Cable access queer: revisiting Toronto Living with AIDS

by Ryan Conrad

AIDS activists changed the world. They organized, strategized, and put their bodies on the line to change their medical, social, and political circumstances. Importantly, AIDS activists in North America did all this with early consumer-grade video technologies in hand. From the committed documentary to the experimental short, AIDS activists engaged in change-making at the level of culture through moving images in new ways and on a scale not possible during previous social movements.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Due to the parallel development of increasingly affordable consumer grade video technologies alongside the rapidly expanding AIDS crisis, scholars, activists, and media makers have an expansive decentralized archive from which to consult, study, and make new meaning. The importance of revisiting and maintaining this archive, as film scholar Roger Hallas notes, is not merely to preserve the past for the sake of history, but to attend to the stories that emerge from AIDS activist cultural archives and their revelatory potential for historical consciousness in the present.[2]

We live at a moment of great interest and reinvestment in the history of AIDS activism in the U.S. and Canada. These histories are undergoing a storytelling process through which certain accounts begin to take canonical form. While this process of canonization makes AIDS activist histories more available to those who did not experience them firsthand, this process also leads to the occlusion of complex, lesser known, and marginalized aspects of the histories at stake.[3] AIDS activist histories in the U.S. are being solidified through autobiographies, memoirs, oral history projects, massive art retrospectives such as the 2015-2017 touring exhibition “Art AIDS America,” and recently-produced historical dramas, television movies, and activist documentaries, most notably the Oscar-nominated films How to Survive a Plague (2012) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

The alternative media work of Canadian AIDS activists is largely absent from these more well-known U.S. history projects. Furthermore, scholarship on alternative media practices in Canada largely occludes or only briefly mentions the history of AIDS activist media and the contribution of AIDS activist media makers.[4] This paper remedies this oversight by providing a complementary analysis of Canadian-made AIDS activist videos from the Toronto Living With AIDS (TLWA) cable access project, thereby facilitating future possibilities for comparative scholarly work examining the histories of AIDS activist media globally, and across the U.S.-Canadian border in particular.

Michael Balser, coordinator of the TLWA series, speaking about AZT with a group of gay men in the TLWA pilot tape The Great AZT Debate. Title sequence from GMHC’s Living with AIDS program that inspired the creation of TLWA.

TLWA was a cable access television series distributed on Rogers and MacLean-Hunter cable networks in Toronto from 1990-1991. It was produced under the leadership of white gay Toronto video artists Michael Balser (1952-2002) and John Greyson. The two worked out of the same artist-run centre, Trinity Square Video, and they were associated with the artist-run video distribution centre Vtape, whose board Greyson presides over as President in 2020.[5] Inspired by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ Living with AIDS cable access television series in New York City (1988-1994), TLWA also followed up two of Greyson’s previous AIDS activist video curation projects: the compilation tape Angry Initiatives, Defiant Strategies produced for U.S.-based Deep Dish TV in 1988 and the three volume international English-language compilation he produced in collaboration with U.S. curator Bill Horrigan, Video Against AIDS (1989).[6] Greyson and Balser’s approach to TLWA very much mirrored the politics and aesthetics of public access cable television in the U.S. at the time, an antecedent to so-called community television in Canada. Critic and curator Tom Folland notes that unlike in the U.S., private Canadian broadcast corporations that oversaw community television stations had final decision-making power over the content they broadcast—with station managers acting as both gatekeepers of style and censors of content they personally disliked or deemed in bad taste. Folland cites this notable difference between the two countries as the reason why community television thrived relatively unencumbered in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s while it struggled to take hold in Canada even after the National Film Board’s huge investment in community-led alternative media making through its innovative Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle (1967-1980) program.[7] This significant difference in how community television is regulated in Canada would lead to an adversarial and acrimonious relationship between TLWA’s coordinator Michael Balser and Rogers Cable’s station manager Ed Nasello.

Interestingly, the TLWA series was funded not by municipal, provincial, or federal arts councils, but by grants from the City of Toronto Board of Health, Health & Welfare Canada (now simply called Health Canada), and the Ontario Ministry of Health.[8] Two pilot episodes, The Great AZT Debate and The World is Sick (sic), were produced by Balser and Greyson in 1989 with seed money from the City of Toronto Board of Health. These two videos began the Toronto Living With AIDS cable broadcast and were paired with a variety of other AIDS activist video tapes coming out of the United States. Combined, these U.S. and Canadian tapes provided months of weekly broadcast material in the Spring of 1990 during which time Balser and Greyson coordinated their efforts to secure further funding to produce more Canadian-made tapes. They circulated a call for proposals, assembled a selection committee to evaluate proposals, and in the end settled on ten artists to fund out of fifty proposals.[9]

Game show host introducing Greyson’s 1989 pilot video for TLWA entitled The Great AZT Debate. Title sequence for Greyson’s 1989 pilot video for TLWA documenting the Fifth International AIDS Conference in Montreal entitled The World is Sick (sic).

Eventually not ten, but another twelve thirty-minute videos were created under the TLWA banner by a diverse array of video artists working in collaboration with community organizations in Toronto in the latter half of 1990. With funding from federal and provincial health ministries, each artist was commissioned $5,000 to create their 30-minute videos and was encouraged to seek other financial and in-kind support from arts councils and AIDS service organizations alike.[10] Kaspar Saxena and Debbie Douglas, both contributors to the series, noted that while these commissions were integral in getting these tapes started, the videos mostly remained a labour of love requiring far greater production budgets and were primarily funded through in-kind labour, donated time, and shared equipment.[11] Adjusted for inflation, this commission would be equivalent to just over $8,500 in 2020.[12]

Videos in the series ranged in form and content, from the committed documentary to the experimental short, and from the playfully erotic to the didactically pedagogical. While differing in form and content, all the tapes in the series took seriously the medium of television as having the potential to teach and impart critical information about HIV/AIDS as much as it had the potential to entertain the imagined audiences viewing the series on their cable-connected televisions at home. The potential of pedagogical televisual entertainment about HIV/AIDS, as communications scholar Malynnda Johnson notes, is that it can be a particularly useful intervention for young people in the absence of comprehensive sex education curricula, or any sex education at all as the case often continues to be.[13]

The sweet and sensual communal shower scene in Fighting Chance that first raised the possibility of TLWA’s censorship. The two South Asian men French kissing in Bolo Bolo! that led to TLWA’s censorship and de facto cancellation by Rogers Cable.

Unfortunately, it was a loving, but not explicit communal shower scene in Richard Fung’s Fighting Chance that first raised the possibility of censorship from Rogers Cable. Kaspar Saxena and Ian Rashid’s erotic, yet again far from explicit, educational video on AIDS in the Toronto South Asian community entitled Bolo! Bolo! (1991) further angered Ed Nasello, the Rogers Cable station manager at the time. In a letter sent to TLWA’s coordinator, Nasello claimed that Balser had made an “error in judging the public’s taste” by including a video with “men French kissing and the caressing of thighs” in the series, specifically referencing Bolo! Bolo! as the offending tape.[14] While the series formally ended as a result of this censorship, some of the original tapes continued to be shown at film festivals and organizations kept their tapes in circulation for educational and outreach purposes. The second season of TLWA was intended to focus exclusively on women and HIV, a likely result of the growing number of women testing positive in Canada.[15] The growing attention to women and HIV was also bolstered by the World Health Organization’s declaration that the theme of World AIDS Day in 1990 as “Women and AIDS.”[16] Unfortunately, after Rogers Cable refused to air the series any longer continued federal funding was also denied. The proposed second season of TLWA was reduced to a much humbler single thirty-minute video instead, the Darien Taylor-directed and Michael Balser-produced 1992 portrait-style international documentary Voices of Positive Women.[17]

TLWA represents the largest and most organized community-based effort to create audiovisual work about the AIDS crisis in Canada. Although other community cable stations in Canada broadcast some HIV/AIDS-focused content created by gay community cable programs like Gayblevision in Vancouver, Thunder Gay Magazine in Thunder Bay, and the Gay Media Collective in Winnipeg, none of these projects were specifically organized around HIV/AIDS and produced a limited quantity of HIV/AIDS programming primarily in the form of newscasts. Also, unlike individual artist responses to the epidemic of which there are many, the series was uniquely funded with public money from health agencies and distributed on community cable television stations, making it a fascinating political, cultural, and social phenomenon. Indeed, the censorship of the series demonstrates the deep disjuncture between Canadian public health policy that funded the series as an urgently needed form of educational programming and Canadian cultural policy that broadly defines and limits obscenity from public distribution.

One cannot fully understand the impact of the decision by Rogers Cable station manager to censor the decidedly queer TLWA series without putting into relief the decades of censorship of queer content in Canada that precedes it: two obscenity trials involving the Toronto gay liberation  newspaper The Body Politic in the 1970s and 1980s; decades of materials seized by Canada Customs while in route to LGBT bookstores like Little Sister’s in Vancouver and Glad Day in Toronto; ongoing censorship battles over sexual content with the British Columbia Film Classification Office, the Ontario Film Review Board, and its predecessor the Ontario Censor Board throughout the 1980s and 1990s; The Wimmin's Fire Brigade’s multiple bombings of the adult video store chain Red Hot Video in 1982; The Fraser Committee on Pornography report from 1987; the tabling of the Conservative’s anti-pornography and obscenity legislation Bill C-54 in 1987; and the controversy swelling around Vancouver lesbian arts collective Kiss and Tell’s explicit photo exhibition of lesbian BDSM first mounted in 1990.[18] Together, these conflicts over sexuality and its cultural representations, including the censorship of the TLWA series, would come to be called the culture wars in Canada with parallel developments in the U.S..[19]

Title sequence from Aerlyn Weissman’s 2002 documentary Little Sister’s vs Big Brother that documented the very public feud between queer bookstores and Canada Customs. Still from Little Sister’s vs Big Brother that documented one of many protests against Canadian Customs for seizing queer books and magazine they deemed obscene.
The heated battle between Little Sister’s and Canadian customs was central to the plot line of Anne Wheeler’s 1999 indie lesbian romantic comedy Better Than Chocolate still. The firebombing of adult video store chain Red Hot Video by the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade added to the already heated debates over sexuality and censorship – Webster! BCTV November 25, 1982.
The Fraser Committee on Prostitution and Pornography in the 1980s created a very public conversation on sexual representation and pornography in Canada and was covered on television regularly – TV London News February 1984 Fraser Committee hearings. Still from Lorna Boschman’s mediation on lesbian sexual representation, obscenity, and censorship, True Inversion (1992).

The censorship battles would of course continue after the cancelling of TLWA as well, most notably with the R v Butler decision in 1992 that vaguely defines obscene materials and “community standards” in the Criminal Code, the 1993 London Ontario gay pornography and prostitution scandal chronicled in John Greyson’s 1995 CBC television documentary After the Bath, and the Supreme Court’s underwhelming decision in Little Sister’s v Canada that was captured in detail in Aerlyn Weissman’s documentary Little Sister's vs. Big Brother (2002).[20] All these examples of queer censorship signify the necessity of understanding the impact of TLWA’s censorship by Rogers Cable as part of a historic and ongoing assault on queer sexual representations in Canada, even when said materials were intended for educational purposes to prevent the transmission of a deadly virus ravaging queer and/or racialized communities. Such censorship demonstrates that not only was queer sexuality itself “distasteful” in the eyes of state and corporate bureaucrats, but that queer lives were in fact expendable. Furthermore, scholar and film critic Cindy Patton notes that the erotic depictions of racialized gay men in particular were at the centre of the TLWA censorship controversy, unsurprisingly bringing together xenophobia, racism, and homophobia.[21]

Library and Archives Canada’s 2017 “Canadian National Heritage and Digitization Strategy” outlines the urgent need for systematic digitization and preservation of audiovisual cultural heritage like TLWA at a time when 20th century histories are literally disappearing before our eyes.[22] Indeed, much of TLWA had been lost to history until I began digging around in various archives when I began working at the AIDS Activist History Project in 2018. Sadly, most of the tapes in the series have been completely out of circulation for decades and the few that remained in distribution through Vtape lost their original connection to the series, therefore seeming to stand alone as opposed to appearing in concert with the rest of the contributions to TLWA. Like the few tapes that remained in circulation uncoupled from their shared origins as part of TLWA, the little scholarship that has touched upon a few tapes in the series fails to explore with any depth their connection to the broader TLWA series if they even mention it at all.[23] This paper is part of a larger project to recover, preserve, digitize, historicize, and analyse the TLWA series and its impact in Toronto and Canada more broadly. Through examining the tapes included in the series below, this paper introduces contemporary scholars, media makers, and activists to the unique history of Canadian AIDS activist video practices and the conditions under which the TLWA series was made both possible and unpalatable for imagined publics.