Thursday, April 22, 2010

Daring together to set love free: The Mandate of Pink Triangle Press

The piece below was written as an end of term assignment when I was completing my final year of a Bachelor of Journalism degree at Ryerson University in the Winter of 2007. It's my thoughts, reflections and observations about Pink Triangle Press (PTP):

Xtra’s offices on the second floor of 491 Church St. are surprisingly spacious. When viewed from the street all you can see are windows covered with colourful artwork and an Xtra contributor with his unobstructed view of the street, leaning over his laptop. But once you climb the imposing flight of grey stone stairs at the entrance and get past the reception desk you see the true scale of the operation.

On the inside you see rows of desks partitioned by walls and a number of individual offices on the south side. Then you look to your right and realize the Xtra offices takes up the whole second floor. At the office’s southeast corner you’ll find Ken Popert, the press’s President and Executive Director. On the wall opposite Popert’s desk is Pink Triangle Press’s mission statement:

“We, the members and workers of Pink Triangle Press, are lesbians, gay men, and people of good will. We carry on the work first undertaken by The Body Politic. The outcome that we seek is this – Gay and lesbian people daring together to set love free.”

Popert, who was involved with The Body Politic (TBP) since the early 1970s’, helped Xtra rise from TBP’s ashes in the late 1980s’. He sees the paper’s mandate as an activist rallying cry.

“Every (news) organization has an agenda. We’re just explicit about ours,” Popert says.

He sees Xtra as a vehicle for accomplishing the daunting task of changing human behaviour and attitudes regarding gay and lesbian sexuality. Popert judges how effective the paper is at achieving this goal by paying close attention to the queer community’s response to articles in the bi-weekly tabloid. Popert cites a story that ran in December 2006 as a good example of Xtra journalism that moved people in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood to action. The article was about the Salvation Army collecting money at the intersection of Church and Wellesley Streets — gay ground zero. It drew attention to the fact that the Salvation Army is part of the Evangelical Christian Church, a church that opposes same-sex marriage and any expression of sexuality outside heterosexual marriage. The Salvation Army collector left the corner after several community members confronted him.

Popert believes objective journalism is impossible. He says reporters and the news organizations they work for will always have agendas. He thinks journalists should be honest about any motives they may have going into a story.

“I don’t imagine anyone likes to get up in the morning and say, ‘ah, another day of twisting peoples’ perceptions,’” he says.

But Popert runs the press; he is not a journalist and doesn’t participate in the story meetings held every other Wednesday. The responsibility for generating, assigning and occasionally writing stories falls to the paper’s editors.

Matt Mills has been with Xtra for five and a half years. He started his career with the paper in classified ad sales and worked in the advertising department for his first three years with Xtra. He also had a stint with Xtra West, the Vancouver branch of Pink Triangle Press. A third Xtra paper, Capital Xtra, is based in Ottawa.

“We’re a scrappy little tabloid,” says Mills, now an associate publisher of the paper.

After a new issue hits the stands Mills goes around the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood to hear how people react to that week’s stories. Mills says if people aren’t talking about what they read in the paper, then Xtra isn’t doing its’ job. But Mills doesn’t think that’s the case. He likes the broad mandate that allows Xtra to write about any number of topics provided they have a queer angle.

Mills says Xtra is not beholden to advertisers because Pink Triangle Press is a not-for-profit corporation. He says the paper has never had to delay or kill a story that might offend an advertiser. In its’ November 22 issue Xtra ran a story about Entre-Nous Network, a company that bills itself as a matchmaking service catering to same-sex relationships. Entre-Nous is listed in a lawsuit by a man claiming the company didn’t live up to its’ contractual obligations. Mills told me Entre-Nous advertised in all three Xtra papers before the story ran.

What Mills enjoys most about the paper is the occasional investigative piece Xtra runs. I wrote one when I looked into the business dealings of Marc Warman, a young businessman who recently had the lease on his bar pulled because he wasn’t paying his rent. Mills and I decided to pursue the story because several people and community organizations claim Warman owes them money. The piece was intended to make people aware of the closure of Warman’s bar and the alleged debts he owes.

A question I found myself asking is whether, in 2007, it’s still necessary to have a publication focused on gay and lesbian issues. The Xtra editors I talked to say it’s important to have news media intended for a gay and lesbian audience. As Xtra’s arts editor Gordon Bowness says:

“No one covers the community from the inside like we do.”

Bowness has been Xtra’s arts editor for ten and a half years. He says the urge for queer people to have a sense of community is still strong in an age where homosexuality sometimes seems a non-issue.

My own take on how Xtra fulfills its’ mandate is that it doesn’t. The goal of “setting love free” is far too broad and non-specific to be achieved. What the paper is as Mills aptly puts it is, “a scrappy little tabloid.” The editors know Toronto’s gay community better than any mainstream news organization; this occasionally allows Xtra to scoop other Toronto papers on quality stories that a newspaper without a queer focus wouldn’t necessarily get.

Perhaps the best reason for having a paper like Xtra is to provide a gathering point for Toronto’s queer population, a kind of common touchstone. This it does quite well. As Bowness says: “The tribe still wants to come together as a tribe.”

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