A Life in The Bar, 1969-2000


Looking backwards
(to look beyond)

NLGJA logo, we hope
True professionals:
National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (Canadian branch);
to serve their own interests & further their careers.

Journalistic "ethics" vs real ones

The birth of that profession Rodger Streitmatter traced back to the 1940s did not happen until much later -- at least as evinced by that most professional of acts: banding together to defend their own interests and further their careers.

The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, formed in the US in 1990, works "within the news industry to foster fair and accurate coverage of lesbian and gay issues and oppose newsroom bias toward lesbians and gay men and all other minorities."

It is also serves "the interests of reporters, editors, photographers, producers and their news organizations," helping them "advance in the profession."

Soon there was a Canadian branch. In 1995 I went to a couple of their social yak fests at Pints, once with Eleanor Brown. She was one of its few members working in the gay media, there being so little of it in Canada.

Most were with the mainstream press and TV so, as I wrote Jane Rule, "one's allowed the spurious buzz of chatting with one or two faces seen a lot on the tube." Most were known to be gay in "the newsroom"; none as far as I knew was out in any wider public sense.

I once had a nice set to with Jeffrey Kofman (I'm not sure I've spelled his name right; he'd fronted the CBC's coverage of the great ACT mess of 1993) about The Body Politic -- "always editorializing," he griped.

He's gone on since, like so many talking heads unfulfilled by mere Canadian TV, to a job with a big American network.


Sidney Katz & David Adkin

Katz had been author of two 1964 articles in Maclean's, seen as the first positive take on homosexuals in the country's mass media. Not gay, Katz had been toured around Toronto's fag bar scene by Jim Egan.

In touch with US homophiles, including that pioneer of 1924 Henry Gerber, Egan had been a one man gay movement here since 1949, when he began writing letters -- most to "trash" tabloids, the only media then to pay homos any attention, if salaciously. But he also hit the big dailies: The Globe & Mail had run one of his letters as early as 1950.

Jim & his lover Jack left town in 1964, not heard from again until they became "Egan & Nesbit," the case that made history at the Supreme Court of Canada. David Adkin had made a film about them, Jim Loves Jack, in 1995.

"How They saw Us" is online as Gay "Journalism": What for?

As a supposed if former "gay journalist," I was asked by Gary Aikenhead, a CBC producer, to be on a panel at the NLGJA(C)'s 1997 annual meeting.

Its focus was to be "how they saw us," a look at mainstream media treatment of homos since the 1960s. I was to do the '80s, fellow former Beeper Mariana Valverde the '70s, writer Sidney Katz the '60s; filmmaker David Adkin would moderate.

Mariana and I got in touch about our roles as intended by Gary -- and decided to ignore them. "Well, we know these media types always have the story framed beforehand," I wrote her. "Then it's the task of savvy subjects to subvert them and say what we want anyway."

Gary had wanted me to focus on the 1981 CBC documentary, "Sharing the Secret," the one Chris Bearchell so nimbly dissected then as "Trading on Secrets."

But as I said to Mariana, "I'm not interested in amusing them with stories of the good (bad) old days, or easy shots at the predictable homophobia of journalists long ago. It's what they themselves do as journalists now that they really need to think about."

I wrote a big paper I called "How They saw Us; How We saw Us; How We see the World" -- using among other things (and with her permission) Mariana's own 1980 analysis of the media's usual "Loony A Loony B" handling of "controversy."


I did relate a few hoary old horror stories but then said: "That's really just the same old gay lib narrative: noble resistance in the face of nasty homophobic oppression."

History could be raw material for other narratives, less pat and more interesting. I talked about how we'd tried to shape "our image," if an ever changing one, for ourselves. But mostly I went on about the way media shape reality, not just in documentaries but in "news."

A joint CBC / BBC series called Dawn of the Eye had just aired, a history of the news camera, which among much else told of Cecil B DeMille carting one off to the trenches of France in World War One -- only to find that "reality was too unrealistic." Most of his "documentary" battle footage was staged, men and materiel lent by the US Army and shot in the trenches of New Jersey.

There were more modern fabrications. After TBP's 1979 acquittal in the "Men Loving Boys" case, The Toronto Star covered it with a story at the top of page 1, headlined: "Now give us Wintario cash, Body Politic says."

That rose from a brief comment in our victory press conference: asked if we would still seek grants from the Ontario Arts Council -- we had before, had got small ones, the last in 1978 causing some "controversy" -- we said yes. Period. Wintario, the lottery run by the province to fund things like culture and sports, was never mentioned.

Taking its own invention as truth, The Star editorialized that our response "in announcing that they now feel entitled to a Wintario grant from the government in order to reprint the offending article is provocative rubbish." (We did reprint "the offending article" -- without oft cited "taxpayers' money.")

What that headline really meant was: "Now kiss our ungrateful bums, Body Politic says." We launched a libel suit but when that acquittal was appealed let it drop, facing more pressing trials.


We often played cooperative subject for the mainstream media. If sometimes with an edge.

I recall Ken Popert in the office after some victory, sitting down to cute CBC reporter Kevin Tibbals. "I suppose," Ken said dryly, "that you're going to ask me how I feel." Poor Kev, quite thrown: "Well... yes." He's now with NBC.

By 1979 Ken Popert was fed up, writing in Between the Lines:

...we must take at the very least what small retaliatory measures we can against the individual news media who have taken advantage of our openness.

We should refuse to deal with them and their representatives, for withholding the access which we continue to give to others is the only small bit of power we have. ...

I'm sure that some will object to these suggestions on the grounds that we have nothing to hide. Quite true. And quite irrelevant. We have nothing to hide, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't lock our doors against vandals.

Eighteen years on -- Eleanor Brown having since played God -- I couldn't resist telling this band of lesbian and gay journalists, she happily among them: "It's an irony not lost on Ken Popert, I'm sure, that if people in our communities today -- with nothing to hide -- were to take his media advice of 1979, some might lock their doors against Xtra. Occasionally some have."

I refused to coddle this newly self important, self congratulatory crew, so eager to cluck over past media crimes. I meant to hold their own feet to the fire, not as "journalists" but as lesbian and gay citizens.

We didn't grapple with tough issues at The Body Politic just to know "who we are" -- but what we wanted to do.

That's still the most important question: What, in the world, do you want to do? And why? What kind of world -- what kind of reality -- do you want? You may not stage World War One in New Jersey. But you do shape reality every day. If you do it unconsciously, do it without admitting to it, do it while taking no responsibility for its effects -- then the reality you get may make "our image" a luxury.

You may get a world where only a small class of people (likely none of us) will have not only the power to define reality -- real reality -- but the power to force the rest of us to live in it whether we like it or not.

Well, all very grand. I'd made just a few copies of that paper, thinking I'd cover it in my allotted 20 minutes. Then it was cut to 15, then 10, Gary Aikenhead filling the segment with scandalous clips from "Sharing the Secret."

I rushed through on TV time, getting in a few soundbites before the talking head got his cue to say: "And now for something completely different."


Xtra with Ashley
Hey diddle piddle:
Ashley on Xtra Feb 1, '96 -- before water sports were in media play.

Journalistic "ethics"
-- & real ones

Or The Journalists' Lament:
What to do with pure gold when
it's just a load of piss?

Dramatis personae:
Matthew Hays, The Advocate
Patricia Hluchy, Maclean's
Gerald Hannon, admitted whore
Robert Fulford, media guru

Matthew Hays declined to report Ashley's admission: he'd rambled all over, a messy boy who needed to be protected from himself. Patricia Hluchy had found Ashley scattered & naive, too -- but she did report it.

Gerald Hannon says she should have -- & that Matthew should have, too. Who are we to protect people from themselves? And what are we protecting them from?

Bob Fulford says that in the old days it would depend on whether the guy was a friend of yours or not. Young journalists in the audience jump all over this as old fashioned bias, a blatant violation of objectivity. What I care about, one of them says, is facts, on the record. And if it's on the record, I'll use it.

Ah, so that's journalism: isolated "facts" which, once wrested onto "the record" (gotcha!), nobly "objective" reporters have no choice but to tell the world.

It suddenly seemed almost a force of nature, fate beyond human will -- & certainly beyond human account. The "truth" will out, no matter the consequences. Should they be disastrous it's not the fault of some mere mortal with a tape recorder. It's a natural disaster. An act of God.

In all the hand wringing over "to tell or not to tell," no one asks the only truly moral question hanging silent over this assembly: To what end? To make what happen? What is my motive? As not just a journalist, but a citizen? A human being?

Reporters, of course, claim to have no motives, no agenda of their own. That wouldn't be "objective."

But to claim professional freedom from personal "bias," disinterest in the outcome of a story, is to claim a privilege no other profession is allowed: freedom from human responsibility for one's effect on the world.

To claim objectivity is also, quite simply, to lie. Only Bob Fulford tells the truth this Saturday night. Journalists decide all the time what to tell, or not to tell, based on their own motives.

Those motives are not always so blatant as the wish to protect a friend or screw an enemy. Some grow from the mechanics of journalistic commerce: to get hot copy, get it in on deadline, beat the other guy & sell papers; to jam the "essence" of a complex story into 500 words or 90 seconds of air time; to impress your editor, climb the ranks or maybe just cover your ass.

Journalists make choices all the time. They base those choices not just on ethics, but on interests: their own, their employers' & -- often most subtly -- the interests of those who share their politics, their culture, & their sense of how the world should be.

There's no shame in this. Shame comes in pretending it's not true.

How reassuring it would have been, among a crew of (mostly) gay & lesbian journalists, to hear not a catechism of "ethics" based on the mechanics of their trade, but talk of conscious, moral use of the power bestowed on them by a press card.

But that may be asking too much of journalists, apart from the most perceptive, honest & brave. Despite 10 years at The Body Politic -- no, because of those 10 years -- I left that panel knowing I'd never been a "journalist" at all.

Eleanor's end
(A postscript)

On Sept 5, 2001, Eleanor Brown was fired from Xtra. It was "termination without cause, effective immediately" -- the usual quick chop (with severance payoff) to evade anyone's accountability for what went wrong.

The buzz: disputes over editorial approach -- of course never articulated in print. In the Sept 20 issue a small note from David Walberg said Eleanor had "left her post," cited "her significant contribution," & wished her "all the best." The usual corporate smarm on the heels of summary execution.

Go Big (indeed "Go Broke" after just three issues) was axed at the same time. Other changes in editorial approach, if any, are so far not apparent. Xtra's 2nd "Gay Life & Style Show" is set for Nov 9-11, 2001.

That night we got something different -- from the point I'd been trying to make, that is -- hence not so different at all.

It was a forum on "gay panic points in journalism" -- the Maple Leaf Gardens scandal; Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac's eviction from the Maclean's Honour Roll after it was reported he liked getting pissed on by his 16 year old boyfriend. The panel title: "Homophobia returns?" (Oh we do hope so: such a pat story, a cinch to "cover.")

That inspired another paper, one I called it "Journalistic 'ethics' -- and real ones." The particular ethics in question: should Ashley's erotic acts (his orientation well known) have been exposed just because he'd blurted them to some reporter? To two reporters at least, both on this panel, leaving them not quite sure what to do with this bit of journalistic gold. They had it on tape -- but should they use it?

My reflections on their noble agonizing appear at the left.


In the "Kid-sex Hooker Prof Scandal" pages of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives website, I was able to net from the sea of ink spilled in that fiasco one truly honest account of journalistic "ethics."

It came from Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno, going on in April 1996 about two journalism students at Ryerson who'd had the temerity to pop off on the subject.

What a privilege it must be. To condemn and scold from the safe distance of a college campus. To muse on the grander themes of journalism -- fairness, accuracy, responsible reporting -- while the rest of us are committing journalism on the run, meeting deadlines and straining for some semblance of quality.

First, the disclaimer: journalism is inherently unethical.

It is unethical and profoundly intrusive to pound on the front door of a woman whose child has just been found murdered. It is unethical and demeaning to rummage through somebody's garbage looking for evidence of malfeasance. It is unethical and distasteful to acquire personal photographs and letters that are splashed across the front page.

But it's what we do. And most of the time we do it with glee. For the hit, for the story, for the byline.

I'd say it's not unethical, not inherently, to do any of those things. It depends on why one is doing them. What's truly unethical is to do them without asking just that: Why? What's it for? To have what effect on the world?

In my conclusion to that website I said: "Power needn't grow out of anything as obvious as the barrel of a gun. Sometimes all you need is a press card."


In late 1996 I'd heard from another Beep veteran, Gillian Rodgerson. While no more a "journalist" than I she had brought the skills of that so called profession, learned at TBP, to her work at Gay Times, covering world news from London just as she and Tim McCaskell once had from Toronto.

She was later editor in chief of Capital Gay and was about to apply for yet another top post, at Diva, the lesbian glossy. She told me:

I'm supposed to "give a ten minute presentation on how I would improve the magazine's circulation" (presumably saying "lie" isn't an acceptable answer). All these people seem to care about is how many widgets they can say they've sold.... I can't possibly imagine I'll tell them what they want to hear.

I wrote Gillian back:

Our dear old Press could end up no more enlightened, widgets no less its goal -- even if no one (so far) can walk away with excess widget revenue. Ken makes noises now about going international. To which I want to ask (but haven't): what is it, exactly, that you want to say once you've got the world's ear?

Oh well, an old dino roar, the usual one: "What's it all supposed to be for?"

Gillian's next e-mail told me:

I got the Diva job!!! As I was preparing my presentation I could hear your voice saying "What's it for?" (I told this to Kevin Orr and he laughed a lot), and that really concentrated my mind on what I want to do with this magazine and how I'm going to do it.

One of them called my talk "inspirational." I guess all those years listening to various preachers must have rubbed off.

I suppose I was one of those preachers -- if hardly the sole one: Gillian was a United Church girl, braving The Beep's bias against religion, getting it to cover that church's gay ordination battles by reporting them herself, and very well.

At Diva she has not sold widgets. A 1999 issue reported a survey showing that half its readers would marry their girlfriends if they could. Inside one article featured lesbian couples in matrimonial ceremony; another titled "Look before you leap" gave advice on legally binding partnership contracts.

In her own editorial Gillian said:

I've never liked the idea of marriage. I don't like the state giving special benefits to couples, as if somehow the monogamous pair bond is the only relationship worth having. ...

It's not that I'm against falling in love. But I think we should use our position outside the legal framework of relationships to consider very carefully what kind of recognition we want for the partnerships we form.

Now there's a true Beeper: using a medium to broadcast ideas -- her own included, honestly stated -- to affect public discourse. To shape the world. Not "the reader."


In The Beep's former realm, Pink Triangle Press, there seems not a true Beeper left.

That is, apart from Ken Popert, and Gerald Hannon still on the board, both there now well over 25 years. But the board has (with wise intent if not always happy effect) no impact on what the Press does from day to day.

Ken, carefully hands off in his presidential role, has historical memory but, apparently, no effective way to apply it. His 1996 "international" plans came to nought, though there are always new ones -- always business ones, the Internet the latest frontier -- always about means. Clear ends, it seems, are no longer in sight.

In "The Body Politic and Visions of Community" I'd said: "If Pink Triangle Press has a role to play now (and it does) it should be the role for which it was founded: not so much to define who we are -- we can use its media and the rest of our lives to do that for ourselves -- but to help us say what we want. And why."

In late 1994 David Walberg, Xtra's publisher and editor in chief just six months then, gave us some sense of what he in that role might want, and why:

Lately it seems we have stopped inventing and improvising. There seems to be a lot of, well, same sex sameness going on. ... The gay and lesbian press sometimes encourages this behaviour, providing stagnation validation. ... Xtra needs to look at being lesbian or gay as an opportunity to improvise. We need to remember the liberation in gay liberation.

Until now our reputation has primarily been for delivering information: hard news, event listings and previews. Xtra is ready to play a more active role.

David's words raised my hopes. But if there's one word that best describes Xtra's state five years later it is, precisely, "stagnation."

It is still mostly news (if not always "hard"); it's had hardly a new idea in its head for ages. I nearly said "pretty little head" -- but it's not: the tired, too cute design pleads "please don't take me too seriously!", the "opportunity to improvise" rarely seized but in a few small features -- or big ad supplements.

Mind you, in early 2000 we saw something new, and quite dramatic: a 32 page glossy in cutting edge format, 10 inches square, called Go Big. Nothing in it said what it might be for. (I suppose it's uncool to ask.)

But the answer was obvious enough in one brief bit: "Go Big is about the style of life; it's people who make a bold statement." It was filled with full page photos of the bold and their statements, each profiled in 200 words or less in layouts very much au courant and, as such, quite striking.

Pink Triangle Press had proven itself worthy of Wallpaper -- that mag always fabulous looking and utterly without troublesome substance. Fab reported PTP's staff calling it (sotto voce) "Go Broke." Despite what one must assume were high hopes, its paid ad ratio was just 25 percent.

The Press's latest hopeful venture is "Xtra's Gay Life & Style Show," a corporate extravaganza of "gay market" consumerism, set for Novemver 2000 and co-produced with a private, straight owned promo company ostensibly expert in such hype.

As for Xtra itself: best I can judge (and it's fair to judge a publisher by what's published), David's aspirations have little effect on what that paper actually does. He is (I expect, having been there to watch) too busy running a business to bother with editorial stuff. He leaves that, apparently, to Eleanor Brown.


In 1995, the editor of Xtra West was attacked for negative coverage she gave a Vancouver food bank for people with HIV. She took to print in her own defence.

She said her paper wasn't there to support one community cause or another. "First and foremost," she said, "we are a newspaper. We report news" (as defined of course by herself).

She didn't last. In Toronto, Eleanor Brown has. I've seen no evidence that she disagrees with that statement of what, first and foremost, Xtra is supposed to be. There's no hint she has any more profound social agenda, that she much bothers with "the liberation in gay liberation."

Well, I suppose it wouldn't do for Eleanor to have an agenda. She is, after all, a "journalist."

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This page:
January 2000 / Last revised: October 8, 2001
Rick Bébout © 2001 /