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Why The End of Toronto's 'Gay Scene Magazine' Fab Matters

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Alamy
Alamy

After 19 years, fab, Toronto's "gay scene magazine," is being shuttered.

Since its inception in 1994, fab reported on local events, parties, and people, and it acted as a concierge for gay male culture. Its existence as a polished, full-colour magazine that was free and widely available -- not just in the designated gay Village, but all around downtown Toronto -- in many ways emblematized the progress of gay men in the city. In my dozen years living downtown, I would walk by newspaper boxes filled with the magazine and feel a stirring of pride: here was visibility, constant proof that gay men weren't alone. As such, the news that April 25 will mark fab's final issue provoked a series of memories and reflections from friends about what the magazine meant to them.

One friend posted an especially memorable cover image, shot in 2004 with then-mayor David Miller decked out in leather garb ahead of the Pride celebrations. A year before, same-sex marriage had just become legal in the province of Ontario, of which Toronto is the capital, and to then have the mayor, who is straight, openly and cheekily supporting the LGBT community felt substantive and expansive. It didn't register as merely an act of reaching out, but as a symbol of integration.

fab was also a home for many talented contributors, including playwright Brad Fraser, Kids In The Hall comedian Paul Bellini, and artist Nina Arsenault. In addition to being a space for the established, the magazine acted as a starting point for many fresh-faced writers, photographers, and editors too. Reading about the many friends who had worked at fab made me realize what an impact it had not only for its readers, but for its staff as well. The magazine proved to be an intersection for the lives of many creatives, and the loss of such a channel is devastating.

The magazine was seen as an institution, which is why its end was received with such shock. (The publisher's reasons are "purely financial," said editor Phil Villeneuve to local alt-weekly NOW.) However, it can't be said that the obstacles fab faced weren't apparent. Like many other print publications, there was no clear strategy for online audiences and the magazine had difficulty acclimating to a competitive landscape filled with blogs that were equipped for the rise of social media -- one that thrives on a flurried culture of shared links. For a younger generation of smartphone-bearing gay men, a good chunk of what fab supplied could be (and was) found elsewhere.

In addition, the concept of a "gay scene" has diversified since fab's conception in 1994. There's a clear generation gap between gay men: it's not that the hallmarks of Madonna and drag queens are necessarily outdated (witness RuPaul's savvy epiphany to update drag for the reality-television era), but that being gay is no longer defined nor restricted to just those cultural representations. The struggle to satisfy readers both loyal and new -- with the latter born around the same time as the magazine -- was apparent in the tonal shifts within the magazine. A refresh in late 2012 with new editor Phil Villeneuve began the task of making fab feel more contemporary and showed promise, but in the age of Twitter and Towleroad it may have been too late.

In a way, the conversation over fab can be broadened to the idea of a gay Village. One complaint I have sometimes heard about both is that they are no longer necessary, that enough progress has occurred to render them moot. Truth be told, in the last few years, I picked up fab occasionally, and often it was only on my now-and-then visits to the Village. And, as with fab, if I was told the Village was to finish its course and be redefined this year, I would be deeply saddened. Yet it would be for what these institutions represent rather than their actual functionality for me.

At the same time, both fab and the Village were instrumental and foundational in my journey as a gay man. When I arrived in Toronto a dozen years ago from the suburbs, I had never seen two men holding hands in person. Not yet out, it was hard to even project myself in that position. But I knew within the pages of fab and along the streets of the Village there were men all around me who were like me, and someday I would overcome my fear to be among them. I would walk just close enough to the Village to grab a copy and hide it in my backpack to be later pored over in the privacy of my dorm room. I would hide the magazine between issues of Men's Health and Entertainment Weekly, and there was something to be said about knowing it was there. I know my story isn't singular.

Even in a more progressive society, I still can picture men of any age subtly sneaking a copy of fab into their jacket pockets or bags, and what then after April 25? In the end, I expect something to rise from the ashes of fab to take its place. Reinvention is an intrinsic gay tenet. Perhaps it will be digital only. Perhaps it will be underground. It will be unpolished and imperfect but, without a doubt, fabulous.