head out to Marshall’s restaurant where Walberg orders a designer cafe au lait in a giant white mug and defends his publication from a criticism that has recently arisen: that his paper will never grow, nor move on to grab new readers if it doesn’t tone down the sex.

As he speaks, Walberg’s eyes light up, showing off the combination of energy and intelligence that has driven him from production worker to editor at Xtra! in seven years. He tells me about those “nuts who call themselves journalists in Canada,” referring to some members of the gay and lesbian caucus of the Canadian Association of Journalists, most of whom work at mainstream publications. In March 1995, the caucus held a panel discussion entitled “Is mainstreaming queers’ issues progress or trivialization?” A panel debated, among other things, the future of the alternative gay press.

Walberg wasn’t impressed: “Their argument was sort of, ‘Now that straight publications talk about gay issues so much, and now that gay magazines are getting so much mainstream advertising, the gay publications will have to tone down their content.’ That’s such a load of bullshit.”

Or, in other words: as the gay world has become accepted by the straight world, the mainstream media has begun covering gay issues, from bashing to spousal rights. As a result, gay publications can no longer rely on gay readers to come to them for information. Fewer readers means less money, so to keep in business, gay books have to go after the big money(corporate advertisers (some of whom, suddenly, love the idea of targeting gay readers). But, not surprisingly, the majority of companies don’t feel comfortable running their ads next to pictures of naked men. Therefore, the hardcore stuff must go back in the closet.

One U.S. publication that has taken an editorial and commercial cold shower is The Advocate, the venerable voice of gay life for 28 years. It stopped running high-sex classified ads. Another American gay magazine, Out, was created in 1992 with a decidedly mellow view towards copulation. Its pages hold celebrity profiles, political viewpoints and lifestyle journalism. In Canada, the Canadian Gay Newspaper Guild (CGNG), an advertising co-op which includes eight publications from Halifax to Vancouver, has a rigid rule for membership. “If they have a preponderance of sexual explicitness in their publications, I would avoid them,” says the co-op’s head, Derek Stringfellow.

Xtra! and the CGNG have been anything but friends. At the very mention of the co-op, Walberg is dismissive: “I don’t really know them or any of their publications. They’re all pretty low-profile.” But Walberg does know them. In Masthead magazine last year, Stringfellow called Xtra! oversexed and “fluffy.” In response, Xtra! reacted much the way Walberg is now, smacking his spoon against his saucer. “Our publication has never been more sexually explicit than it is now. We’ve never had more corporate advertising than we do now. The two have grown in tandem,” he says.

“The press engages gay men, lesbians and others in a struggle for their sexual liberation by providing them with mass media in which to express their sexuality….” That’s the “Mission Statement,” the first line in a handout that every new employee of the Pink Triangle Press (Xtra!’s parent company) receives.

Rick Bebout, an ex-editor and staff relations consultant at PTP who is now researching the history of the gay press in Canada, was part of a group that created the statement. The mission they put into words is the motivation and justification behind everything, from running editorials to setting up live-sex chat lines.

“We wanted to make sure that [our employees] shared the views of the organization,” says Bebout. “We knew there were some, but knew that they hadn’t been very well articulated.” So they decided to find these views. What they found, of course, was gay and lesbian sex.

And Xtra!’s pages are thick with its depictions. For example, advertising for the March 14, 1996 issue: for the fully licensed spa on Maitland, we see a man reaching in, ready to grope his penis, his jeans splayed open at the front to show tight abs with a light dusting of hair; for New Release Video, we learn that its “Best Titles” are part of a going out of business sale: Hot and Hung 3, Beach Bums, Shoe Lust; and, for the phone service Cruiseline, we are shown the illustrated ass of the perfect man, with the message, “Get down and dirty with raunchy, foul-mouthed men.”

The March 14 issue also has examples of corporate ads: for Baileys, we see a drag queen sitting over an Irish Cream on ice, suggesting we drink up “‘Cause you’re an original too.” Other companies that have advertised in Xtra! include Mazda, Quality Music, Smirnoff, Saturn and Absolut.

Xtra!’s editorial is full-frontal as well. In the March 14 edition, David Greig wrote, “It’s as clear as the dick on your face,” a column in praise of showing penises in public. Meanwhile, columnist Lynna Landstreet asked dykes to please, please make their personal ads hotter (“Eight inches of hot clit” read the headline). For her part, sex columnist Lushus Lucy defended woman-girl love.

The 56-page paper breaks down into five basic sections. “Up Front” covers the news in a distinctly homocentric light. AIDS notes, gay bashings, updates on gay-friendly and unfriendly politicians and police raids are just a few of the regular beats. The section also takes on controversy, such as the unfashionable defence of those arrested by Project Guardian, the anti-child porn sting in London that netted mostly gay men.

“Mixed medium: ideas, opinions & analysis” is a mid-book feature section invented by Walberg as a showcase for longer discussions on the community’s issues. He sees it as a key to keeping Xtra! out of the mainstream. “You can read news stories about spousal rights in The Toronto Star,” he says. “But they’re not necessarily targeted to a lesbian and gay readership. There are still very few spaces for people to discuss how they live their lives, their own realities.”

Following “Mixed Medium” is “Art Xtra,” the entertainment section which is packed with the regular highlights: profiles of homosexual artists, a litany of reviews and media columnists. At the back is “Out in the City,” a listing of ,gay and lesbian events, and “the Xchange,” the classified section thick with “erotic massage,” “friends male” and “models & escorts” ads.

The Pink Triangle Press began as a writing collective in 1971 when it began publishing, The Body Politic, the only national gay magazine the Canadian market has ever seen. Back then, Toronto’s gay scene was vastly different(only two gay bars and one political organization. Even then, TBP didn’t flinch from overt sexuality. Gerald Hannon’s pedophile-friendly “Men loving boys loving men” was only the most famous of the articles that landed it in court.

But TBP had two problems. For one, it was overly academic, with articles that attracted the opinion-makers in the gay community rather than the average gay on the street. “At one of our trials, one of the witnesses said that The Body Politic couldn’t possibly be a dangerous publication because you had to have a university education to read it,” says PTP veteran Rick Bebout. The other problem was that it was a financial disaster. At an emergency meeting in February 1987, the collective, which was $80,000 in debt, picked Ken Popert as their interim publisher. He decided to kill The Body Politic but save something else: Xtra!, the little paper that was originally a free promotional tool.

At one glance Xtra! proves that it’s reaching new heights of financial security. When the paper first came out in 1986, it was a four-page foldout with only a 3,000-copy print run. Today, the paper prints 37,000 copies with an average 56 pages. The Pink Triangle Press also puts out Vancouver’s Xtra! West and Ottawa’s Capital Xtra! Both papers are just over two years old, both are in the black, and together they have a circulation of 39,000. In 1994, PTP was named the 51st-fastest growing company in Canada by Profit magazine.

Since 1993, Pink Triangle’s revenues haven’t slipped below $2 million, and PTP, a not-for-profit organization, expects to have a $200,000 surplus in 1995. It’s a remarkable growth spurt and PTP owes much of it to a machine hidden away in a small room at Xtra!’s headquarters. The tiny profit centre is an audiotext system, which allows the press to run two pay phone-in services: XTC Talking Classifieds, for men looking to meet anybody from a bear to a bisexual; and Cruiseline, a live-sex chat line. In 1991, the year both services were created, they generated a small amount of money. A year later, they were bringing in $275,000 annually.

But not any more, thanks to increased competition. While the chat lines and talking personals were responsible for 52 percent of Pink Triangle’s gross revenue in 1993, that number dropped to 18 perent in 1994.

Despite the decline, PTP still sees a use for audiotext. “You get someone from outside of Sudbury who may have never seen a gay publication, may have somehow heard of us in The Toronto Star or something like that. It’s sort of an entryway into a sense of community,” says Shawn Syms, publisher at PTP’s Electronic Media Office. That entry into community usually involves sex. “Some of the people who use this system might see a political aspect to it … other people, who are more gay-identified, might say, ‘Oh, this is just a way to get a quick fuck,’ which, as far as we’re concerned, is a good and noble end unto itself.”

To replace audiotext revenue, Xtra! is only too happy to accept corporate advertising. Marketers now call the gay reader an ideal logistic. In research done for the U.S. gay magazine Out, the following numbers popped up: the average gay household income is $51,624 (U.S.); 80 percent of gay men have a university education; and gays take 5.8 times as manv business and personal trips as the average American. Although there are few comparable Canadian statistics, it’s widely believed that gays in this country share similar appealing characteristics.

Another reason marketers want to reach gays is that they are cultural trendsetters. People look at what’s going on in the gay world and carry those styles into the mainstream. “Gays and black urban youth are probably the precursors of things to come in the entertainment field, fashion, arts,” says Randy VanDerStarren, a senior vice president and group account director at the Toronto advertising firm Lowe SMS. And if he can get the gay audience hooked on Labatt Ice, then the straight audience might follow.

VanDerStarren headed a group that last year studied gay-directed advertising in Canada, a project that included everything from a statistical analysis of U.S. gays to interviewing bartenders along Church Street. What he found was promising: Toronto gays are out, are out drinking, and are extremely brandloyal. So he helped Labatt Ice launch campaign in the pages of Xtra! and Fab, a smaller Toronto-based gay publication. Labatt’s full-colour, two-page spread featured ideal spots for gays to enjoy their ice-filtered beer: “11:12 p.m. Bars at Church and Wellesley,” ” 12:36 a.m. West End Night Club.”

Such ads are the sign of more enlightened times. “With clients, five years ago they were certainly not as receptive as they are now to the gay community,” VanDerStarren says. “So if we had the idea five vears ago it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The time is right now for us.” He also thinks the initial reluctance of advertisers to market their products to gays is similar to their reluctance to sell on the Internet: “You’re going to see leading edge clients get involved in it and then, like anything, the early bounders break ground. Then everyone else follows.”

Over at Xtra!, the staffers’ view of corporate marketing is mixed(it’s nice while you have it, but it’s not to be embraced. So while they welcome corporations onto their pages, they want to maintain a local advertising base as well. Absolut Vodka can, in hard times, get by without special advertising in the gay and lesbian community,” Ken Popert, the president of Pink Triangle Press, says nonchalantly. “I regard corporate advertising as gravy.”

And Rick Bebout thinks that using a conservative sexual tone to attract large companies, the strategy used by the CGNG, is misguided. “It’s silly to pander to one’s own fear of advertisers. Advertisers want an audience, And they don’t really care what you do to get it,” he says.

Out on the street, under the Xtra! offices, a poster heralding “Michelle Ross, Queen Diva” is smacked up on a lamppost. Another one of those well-dressed, perfect-hair men is handing out flyers featuring two Adonis-bodied men, an advertisement for the Aztec Club. On a street like this, Xtra! beats its critics. If the paper toned down its sexuality, it would be turning its back on the readers. And so it doesn’t try to.

“For 25 years, we’ve been an organization that says you don’t win things by trying to be respectable. You don’t win things by trying to fit in,” Bebout told me. “And what is it you’re trying to fit into anyway?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen − 8 =