How Ryerson’s Queer Studies Course Could Transform Canadian Newsrooms
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How Ryerson’s Queer Studies Course Could Transform Canadian Newsrooms

Young journalists get the LGBTQ lowdown.

Houston at the 2012 Climax fundraiser for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Houston at the 2012 Climax fundraiser for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Once upon a time, Andrea Houston was the resident queer in the newsroom.

While she was working at the Peterborough Examiner, LGBTQ stories were often tossed her way. Although some would bristle at the categorical treatment, Houston appreciated the opportunities.

“I loved it and it really cut my teeth on advocacy journalism, but I was really figuring it out on my own,” Houston says. “[I was] figuring out the language to use, what is polite, and how to approach trans issues particularly with compassion and respect.”

What she learned in Peterborough, along with her experiences as a seasoned reporter on the LGBTQ beat, form the origin story for Queer Media, a new queer studies course she’s now teaching, offered by Ryerson University’s journalism department.

With school back in session, her young and mostly cisgender pupils aren’t afraid to pepper Houston’s classroom with historic questions: Why is Stonewall important? What is a bathhouse? Did police bash straight couples engaged in sodomy?

They’re inquisitive, and rightfully so. Mandatory Ontario elementary and high school courses don’t dig deep into the challenges LGBTQ communities faced back then or continue to deal with now. Updates to sexual health education will be introducing future generations of reporters to six gender identities and four sexual orientations from the infinite spectrum, but the fresh-faced working journalist of today mostly relies on self-educating themselves like Houston did.

Industry standards won’t be of much help. The Canadian Press style guidelines have a short entry for dos and don’ts on sexual orientation reporting, which shoehorns a preference for “transgender” over “transgendered.”

There is no individual entry for trans reporting. There isn’t one on gender-neutral pronouns either, a topic that has divided writers nationwide and was the root of a visible backlash from non-binary and genderqueer locals, in response to Xtra’s former refusals. They/them/their pronouns are only mentioned as a “last resort” in referring to those of indeterminate gender or to replace the archaic universal male pronoun set.

(Notably, CP style recommends using God’s preferred uppercase pronouns: He/Him/His. He also goes by Thou/Thee/Thine and Me/My/Mine.)

Filling in these gaps is only part of what Houston’s course aims to do. As she developed it from scratch over the summer, local queer issues were at the forefront in real-time: tragic deaths in Orlando affecting Latinx Torontonians, Black Lives Matter Toronto’s Pride sit-in, and amendments to Canada’s gay blood ban chief among them.

Photo courtesy of Pride Toronto

Photo courtesy of Pride Toronto.

Houston has worked these recent issues, along with foundational history from the past 40 years, into her course. As diverse cultural critiques are becoming more mainstream, the front page of her syllabus sets the tone for a racially aware approach: a black-and-white photo of local activists protesting police brutality following the 1981 bathhouse raids, beside a technicoloured snapshot of Pride Toronto’s honoured guests from BLMTO leading the parade.

“Up until this point in our history, I don’t think we’ve fully understood what the intersectional framework is,” Houston says. “Gender and queer studies discourses are only been discussed now. I don’t think this class could have existed five years ago. I don’t think we had the language in which to approach.”

Language that goes beyond the surface mainstream narrative is important for Houston. Her class will be introducing students to vocabulary unfamiliar to many working journalists, such as pink-washing, homonationalism, and cissexism.

Photo courtesy of Pride Toronto. Credit: Gerald Hannon

Photo by Gerald Hannon, courtesy of Pride Toronto.

The Canadian LGBTQ glossary has come a long way in recent years. By 1990, the Toronto Star began to use the word “gay.” A decade prior, the Star complained the term made language poorer, in a letter to the Ontario Press Council.

Using the right words can be difficult when understandings of queer and trans lives are constantly in flux. While university-level gender and queer courses are commonplace, Houston’s course for emerging media professionals stands out as a perfect setting to ask anything and learn about frameworks to guide future Canadian coverage, in a way that minimizes harm for LGBTQ sources. Harm that the focuses for Ryerson’s queer and trans coverage know all too well.

Impact: Campus Reflecting Reality

A single course might not sound like an industry disruptor by its lonesome, but the effect is amplified when Ryerson’s journalism department is taken into account. Ryerson graduates make up a sizeable amount of Canadian newsrooms. Of those reporters, many get their start with campus media, like the Eyeopener and the Ryersonian.

BuzzFeed editor and queer writer Lauren Strapagiel helmed the Eyeopener’s issue on gender when she was editor-in-chief. Commendably, it includes a glossary of terms which, reading now, she would still revise. In her year on the job, she often ended up editing language to be more appropriate.

As someone now writing about the LGBTQ community professionally, she is asked to read over colleagues’ stories and check wording.

Photo courtesy of The Eyeopener

Photo courtesy of the Eyeopener.

With student journalists cutting their teeth on campus coverage, they’ve always ran the risk of biting off more than they can chew.

A Ryerson graduate myself, I’ve written for both campus papers. I can remember being part of a masthead that ran a story outing a gay athlete who decided, post-interview, they didn’t want to come out, and hearing their request dismissed on the grounds of on-the-record commentary.

Queer and trans students, some who are already experienced activists in their communities, would voice distrust of reporters as a whole when I worked at a Ryerson Students Union’s equity centre, swapping stories of misgendering or inaccurate quotes. I wouldn’t be able to blame them at all.

Their fear is justified. All the problematic reporting issues plaguing mainstream outlets also befall students. Mistakes are expected in newsrooms. That’s why the corrections section exists. But for student media, with high writer turnover, these missteps in covering queer and trans students are paths frequently trampled on.

A Ryersonian column on Caitlyn Jenner last year had, among other awkward things that have since been revised, suggested that being straight meant being cisgender.

The Eyeopener, which had called RSU’s Women and Trans Centre the “lesbian centre” in the 1970s, has archives filled with irreverent fumbles. They went largely unnoticed, like when a straight reporter wrote in 2003 about barhopping gay hangouts and drag shows, where she pretended to be bisexual so she could fit.

Or how when one week later, an Eyeopener editor-in-chief called Ryerson Students’ Administrative Council president Darren Cooney the “token gay guy” in an editorial. The paper’s general manager, Liane McLarty, says Cooney supporters wore T-shirts calling for the writer’s resignation. Three letters from queer students put the paper on blast for cultural tourism and, at the behest of a horrified masthead and managers, the editor-in-chief printed an apology two weeks later.

Both papers have made strides for improved reporting and have given room for queer and trans writers to tell their own stories. Long-term staff from the Eyeopener and the Ryersonian acknowledged unintentional harm, and have stated their commitment to adapt to changing newsroom practices and listening to community members.

As someone who’s witnessed journalists mishandling and perpetuating harmful narratives, Houston emphasizes a crucial warning for young reporters.

“Apologize and learn, that’s absolutely key for newsrooms,” Houston says. “You can’t go back and correct … print, but you can learn from your mistakes.”

But the learning process and occasional reliance on LGBTQ reporters scares some future journalists off. In conversations with current journalism students, they told me about the challenges keeping them from pitching queer and trans stories.

Many are afraid of accidentally offending LGBTQ students with their reporting, or typecasting LGBTQ writers they know as walking and talking teaching moments. Although those interviewed aren’t taking Queer Media, they support the course’s intentions and some wish its learning goals were implemented throughout more journalism courses.

For these concerns, Houston’s elective is a starting point for finding the right frame of mind before covering LGBTQ issues. Although she’s just getting started, Houston sees potential for future collaborations with queer and trans student groups, as well as student newspapers.

Recently, Queer Media held the Canadian premiere of Outed: The Painful Reality, which detailed the fatal dangers waiting for LGBTQ Ugandans outed by media. Ugandan filmmaker Kamoga Hassan spoke about the violence of non-consensual exposure at a Q-and-A session attended by Houston’s students and the public. Hassan was a willing educational resource for curious students, answering questions for over half an hour.

“Journalism is social justice,” Houston reminded attendees during the Q-and-A.

The session demonstrated a prominent feature Houston hopes her course makes clear for student reporters: respectfully and with humanity in mind, keep asking.