Features  Signs of the times

A retrospective guide to sex and gender in The Daily

There’s a strange paradox at The Daily: while we love recounting various bits of Daily lore to each other – tales of famous alumni, controversial special issues, the paper’s crusade for autonomy and independence – in reality very little institutional memory gets passed from edboard to edboard. While we’re quick to brag about our long history of socially and politically progressive reporting, very few of us have actually opened a volume from the archives that’s more than a few years old. For this special issue, we decided to take a look back. Flipping through page after yellowed page, we weren’t surprised to find that gender and sexuality has figured prominently in The Daily’s past. But has the paper’s coverage of these issues always been as subversive and radical as we like to think? And how forward-thinking are we, today?

In the seventies, The Daily kept pace with efforts to have abortion fully legalized and accessible in Canada. The paper covered everything from Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s speech at McGill to various student organizational movements and pro-abortion events. One article from October 1971 detailed a heated confrontation during a talk on the “medical aspects of abortion,” which was in reality a moralizing tirade against abortion.

The article revealed the speakers’ shocking hypocrisy, highlighting the importance of the movement toward female empowerment at this time.

During the question period, women in the audience objected to the male speakers’ discriminatory and patronizing attitudes toward women who seek abortions. In response to several pointed questions, the speakers – a top psychiatrist and the chief of obstetrics and gynecology from two Montreal hospitals – only amped up their sexist comments. The psychiatrist went as far to suggest that “women who do not want their babies need psychiatric help to get them to accept having children,” and, referring to rape, claimed that “The woman so often just submits.”

A favourite example of The Daily’s engagement with sexuality politics is our first “Gay” issue, from November 1972. Inside, several spreads of content explored the emerging “gay liberation” movement. Oureditorial urged students to organize, and “fight discriminatory practices and laws, to establish alternative institutions which meet their real needs, and to develop their individuality while collectively rejecting stereotypes.” Like much of The Daily’s content in the 1970s, the articles are laced with heavy rhetoric. Most are a call to action, both for homophobic individuals and institutions, to recognize gay rights and accept homosexuality, and for the gay community to band together toward this goal.

What’s exciting about these articles is their directness: the sense that student journalism can be a powerful medium for the expression and acceptance of homosexuality.

In a response to an article on gay culture in a 1971 issue for example, a student wrote a letter to the editor describing his personal struggle with coming out. It was particularly inspiring to see The Daily taking on the role as a forum for students facing stigma and ostracization.

It would be misleading to pretend that The Daily has always been willing to publish such controversial gender and sexuality-related content, especially in a style loaded with left-leaning, radical rhetoric increasingly prominent from the 1970s onward. In fact, 50 years ago The Daily seemed more aligned with the cultural attitudes that the edboards of the seventies worked so hard to counteract. During the 1950s, hardly any questions of gender or sexuality were addressed, and if they were it was through distinct venues such as pieces by the Women’s Editor. While some articles touched on the unequal treatment of female students, it was almost exclusively from a male perspective, and for a male readership. Occasionally, articles or letters discussing the perceived role of the female student either as a “decorative” accessory to a man, or an intellectual prude, show up in the old bound volumes. But the critique does not extend very far beyond vague recognition that this dichotomy is unrealistic and degrading. In contrast to the more active, solutions-oriented voices of later editors, the Dailyites of the 1950s seemed unwilling to push their coverage of gender politics to a more analytical level.

The Daily has come a long way over the past 50 years in terms of fulfilling a more critical position toward gender and sexuality. The Daily’s statement of principles stipulates that “we recognize that at present power is unevenly distributed, especially (but not solely) on the basis of gender, age, social class, race, sexuality, religion, disability, and cultural identity. We also recognize that keeping silent about this situation helps to perpetuate inequality. To help correct these inequities, to the best of its staff’s abilities, The Daily should depict and analyze power relations accurately in its coverage.” We’ve made good on these promises over the past few years, publishing several gender and sexuality special issues, and paying more attention to sex and gender in our regular coverage. We’ve reported and editorialized extensively on Héma-Québec’s refusal to take donations from men who have had sex with men since 1977; we’ve been vocal about sex workers’ rights; former columnist Brianna Hersey, who many of you may remember, has written numerous norm-knocking, sexy, queer-positive, and controversial pieces of journalism; and the list goes on. In many ways, we’ve helped to fulfill and to surpass what the editors of the first “gay” issue called for: rejection of stereotypes, a fight against repression and discrimination, and self-empowerment. But we wonder if The Daily has become so comfortable with sexuality, queerness, and the other questions of gender politics that we’ve created a new box for ourselves. Even when discussing this special issue we made penis and boobie jokes before stepping back and examining the angles we were missing and the stories that weren’t getting written. Engaging with our own history and thinking critically about our own approaches to gender and sexuality is crucial if we’re going to remain a forum for forward-thinking, progressive voices and content.

– Compiled by Claire Caldwell