Xtra with Ashley

What for?

This paper was presented at a conference of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (Canada) on May 10, 1997, under the title "How They saw Us; How We saw Us; How We see the World."

It was for a panel titled simply "How They Saw Us" -- meant to look at mainstream media coverage of gay people from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The other panelists: Mariana Valverde, feminist author, professor and former member of The Body Politic collective, and Sidney Katz, author of 1964 Maclean's articles likely the first sympathetic look at gay life in Canada (or rather Toronto). The moderator was David Adkin, who had made a documentary film on early gay pioneer Jim Egan -- who had led Katz on his 1964 explorations.

I found the panel's initial frame (as in "media frame") a too easy set up -- a chance for modern lesbian and gay "journalists" (the quotation marks meant to disown that egregious term) to cackle in smug superiority over the predictable homophobia of their straight forebears.

I didn't want to let them so easily off the hook for their own actions and effects. So, but for a few predictable bits, I broke the frame -- less interested in how they saw us than how we did over time (using The Body Politic as my source), and how we see the world now and our responsibilities there as citizens.

-- Rick Bébout, January 2000



as news

When we look back at reporting about us, as lesbians, as gay men -- or, going back not so very far, as "the homosexual" (I always wondered who that poor, over scrutinized soul might have been) -- we find that news about us has often been news about crime.

That's no surprise. Until 1969 in this country, our lives -- or our sex lives, anyway -- were crimes. Even after "decriminalization" we were still reputed to carry on, gay men in particular, in ways that "attracted the criminal element" -- blackmailers; tricks who turn out thieves or worse; savvy, streetwise young hustlers.

Homosexuality per se may not be a crime here any more. But it's still got the word "sex" in it, still grist for stories of sleaze, smut, and threats to the social order. Sex is like that.

The Body Politic paid so much attention to news coverage of us in the mainstream media that, looking back, I found it impossible to come up with a quick overview. But a few highlights stand out.

There was the Ottawa Scandal of 1975, when reports -- running non stop for a month -- of "men charged in teenaged homosexual ring" conveniently included their names and addresses. Among the headlines: "Boys in slavery ring"; "Another charged in slavery ring" -- and finally, "Sex scandal man jumps to his death."

Of course, murder makes even better headlines than suicide. Especially "homosexual murder." In 1977 -- ten days after the Ontario Human Rights Commission had said gay people should be protected from discrimination -- we had the "homosexual orgy slaying" of 12 year old shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques. Of the four accused, one was a gay man.

In 1978 we saw the headline: "New homosexual killing: It's 13th slaying since 1975." In those 13 slayings it was sometimes the killer, sometimes the victim, sometimes both -- and in one case possibly neither -- who were gay. But they were all "homosexual murders."

We fought this kind of coverage, of course, in letters to the editor, protests, press conferences -- and in the pages of our own media. In the December 1977 issue of The Body Politic (later, famously and more than once, scrutinized in court during the "Men loving boys loving men" case) we started a media watch column. We called it "Monitor," always heading it with a dictionary definition of the term:

mon-i-tor: n, One that cautions, admonishes or reminds. Any devise used to record or control a process. (tr. v.) To check, to test, to keep track of, to scrutinize, to watch over, to direct. (Latin, one who warns, from monere, to warn.)

Somebody once complained that that was thuddingly sober, even self righteous -- a charge laid often against The Body Politic as a whole. And often it was true.

In fact, everything I've said so far, valid as it may be, is really just the same old gay lib narrative: noble resistance in the face of nasty homophobic oppression. Vets like me can relish tales of the fine old struggle: good for the kids; maybe it'll firm 'em up a bit.

Well, it does help to know a little history. But it can be raw material for other narratives, too -- a little less pat and, I think, more interesting.



Our Image

In its 12th issue, published in early 1974, The Body Politic began giving its review pages a new flag. They had been headed "Books" before, or "Film," and some still were. But others now said "Our Image."

"Our Image" eventually become the name of The Body Politic's entire review section. For a while it was often a pullout supplement. One news addicted activist said that was a good thing: he could pull it out and throw it away.

But under the stewardship of Ed Jackson, later Mariana Valverde and Alex Wilson, "Our Image" made The Body Politic one of the world's most respected journals of gay and lesbian thought. (And thought is one area in which The Body Politic could, by then, reasonably claim to be a gay and lesbian endeavour).

The name "Our Image" was retired in early 1981. There's a story behind that, but the story I want to tell here grows from the name itself. What does it say about us, then, that we dedicated an entire section of a gay magazine to ongoing examination of "our image"?



News vs

A clue lies in early use of the term. Before it was applied to the entire review section, "Our Image" appeared only over reviews of theatre, then music and art, then film. These media did not carry news about us. Rather, most offered portrayals of us. And how we were portrayed -- mostly by people who were not us -- was, to us, of gripping interest.

One of the first gay demonstrations in Toronto was held to protest a portrayal of "us."

On November 30, 1971, the CBC aired a documentary called "Nothing to Hide," ostensibly about that new social phenomenon, the gay liberation movement -- which apparently involved no women, had the rapt attention of psychiatric "experts," and could not be found in Canada. The film had been shot in New York: its Canadian producers had said no homosexuals here were willing to appear.

On December 10, thirteen of them eager to show their faces (and have them photographed by the police) showed up to picket the CBC. Earlier, they had sent the producer a letter. Among their critiques:

The view of the gay community shown in this program was that of an outsider, concentrating on the external aspects e.g. the streets, steam baths, bars, etc. ...the viewer is led to associate gay life with pornography, anonymous sexuality, sexual addiction and sadomasochism. ...

[It] gives the viewer the assumption that everything in gay life is centered on sex ... that the gay life style is one of total irresponsibility and fun seeking.

Heaven forbid.



Homos alone
(or watch out)

If you hear a plea there for "respectable" images, well, you're right -- though maybe with the wrong idea about what these activists took to be "respectability." Here's a bit from a later story in The Body Politic, June 1976, headlined "Public forum castigates media's picture of gays." Listen for an echo -- and a clarification (emphasis mine).

The discussion quickly zeroed in on the fact that the media regularly presents sensationalized coverage of individual gays who conform to the prevailing stereotyped notions, while ignoring the existence of the gay community and the gay movement.

Activists wanted respect for our lives in the context of other gay and lesbian lives, and for our collective efforts in the context of the wider world. But -- even now -- the media prefer to portray us one fag or dyke at a time. There's no safety for them in our numbers.

The gay community and gay movement were sometimes portrayed -- not that we were often happy with what we saw. In The Boys in the Band, everybody was gay. "Show me a happy homosexual," one of them says, "and I'll show you a gay corpse." A decade later we got a whole slew of gay corpses, in Cruising. Clearly, that was a problem for "our image" -- though exactly why, or what we should do about it, was a matter of much debate.

Early gay radicals often met The Boys in the Band with leaflets and picket signs. In 1979, Cruising was confronted by mass protest in the streets of New York, meant to shut down production. Another film, Windows -- featuring a predatory lesbian whose seductive bag of tricks included a knife -- faced similar protests around the same time.

Maybe all that helped inspire the 1980 CBS documentary, "Gay Power, Gay Politics," the movement portrayed at last -- as the "horribly menacing gay lobby."

William Friedkin directed both the film version of The Boys in the Band and Cruising. In both he did give us well populated gay bars: the chi chi sweater set in 1969; ten years later, leathermen into fisting and S/M. "It's there," he said. "It exists. It's the truth."

OK. So let's talk about "the truth."



Staged "reality"

In 1980 we got a portrayal of "the gay bar" in a Canadian film. It was "The Running Man" a CBC docudrama (closeted high school track coach rebuffs sexually confused student; the kid kills himself). David Mole, writing about it for The Body Politic, sat in on the filming:

"Action." The sound comes up (second rate bar disco) and the "special business extras" who have been collected for this scene begin to move to the beat, smoke cigarettes, sip drinks, talk, cruise, fondle, kiss and generally do an odd, lurid version of the gay bar thing in front of the CBC film crew.

"Whether it's literally true," the director said, "doesn't worry me. You often have to get people to do things that seem unnatural in order to get something on the screen which you think is true." That director was Donald Brittain, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who could afford to admit that what he created was his own version of "the truth."

He did not produce news. But those who do use much the same technique -- without the honesty of that admission.

In Dawn of the Eye, a recent CBC / BBC history of the news camera, we learned of Cecil B DeMille carting one off to the trenches of France -- only to find that "reality was too unrealistic." But he did give us famous "documentary" footage of World War One: staged with men and materiel lent by the U.S. Army, and shot in the fields of New Jersey.

Anyone who has ever been the subject of a TV news segment knows that much of the "reality" portrayed nightly on the small screen is, in fact, elaborately staged. I remember TV news crews in The Body Politic's office, during our trials, making us do things to make it look like we were "working" in a "real" office.

Of course, what people expect "work" to "look like" is itself a creation of the media. So we get an endless cycle of fabrication breeding fabrication -- to which the fabricators say: "Don't blame me. That's reality."



Image power:
Trading on

Media creation of "reality" isn't always as blatant as Mr DeMille's. But even in 1971, those critics of "Nothing to Hide" had a sharp eye:

The cameraman used bizarre camera angles portraying the homosexual like an animal in a cage. Misty shots of Times Square at night and pornography shops associated homosexuality with an extremely sordid aesthetic.

This is especially insidious since the viewer retains far more of the visual impression than of the verbal content.

"An extremely sordid aesthetic" -- I just love that. The emphasis is mine. As in what follows, from a decade later:

[A mother] weeps her way through a prolonged and embarrassing reconstruction of her reaction to her son's coming out, complete with bizarre and unflattering camera angles. ... Peter Shaver takes us on a walking tour of David Balfour Park, where the most innocent of shadows take on all the qualities of a nightmare.

The hidden depths of a gay steambath are probed by a camera that sees no faces, only dim, empty hallways, a camera that peers suspiciously into darkened rooms and then zips away at a crazy angle, as if embarrassed....

Accompanied not by the baths' usual disco muzak but by the eerie sound of footsteps, these shots subvert Peter's attempt to demystify gay sex, snatching his experience from him and redefining it as something creepy, cold, frightening.

That is Chris Bearchell, writing in The Body Politic in 1981 about another CBC doc, John and Rose Kastner's "Sharing the Secret: Selected Gay Stories." Just how selected was made obvious by the show's introduction:

[This film] is not about the obvious homosexual stereotypes, such as drag queens or boys in heavy leather. Nor is it, to any great extent, about vocal gay militants. This film takes us into a still largely closeted world.... No single film could hope to encompass the entire gay world or the complex of people and attitudes within it. Instead, six individual subjects have been chosen. Their stories are their own and what they say is not necessarily representative of other gay people.

Sounds a tad defensive, doesn't it? And well it should. John Kastner and his mother Rose, well known documentary filmmakers, had sought, and got, a lot of help from the gay community -- until suspicions were aroused.

"Whatever the subject is," Rose was quoted in a mainstream news story, "I want the viewer to think, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' whether it's a film on cancer or on gay people." An assistant on the set of "The Running Man" had expressed even greater documentary largesse: "Car chases, wife beatings, gays or whatever it is, it's our work."

Those six people -- all of them men; plans for a later film on lesbians were dropped -- had been culled from more than 500 who responded to the Kastners' call. Hardly a closeted response. But all six appeared under fake names (and in one case, fake hair).

The Kastner's hadn't been seeking stories but casting for roles already fixed. Peter Shaffter -- the tour guide above, only thinly disguised -- defined them as: "wealthy but maimed; lonely and youth obsessed; the odd couple nurturing their cats instead of kids while their parents long for grandchildren; the sex obsessed, tortured artist."

Peter won the last role, intending to use it "to transform, or at least inform, the film. I wasn't going to be a tortured, suffering homosexual for them." He was portrayed instead as a "sexual revolutionary," an "extremist."

Many people -- Chris Bearchell among them -- had offered contacts and advice, only to see themselves and others get burned. It was not the first time. Some people had said it should be the last.



our doors

In the December 1977 issue of The Body Politic, Chris had reported an earlier adventure with the CBC. Her hope had been to challenge lesbian invisibility and she thought she'd found some allies: both the researcher and the producer claimed feminist sisterhood.

The affair (too complicated to go into in detail) ended with that producer giving a gang of rowdy dykes a lesson in media realpolitik -- "What the fuck is going on here! Who the hell do you think you are?! You're lucky to be on this show! We worked our asses off to get you on the air!"

"I learned two things," Chris wrote. "One is how important it is to know who my friends really are. The other is that there are times when it is appropriate to tell the media to fuck off. A bad show is worse than no show at all."

In February 1979, there had been media mayhem over the acquittal of The Body Politic in its first trial. (The Toronto Star was so bad we launched a libel suit -- but we let it drop.) Ken Popert -- now president of Pink Triangle Press, publisher of The Body Politic then and Xtra now -- had had enough. In his "Between the Lines" column he said we had nothing to gain and a lot to lose in cooperating with the mainstream media. He concluded:

...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.

Besides, we had our own media. We could tell our stories -- on our own terms.



-- not!

The Body Politic had a distinct take on "journalism." We'd seen it used against gay people for years. We didn't like it, didn't trust it, and didn't aspire to it. We didn't call ourselves "journalists." We were activists who had found a medium -- a means, not an end. Our goal wasn't to put out a newspaper. It was to change the world.

Of all journalistic traditions, we most despised "objectivity." We were not objective. Of course, no one really is. But the point is: we didn't pretend to be.

We did try to be good reporters and in time we were: diligent, accurate, scrupulous; fair -- but never objective. To claim that would have been a fraud. Even the term "reporter" is dicey. We didn't stand outside the story looking in. We were actors, inside it. (Too often, we were it.) That's where we were coming from: a perfectly good place -- so let's say so, get on with the story and let readers, fully informed, assess our integrity.

But we weren't truly inside every story.

In the early '70s Gerald Hannon did a piece on a transsexual seminar, ending it with: "Coffee followed, and those present availed themselves of the opportunity to question the transsexuals on various aspects of their condition." Gerald later diagnosed his own condition at the time as one prone to "condensed smarminess." But the real problem was that "we" weren't exactly sure who "we" were supposed to be.

I'm not talking here about issues of "inclusiveness," of the "diversity" of many, various "identities" within gay (male / lesbian / bisexual / transgendered) "communities." That terminology wasn't even in play at the time -- though it certainly would be later.

Most early gay liberationists figured they had a working grasp on "identity" --- unitary, or binary at best -- as a transformative project: "the homosexual" was to be recreated as "the liberated gay man." And (maybe) "the leaping lesbian."




But what would she / he be like? Or more to the point -- this transformation requiring not a little prescriptive vision -- what should he / she be like? Hence, what should we be like? Our own portrayers now, not simply the portrayed, what did we want "our image" to be?

Over time, the Our Image section had more and more self portrayals to judge. Fiction, music, art and theatre (if not yet film) by lesbian and gay male artists were blooming. And woe betide the artist whose bloom didn't smell like a "positive role model," or if its shape and colour didn't "accurately reflect our lives in all their variety." (At least until we got bored with a raft of sappy "apologist" work.)

That positive role model, though -- not to mention his / her politics, sexual practices, economic status and cultural tastes -- was a shifting target. For fun (though it's a risky business, as you'll see in a minute), let me toss off a few of the polar positions and odd progressions we saw over the first decade or so in The Body Politic.

The "ghetto" got it in the neck before we recognized it as a locus of "mass mobilization." From there it became our "community."

Flighty "bar queens" took early hits, too; then the closeted "self oppressed." (No, wait: we were all self oppressed.)

The church, we all knew, had burned witches and faggots and needed a good lay on its side -- but the Lord is my shepherd and he knows I'm gay.

Respectability seeking "assimilationists" were scorned by radical gay liberationists, who later found themselves attacked -- from the left -- as selfish "sexual libertarians" who only cared about getting laid.

"Objectification" of the body was "looksist," sexist, and just plain rude -- until we went to the gym. Hunky masculine clones were "oppressor identified" -- but, you know, kinda cute.

Lesbian sex was vanilla, or so it was claimed; then it claimed the cutting edge.

Role playing was "aping heterosexuality" -- until butch / fem was reclaimed and (some) workbooted dykes could at last rediscover lipstick lesbianism, validated by a proud history.

S/M was deeply suspect at first, as was anything to do with power; then we got Powers of Desire and Pleasure and Danger and everybody could tell top from bottom -- even if they only did it vanilla.

It was "regressive" to want a lover -- until you had one.

Drag was tacky and oppressive to women. Then dykes did drag -- sometimes as women.

Gay men were lesbian allies, then sexist, boy- fucking pricks -- and lesbians who dared work with them "male identified"; then they weren't such bad guys after all.

Feminism was key to gay liberation. Then feminists went anti porn and "sex negative"; then they opposed censorship and were making their own lezzie smut.

Of course, it wasn't as simple -- or silly -- as all that. All those polar positions were, in their time, fresh and powerful ways to see the world. We grew with them, learned from them, and sometimes grew beyond them. Debating them, we created ourselves.

Not that it was always a genuine debate. Our biases at The Body Politic were pretty clear. No true "assimilationist" ever got much ink; few avowed gay Christians did until later on; and -- the bottom line, always -- sex was good.



Loony A,
Loony B

In the December 1980 issue, the one where David Mole scrutinized "The Running Man," there was another commentary on media manipulation.

The commercial media are very fond of setting up false controversies. They work like this: an eminently rational "moderator" will introduce Loony A, who is from the start defined as having an "extreme" position; after listening to A, the moderator will gasp and say, "but now let us introduce you to Loony B, who holds the opposite position."

The audience is supposed to identify with the moderator, who is, significantly, always sitting in the middle, and to sit back comfortably watching the fanatics have a go at each other. ...

The smiling interviewer makes sure that the passion is contained and that the antagonism is polite; the final impression is that it doesn't matter whether the Ku Klux Klan or the black activist wins. Who cares whether Coke or Pepsi is number one?

Television, after all, has no consequences.

The writer was Mariana Valverde. The true subject of her scrutiny was not the mass media -- it was The Body Politic itself.

We were used to being one loony or the other, cast against loony homophobes. But now we were running the show, and had slipped into the role of that "eminently rational" moderator who, no matter what the issue, always comes out unscathed.

We had published an ad some women found offensive (some men, too). We didn't offer their analysis (that's up to the loonies, not the moderator), we just said they were in a snit and -- hey readers! should we have a policy? Much like those hit and run "person on the street" inquiries, often to some question like: "Do you think the government should stop wasting taxpayers' money?" (Then people think they're "involved.")

The issue here was, at root, The Body Politic's relation to feminism. It was becoming a strained and complex one. So -- let's clear it up: Will that be Coke or Pepsi?

Mariana expected better, and was right. She had not only caught us out at an old media game -- one we knew by experience as its pawn -- but had pointed out a shift in our role. We didn't want to be "journalists," but now we had one crucial thing in common with them: some institutional power. Not much in the wider scheme of things but, in our own realm, more than those we chose to cast as loonies.

We had something else in common with mainstream journalists, too: we didn't want to acknowledge that power. Better to sit back -- objectively? -- and let the readers, properly set up, decide. Of course, we meant to do no such thing: we would decide. But we'd found the usual media ass cover -- more comfortable than having our butts on the line in honest account of our power.

Later, we would be clearly cast as a media power, confronted by people pissed off at us -- and well enough organized to be in our face. They were not loony homophobes, but lesbians and gay men whose politics we shared. Or so we thought.

The issue this time was race, and its intersection with sexuality and power. It began with a 31 word classified ad. It ended as the beginning of the end of The Body Politic itself.



"The Harm
that Good Men
[& Women] Do"

How the tables had turned since 1971. Secure at last in our power to portray, we portrayed -- or not -- as we saw fit. And got shit for it. Or, maybe, we portrayed as best we knew how. And -- here it comes -- with good intentions.

Many of us were called racists in that final debate. We were shocked -- even though we could chant the catechism, "we are all racists," just as once we were all self oppressed. But now we stood accused of oppressing someone else.

Herb Spiers, a founding member of The Body Politic Collective and one of the people at that demo against the CBC in 1971, had written about confronting his oppressors in a meeting finally arranged with the producers of "Nothing to Hide":

I remember reading an essay entitled "The Harm That Good Men Do" -- it kept running through my mind during our meeting. It would be too easy to cast these people into pernicious and power tripping types. I believe that our protagonists were sincere in their belief that no harm or malice was intended by the program. They honestly believed that they had presented a fair and impartial documentary.

They were not monsters. Neither were we. We, and they, had simply acted from our places of relative power in the world.

Your place of power can change -- and that can change the way you see the world. It can change what you think, what you do, and how you justify your actions, even to yourself. 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.



"Our Image"

In "Media madness and lesbian images," a 1977 piece by Chris Bearchell, she said: "We have to counteract centuries of invisibility. We have to respond to [the media's] every slight, however slight it may seem."

I'm glad we took that advice then, and before, and since. But I'm not sure I would now. It's very tiring, for one thing, responding to every slight. Jumping to everybody else's agenda leaves you little energy to build your own. And what it produces as reportage can be predictable, smug, and finally flat out boring.

Besides, there's something unsettling about trying to live your life always looking over your shoulder to see what somebody else thinks of it. John Kastner said in 1981: "You're not going to win any friends among straight people by saying you're proud and happy to be who you are." Given the source, I suppose we could just turn that on its head.

But the point isn't to win "friends." If it's to win anything it's respect. Real respect, not "respectability" in someone else's eyes. And you do that, in part, precisely by being "proud and happy to be who you are."

Of course, that's an old line, too. As for "who we are" today, Gerald Hannon has pointed out that, right now, old lines may be all we have to offer. This is how he opened an April 19 review, in the Toronto Star, of a recent collection of lesbian and gay short fiction:

There is something horrible about gay fiction, and it is this -- we have only one story to tell, and we have told it, repeatedly. We are beginning to sound worse than provincial.

Earlier on, I said we'd spent a lot of time "creating ourselves," haggling endlessly over issues that were, at heart, about "who we are." I suppose that could be called provincial.

But think back on some of those issues. They weren't so much about "identity" as action -- who we were in the world: how we should regard not just ourselves but each other, how we should interact -- with each other and with everybody else.

We didn't go on, at our best, just about homosexuality -- but about sexuality in general. And, in time, about sexuality and power, sexuality as a window on power, a way to help us see it, acknowledge it, and use it well. That wasn't just about "us."

At our best, we were thinking. Thinking all the time, thinking hard and together, talking it out in person and in print. There really was such a thing as gay and lesbian thought -- beyond "identity" and way beyond "rights." It wasn't detached theory -- it was vital to daily life. If we didn't grapple with tough issues, we wouldn't know not just "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 not only have 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.

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January 2000 / Last revised: September 22, 2003
Rick Bébout © 2001 /