Andrea Houston brings LGBTQ2IA+ representation to the forefront of media studies

The prominent queer activist's course quickly became a major influence for many students.

Andrea Houston brings LGBTQ2IA+ representation to the forefront of media studies

The prominent queer activist's course quickly became a major influence for many students.

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mentions of death and sexual violence.

Journalist and long-time queer rights activist Andrea Houston has been fighting for LGBTQ2IA+ voices in media and politics for over 20 years. In 2015, her journey brought her to Ryerson.

While freelancing in Toronto, Houston was contacted by the university to develop a journalism course that focused entirely on LGBTQ2IA+ issues, given her recognition in the community. After developing the course for about a year, NNS410: Queer Media was offered as an elective to students. It was one of the first courses of its kind in the country.

Houston's course focused on a wide array of queer issues through the lens of media. This includes examining the origins of anti-gay laws in 68 countries around the world, the AIDS crisis of the 80s, trans rights to gender reassignment and more. "It was really important for me to teach the different steps that activists and movements have used in the courts and different pieces of legislation to advance human rights," said Houston.

A Champion for Queer Rights

Houston has significant experience with queer politics, having worked with former MPP for Parkdale-High Park Cheri DiNovo in 2015. At the time, DiNovo was the New Democratic Party's LGBTQ critic whose work focused on federal policies as they related to LGBTQ2IA+ folks.

"to actually have a guided, critical analysis of the Village was very interesting… Andrea did such a great job"

The pair worked on several pieces of legislation, with one their greatest achievements being the passing of Bill 77 in 2015, which banned medical conversion therapy for queer youth.

"There were some news reports at the time that called Toronto the ‘Ground Zero' for conversion therapy in North America," said Houston. "So I really thought, ‘We should really do something about this.'" The legislation was the first of its kind in Canada and the second in North America.

Another bill developed by Houston and DiNovo made equal rights for queer parents more transparent and clear after the passage of an earlier bill for marriage equality. Following her work in policy, Houston wanted to make sure students fully understood queer history in Toronto and the importance of its representation in the media, so that the LGBTQ2IA+ experience would be told truthfully.

Sage Benoit, a former student, said they fondly remember a class field trip to Toronto's Gay Village when they took the course in 2018. On that trip, students learned firsthand about one of Toronto's most historic queer neighbourhoods.

"I spent lots of time [in the Village] growing up and going to parties," said Benoit. "But to actually have a guided, critical analysis of the Village was very interesting…Andrea did such a great job of giving historical context of the area and telling us about all of its ins and outs."

The tour included prominent queer spaces such as 519 Church Street and Crews & Tangos. Houston also spoke on the violence that had been recently inflicted on the community by serial killer Bruce McArthur. McArthur wasn't apprehended by the Toronto police until after he'd killed several gay men, despite the community expressing their concern about the murders for months prior.

"We talked about all of these things in one of the key public spaces where people come together for activism, community and to meet their chosen family," said Houston. "I thought it was really appropriate that the class had those conversations in that space."

"I never would skip [class] because I loved going," said Benoit. "The course was really tailored to our city. I think that, whether you are queer or not, if you learn about queer reporting and their communities it just gives you so much more leverage [over issues relating to queer identifying people]."

"They've taken these stories and really changed people's minds and ideas about queerness"

According to Houston, that trip to the Village is just one instance where the Queer Media course was crucial for educating students on Toronto's LGBTQ2IA+ history. For Houston, the trip reinforced the fact that queer representation in media is vital for social equity.

"The changes that happened politically [in recent years] have largely come about in the media because of journalists—both queer and allied journalists," said Houston. "They've taken these stories and really changed people's minds and ideas about queerness."

By encouraging a former student to publish an essay written in her class, Houston personally had a hand in sharing a story that could give readers a better understanding of queerness.

In his article titled "HIV Is Not a Crime" journalism graduate Declan Keogh wrote about discovering that someone whom he had engaged in unprotected oral sex with was HIV-positive and the aftermath of that realization. With the help of Houston and her connections, Keogh had pitched the story to NOW Magazine.

"students who took the course gave me such life... what they brought...was the joy of my life"

The story sparked conversation around the Canadian judicial system's assertion that failure to disclose HIV statuses or other sexually transmitted diseases could be prosecuted as aggravated sexual assault or rape.

"It seemed like a completely backwards and marginalizing policy in Canada and it made me reflect on my own experiences," said Keogh. At the time, Canada was one of the top 10 countries to criminalize and incarcerate people with HIV, and it's 180 prosecutions of HIV transmitters since 1989 "is influenced by stigma, fear, homophobia and even racism," he wrote.

The article would eventually become the cover story of an HIV-focused issue published in January 2017.

When Houston sent him the cover to be printed Keough said his stomach dropped. "A lot of people knew I was bisexual but I essentially came out on the front page, which was intense," he said. "I thought I was gonna throw up."

Nonetheless, Houston said she stood by Keogh through the publishing process. "It felt wonderful to nurture this incredibly talented young writer from pitch right through to getting it on the cover of a widely-read publication," said Houston.

The inclusion of queer voices in media continues to be a cause that Houston fights for, especially since current political divisions in the U.S. seem to put LGBTQ2IA+ rights up for debate once more.

Prior to President-elect Joe Biden winning the 2020 elections in the U.S., Houston expressed worry over the negative aftermath that could be repeated—similar to the 2016 election.

"We might actually have to go through that again—that horrible debate if someone should get a human right simply because of the way they were born," said Houston.

The Future of Queer Media

This is Houston's second year of not teaching the Queer Media course. Janice Neil, the chair of Ryerson's School of Journalism, told her last year that the course didn't have enough student interest to make it worth their program budget.

"Queer Media was scheduled to be offered in Fall 2020, however, based on the universitywide process for students to say what courses they plan to take...done in the spring of 2020, only one journalism student and seven students in other programs intended to enroll in the course," said Neil in an email to The Eye.

Neil said that it was not financially responsible for the department to offer only eight students the course, as cancelling the course meant they had money to hire an instructor for a new course instead. This course was Reporting on Race: the Black Community in the media, which became a fully enrolled class.

Nonetheless, Houston hopes to one day rejoin the Ryerson community and teach it again. "The students who took the course gave me such life," Houston shares. "Not only their passion but what they brought to the course each and every week was the joy of my life. It's really a testament to them, their talent and their incredible passion."