The public broadcaster founded in 1936 has an uneven record in addressing and reflecting its queer constituency. It’s simplistic of course to generalize across current affairs and arts and dramatic programming in a bicultural institution that is far from monolithic in the first place, with many centralizing and de-centralizing pulls and voices. Nevertheless the scorecard of the French side is somewhat better than the uptight anglo side, with its chronology of queer visibility in sitcoms, soap operas and TV movies stretching back to the seventies (see Montmorency and Tremblay). But does the unrestricted forum provided to arch-homophobe Denise Bombardier in the Radio-Canada current affairs division since the 1980s take away what the left hand hath given? If on the English side, we should be thankful for Anne Murray and k.d. lang specials, Kids in the Hall (see Thompson), Codco, and Svend’s coming out on “The Journal,” was it all cancelled out by the genocidal erasure of Canada: A [Straight] People’s History (2000-2001)? No, but....
As an example of the public broadcaster’s schizophrenic relationship with queer Canadians, take the network’s offerings during that epochal winter of 1981, in which the attack on gay men by the Toronto police (see Sutherland) shifted the paradigms of Canadian queer history. In January, twenty-five days before the bathhouse raids, the network proudly broadcast John and Rose Kastner’s “documentary,” Sharing the Secret. This was its first ever serious focus on sexual identity politics, twelve years after Stonewall and following hard on the heels of the notorious CBS reportage Gay Power Gay Politics (which had inaugurated the Reagan era by trial-ballooning the devastating backlash “special rights” line on gay lib politics). The Emmy-award-winning mother and son team’s production up here was a “softer,” “liberal” version of the US backlash. But their 90-minute portrait of a half dozen male Toronto subjects was carefully planned to weed out “activists,” and to enable a sensationalization of maladjustment and melodrama, not to mention the usual media obsessions: promiscuity and tormented parents. Subsequent reporting in TBP uncovered instance after instance of manipulation and ethical violation, and unanimous feelings of violation among the subjects of the film, several of whom had been ludicrously disguised by the documentary duo. What is more, in a symbolically potent coincidence, the Kastners’ camera had voyeuristically traced the exact route down the sauna corridors that the police were to follow with their bludgeons!
Seventeen days after the raids, the network followed up with the broadcast of a second effort, this time in its prestigious “For the Record” docudrama slot, a prizewinning one-hour coming out fiction, Running Man, directed by hetero-macho veteran documentarist Donald Brittain. The CBC’s first queer-themed dramatic film depicted a married high school track coach whose closet walls start crumbling when his star athlete comes out to him and then commits suicide. Guilt pushes the protagonist to confront his own identity. Brittain’s hard-edged style did credit to a well-researched script, filmed on location in Toronto. Dialogue like the pickup line “Are you a pitcher or a catcher?” or the whispered confession “How many Hail Mary’s for going down on a guy at the bus station?” were the talk of the pre-AIDS gay cocktail circuit from coast to coast. Anticipating the following year’s Hollywood breakthrough Making Love in its focus on the breakup of a heterosexual marriage, Running Man faced criticism from The Body Politic for its oblique angle on homosexuality and its all-straight collective authorship (Dec ./Jan. 1980/1, 28-9). But Le Berdache’s Bernard Courte praised the work for being “intensely realist,” “non-exploitive,” and salutary in its probing of the anguish of the closet (April 1981, 59). Courte would have probably been more in synch with the general response of gay audiences, had it not been for the recent pogrom. As if in penance, Radio-Canada offered its own first lesbian themed TV movie the following year (see Maheux-Forcier). In short, three-baby-steps-forward-and-one-giant-step-back sums up the history of the televisual romance of transgression in Canada, a comprehensive book that remains to be written.
(1)Waugh, Thomas. 1981. “Nègres blancs, tapettes et butch: Images des lesbiennes et des gais dans le cinéma québécois.” Copie zéro (October): 12–9.