Is Canadian media open enough to LGBTQ journalists?

Marchers at the Montreal Pride Parade, 2017. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons

By Anthony Fortugno and Kiara Bernard

“I like to think institutions would judge a potential job candidate simply based on their skill and experience and not on their physical presentation,” says Jill Page, an openly bisexual transgender woman working as an editor and columnist at the Montreal Gazette. 

Page, who reports on the LGBTQ community in Montreal and manages the blog Turning the Page for the Gazette on LGBTQ issues, says her colleagues acknowledge and respect her for her gender since she transitioned in 2008.

“None of my colleagues here at the Gazette really care about sexual orientation. We have gay people, lesbian people, bisexual — me. It is totally irrelevant,” Page shared. “Ultimately, we are here to work.”

Today, under the law, transgender people have rights and protections against discrimination and violence. However, these legal measures were only established as recently as June 2017 when the federal government passed Bill C-16.

Before “gender identity” and “gender expression” were formally recognized as prohibited grounds of discrimination, transgender Canadian journalists like Page had little to no institutional support. One of the only resources at their disposal was the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Journalists, or NLGJA. 

Alongside Radio Canada International journalist David Blair, Richard Burnett, an openly gay journalist, founded the NLGJA’s Montreal chapter in 1997, a year after Canada expressly prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Photo courtesy of Richard Burnett’s Twitter account

“The NLGJA offers a style guide that gives explanations to journalists on how to deal with LGBTQ issues or how to identify a trans-person on whether they want to be identified as she, he or they,” explains Burnett. 

Since it opened, the chapter has mobilized on multiple fronts to create a more inclusive atmosphere in the journalistic profession for LGBTQ reporters in Montreal.

In an effort to build overall sensitivity to the LGBTQ-related matters, the NLGJA has worked to ensure that coverage of those matters is “fair and accurate” through online resources and hands-on programs that explain to journalists how they should cover LGBTQ issues.

The NLGJA also explicitly opposes “all forms of workplace bias” by giving support to LGBTQ journalists all over Montreal when it comes to navigating their workplaces. For example, its Rapid Response Task Force, which consists of professional journalists, services newsrooms with information on how to treat LGBTQ reporters. 

In addition, the government has its own guide that explains to employers how they should treat their LGBTQ employees. After criminalizing discrimination towards transgender people in June 2017 with Bill C-16, the government released “Support for trans employees: A guide for employees and managers.”

Prior to the NGLJA and the government’s increasing support of LGBTQ people and in particular, transgender rights, Burnett recalls the difficulty to make a name for himself as a journalist. 

“I tried to break into the ALT weeklies to the Montreal Mirror. In French it was, Voir. I pitched three different stories and was shot down,” recalls Burnett about the initial struggle to get his work published when he started out as a reporter in 1995. 

Burnett was adamant about being a journalist so he pushed forward with his idea to write a column about being queer which he wanted to title Three Dollar Bill. 

On the hurdles he experienced launching Three Dollar Bill, the first and only syndicated LGBTQ column in Canada in 1996, Burnett shared: “I had approached companies that syndicate columns and no one would touch me with a ten-foot pole. I had to actually approach every alternative publication in Canada one by one on my own.”

Ultimately, Burnett managed to secure readership in ALT weeklies across various provinces and Three Dollar became wildly successful, going on to run for 15 years.

“It was groundbreaking at the time because it had never been done before. It ruffled a lot of feathers when it would run in provinces like Alberta and Manitoba,” says Burnett. “There was a lot of resistance. It got banned in Winnipeg and the column was investigated in Nova Scotia by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary for charges that it was pornographic.”

Burnett admits his column has always been trying to push boundaries, which caused initial discomfort but also opened up avenues for reflection on issues affecting the LGBTQ community.

“The column has always been kind of edgy and very pushy but it would also deal with a lot of topics that LGBTQ community would also be uncomfortable about, such as transphobia or racism within the gay community,” explains Burnett. “Those realities needed to be covered but sadly some conservative people were against it.”

LGBTQ people have cemented themselves into socio-political consciousness by fighting for recognition of their rights through battles over same-sex marriage licenses, identity documents matching their gender identity, and gender-neutral bathrooms. 

In turn, the news media become more accepting of LGBTQ people and issues. LGBTQ issues slowly but surely gained more media coverage over the course of the early twentieth century. 

Newsrooms also grew to be more inclusive, safe and respectful workplaces for LGBTQ employees and over time, publications afforded spaces for LGBTQ voices to be heard although the debate as to how to balance personal points of view with reporting remains.

“There was no problem for people to be openly gay in the workplace but editors asked gay reporters not to showcase it in their writing,” shares Yves Lafontaine, owner and director of Fugues, a gay magazine published in Montreal. “With time, there are now dozens of journalists who are openly gay and it shows in their texts.”

Burnett agrees with Lafontaine that before he started out as a journalist in 1995, editors were visibly biased against giving their LGBTQ reporters the opportunity to cover an event that overlapped with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Burnett gives the example of covering the pride day festivities in 1985.

“Let’s say there are drag queens and buff boys dancing on floats. The mainstream news coverage would get someone from the gay community at the event saying how it’s a wonderful day to celebrate. On the other hand, they would also interview some kind of religious, conservative group or person, and they would say, well this is what’s wrong with pride, with all this flesh on display — it’s indecent, it’s not friendly for families and more,” says Burnett.

From his own experience as a reporter, he says that it was not surprising back then to see editors assign such events to heterosexual, cisgender reporters, thinking that he or she would be able to give a more balanced viewpoint.

“They thought that a gay reporter would be biased and would not give both sides of the story,” chuckled Burnett. “I think we all know that giving both sides of the story doesn’t necessarily mean that you got to have an anti-gay conservative person that gives his opinion about the pride parade.”

Although the journalistic profession has grown to be more accommodating of LGBTQ people and issues, breaking into the field can still be quite difficult, especially for trans people when they do not “pass” as their gender.

“Your LGBTQ status should be irrelevant,” Page said. “However, having said that, I suspect it might be a bit more difficult for a trans woman to break into the field — depending on their physical presentation.”

 

Anthony Fortugno is an aspiring sports reporter currently pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at Concordia University.

Kiara Bernard works in communications, marketing and advertising in Montreal. She is also a freelance journalist. Her writing is driven by her passion for issues of public interest. To see more of her work, click here.