On Tuesday July 20, 2004, I ask 33-year old Forward managing editor Wayne Hoffman (his brother is a Conservative rabbi) for a brief summary of his journalism career.
"I wrote for my high school and college newspapers. I went to Tufts. I made up my own major, Social Politics. I graduated in 1991.
"I've been a professional journalist since I was 18. I was a music critic for the Washington Blade."
"What is the Washington Blade?"
"It's the oldest gay newspaper in the country, founded in 1969.
"I freelanced for many gay newspapers. I got a Masters from NYU in American Studies (specializing in gay pop culture). I finished my course work for my Ph.D. I quit to form New York's largest gay paper, the New York Blade."
"I've often tossed around in my mind doing a book on gay journalism. What are the parallels you see between gay journalism and Jewish journalism?"
"I don't think there is any such thing as gay journalism or Jewish journalism. There's journalism. Some of it is in gay newspapers. Some of it is in Jewish newspapers. Gay and Jewish newspapers face the same quandary of reporting hard facts vs espousing points of view."
"My impression of the gay press is that it is not terribly hard-hitting?" I ask.
"Depends where you look. I had the good fortune of working for a place that was an exception to that rule. The Washington Blade has a history of being extraordinarily hard-hitting. It's serious about its news. It's widely-cited and considered credible by the mainstream press. The Washington Blade and the New York Blade have since been sold and I can't comment on what they do now."
"What's it like for you publishing stuff that will upset members of your community?"
"It's less of an issue for me working at the Forward than some other people who work at the Forward [and are more involved in Jewish life than Wayne is]. It was a larger issue for me working in the gay press. I largely live within the gay community. I don't live within the Jewish community. I live in Greenwich Village, not the Upper West Side. I go to gay bars more frequently than I go to synagogues. I go to shul once a year, on Yom Kippur. I don't believe in God."
"Have you ever lost friends over what you wrote?"
"No. J.J. told you about going to his minyan and having people get angry at him. I don't have a minyan. So if people in J.J.'s minyan are mad at me, I don't know them.
"I came on board the Forward at the beginning of 2003. I've always done work on Jewish topics. I wrote a piece on queer yiddishkeit that got syndicated and won an award. I'm also a travel writer and I've written about Jewish travel. I've covered two books for the Washington Post on gay life in Israel and two memoirs about the Holocaust."
"Which books have most touched you about living as a Jew?"
"Lev Raphael was one of the first authors to write as a gay Jew. In fiction, I love Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint."
"Do you feel a visceral hatred for those who hold that your lifestyle is an abomination?"
Wayne laughs. "My lifestyle? You mean that I get up and go to work every day? I think that is an abomination. Or do you mean that I'm gay?"
His voice rises into incredulity.
"That you are a practicing homosexual," I say.
Wayne laughs. "Practicing homosexual? If they used language like that any time after 1965, I would be more amused than anything else. Do I have a visceral hatred of those people? No. That there are people who think that I am an abomination before God? I don't value their opinion. Let them think that. It doesn't bother me as long as it doesn't affect my civil rights and my rights as a citizen."
"Is the journalism better on Jewish life or on gay life?"
"There's writing on Jewish life from a thousand different perspectives. The variety of experience is not reflected in gay writing yet."
"There seems to be more of a party line in gay journalism?" I ask.
"What do you see that party line as being?"
"It's more reflexively Democrat. That we should be out and be proud about it just like we should be proud of being Jewish. You'll never find an article in a Jewish weekly saying that being Jewish is not a good idea. Who are the prominent conservative gay writers aside from Andrew Sullivan?"
"Jonathan Rauch, Bruce Bawer. Who are the Left-wing gay writers? Can you name any?"
"To the left of the Democratic party?"
"Yes," Wayne says. "To the left of the Democratic party -- which is opposed to gay marriage."
"I assume that all the establishment [gay] papers such as The Advocate are to the Left of the Democratic party," I say.
"They're for gay marriage, so they're to the Left of the Democratic party."
"This is where Left and Right get mixed up in gay politics. You will find a lot in the gay press that is Left-of-Center on issues like gay marriage (though there are people who will say that gay marriage is a conservative issue -- and I think they're right), but if there is a party line that is toed in the gay press, it is much more often, yes, we believe in gay marriage, but we are also firmly opposed to old fashioned notions of sexual liberation, prominent placement of leathermen and drag queens in public displays, hardcore activism in the style of Act Up. Gay debate is one half step to the Left-of-Center with the guns aimed at people on the Left."
"What did you mean then when you said a thousand flowers bloom in Jewish writing and there aren't all those perspective in gay writing? How's that different from my saying there's more of a party line in gay journalism? If there are limited number of perspectives in gay journalism, what does that mean?"
"The Jewish community has a longer history to draw upon in terms of publishing. The gay publishing boom is less than a decade old and largely, in terms of mainstream publishing, died about five years ago. The number of prominent books on gay identity I could fit on the bookshelves of my apartment and, in fact, I have. The number of books on Jewish identity in America could fill a library."
"What's more compelling? Gay journalism or Jewish journalism? Let's take someone who is neither gay nor Jewish and you give them journalism from those communities, how much would interest him?"
"If you were neither gay nor Jewish, the vast majority of gay and Jewish journalism in this country would not interest you.
"But just because most community papers don't have earth-shaking journalism doesn't mean they're not important. My parents are traditional Conservative Jews in their mid '60s living in suburban Maryland. Well-educated, Left-of-Center. Traditional but open-minded. In addition to the Forward, they also read community newspapers and find them extraordinarily compelling. Both the one from where they live and the one from where they're from, North Jersey. They read it voraciously every week. It's very important to them to know what happened to the community in which they grew up.
"I'm curious about what's happening in the Jewish community of Washington where I grew up but it doesn't keep me up at night. But for my parents, it is urgent, even 40 years after they left Jersey.
"Outside of their intended audience, there isn't a lot of good gay and Jewish journalism."
"The intended audience for Jewish papers is dying. The average median age of a reader of a Jewish weekly is about 60. You don't see young people getting excited about what's in the latest Jewish weekly."
"You don't see young people getting excited about what's in The New York Times either," says Wayne.
"If there something you are failing at, that's not bringing young people in to the Forward?" I ask.
"There are things we are trying to do, particularly in culture coverage, we can make our pages younger. Paying more attention to pop culture and the large cultural scene that is youth-driven.
"The gay press has had the opposite problem. It has tried to attract older readers."
"Does the Forward's circulation of about 30,000 bother you?"
"No. The job I had before the Forward was at Billboard magazine. Have you heard of Billboard?"
"It's famous. Yet it's circulation is not noticeably larger than the Forward. Numbers aren't the issue. The question is, how important are you? How much do you stand out in your field? How much do people turn to you as an authority? Billboard has never relied on numbers. Both papers have a [century old] history. Knowledge of issues from the inside. People take them seriously because they have credibility."
"Did you find that moving to the Forward was moving from one trade paper to another?"
"No. Working at the Forward is similar to the experience I had working at the Blade. What drives the publication is different from what drives a trade. Here editorial drives the product. You hope advertising follows. At a trade, it's the opposite."
"What do you love and what do you hate about your job?"
"I love my job because of the people in the newsroom. The collection of people at the Forward is unique in the number of people I respect. Being a managing editor to Ami Eden, Alana Newhouse and Oren Rawls is a breeze because they do their jobs so well. Even though I have more experience as a journalist than any of them, they do their jobs in such a way that I've never once stood back and said, I could do this better.
"What I hate about my job is trying to get the paper out. I'm the only person at the newspaper who has that as a primary goal. J.J.'s interest is to make the paper reflect his vision as much as possible. Ami's is to get as much news in as well as possible. Alana's is to get as much arts and culture coverage as well as possible. Oren's is to get the biggest names on the editorial page and the most interesting discussion going. The art director wants to make the pages look the best. He wants to get better photos. He wants to have more space for photos. Everyone has competing interests. I'm trying to get them all out the door."
"Do you have a whole vision for the Forward if J.J. disappeared tomorrow and you took over?" I ask.
"If J.J. disappears tomorrow, I will call you and tell it to you."
"I can just imagine being in your position and hoping that one day you will get the chance to execute it."
"I don't have that much time on my hands to think about what I would do if J.J. met his unfortunate demise. I'm busy thinking about how many stories we can get in the paper and what the headlines are going to be."
"In the list of your ten biggest fantasies, is that one of them?"
"J.J.'s unfortunate demise? That is not on my top ten list of fantasies."
"What about presiding over the paper?"
"That is also not on my top ten list of fantasies. In fact, none of my top ten list of fantasies involve Jewish journalism," Wayne laughs.
"Before I started the New York Blade in 1997, I was a gay activist. I was screaming in the streets and going to gay protests. Then we launched a newspaper. People said to me, this is great. You will have this opportunity to push your opinion. I said, that's not what the newspaper is about. I wanted the Blade to be a place where everybody felt free to express themselves and to disagree. Our reporters didn't back down from challenging people but we gave column inches to people whose views I despised.
"Yeah, I have political opinions about some of the issues we cover, but that's not the point."
"Were you one of those activists who stormed into churches and threw blood?"
Wayne laughs. "I was not. I did not storm into a church and I did not throw blood but I was 'one of those activists.' I was in the group that did those things."
"Do you think that was a little strong? Throwing blood and storming into churches?" I ask.
"In the face of hundreds of thousands of people dying of AIDS? No. They didn't kill anybody. When I was at Tufts, there was a protest of this type, which involved going into the Catholic church on campus and greeting your fellow parishioners and shaking hands. This was considered a campus outrage. That they had gone too far by invading a church. Something that should've been off limits to political protest. I said, bullshit.
"In the face of tens of millions of dead today, was it over the top? No. It was quite under the bottom. It should still be going on right now."
"How do you see yourself primarily? As a man? A Jew? A homosexual? An American?"
"Can we please stop using the word 'homosexual?'" says Wayne with a laugh. "My primary identity depends on the minute of the day."
"Is being gay or being Jewish more important to you?"
"It depends on the context. I've never been at a point in my life where I didn't think about being Jewish. And I've never been at a point in my life where I didn't think about being gay. I'm also conscious of things like gender, race, class, geography, educational level, and my politics and being an atheist."
"What do you dislike about the word 'homosexual'?" I ask.
"It's outdated and misses the point."
"So you think 'gay' is infinitely superior?"
"They're different. Homosexual is what you do as an act. It's not an identity. In year 2004 in New York, let's use 'gay.' It's the lowest common denominator. No, not all homosexuals are gay. Not all gay people are queer. I think all gays are homosexual but you never know these days."
"What's the difference between gay and queer? Is it like Reform Vs Conservative?"
"No. It's more like the difference between being Jewish and being Zionist. They are related, but not synonymous. In a similar way, gay is a personal identity and queer is a political stance."
"Like, we're here and we're queer and get used to it."
"A lot of queers are not gay," says Wayne. "Transgenders, some lesbians, bisexuals do not identify as gay."
"On almost any sexual issue (homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, pornography), Jews are more liberal."
"I think that's great. In 1989, when I was 18, I took a semester off and worked on Capitol Hill for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which is the largest gay political organization in the country. We were working on various legislation, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, which passed. We also worked on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is still not law. We still don't have civil rights in employment in the United States. Even though only a tiny portion of Congress people had signed on to the bill, numerous Jewish groups had already come out in favor of it. They were at the front of the line.
"Going to pro-choice marches, Jewish groups were there in force. Going to gay rights marches in 1987, 1993, Jewish groups were there in force. That always made me proud.
"Coalition building is always a challenge. Often you see groups doing a tit-for-tat exchange. 'We showed up at the divest in South Africa march last month, so this African-American group should show up at this pro-choice rally this month.' That's coalition-building that will never last beyond next week.
"Jewish groups have always seen the connection between other groups in terms of social justice without any expectations. It was never a tit-for-tat exchange. Hadassah never called up the Human Rights Campaign and said, 'We will come out for gay rights if you come out for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.'"
"How do you think America would be different if we eliminated all anti-discrimination laws? You could hire who you wanted. Rent to who you wanted. Play golf with who you wanted. Would we have a radically more hate-filled homophobic society?"
"It would be explicitly those things. Would you have country clubs that didn't allow Jews? Yeah, about ten minutes after that passed. Would you have neighborhoods that did not permit blacks to rent apartments? Yeah, in about one-and-a-half minutes. Would you have gay people being fired from their jobs left and right? We already do. Would it be easier for that to happen? Yeah. Would gay parents start losing their children? We already do."
He laughs. "It would be like it is now, except even more. It would be disastrous. More importantly, what would it be like in 20 years?"
"You see the law as holding back a dike, plugging a dike?"
"It's not so much that it is holding back a flood but it is creating a boundary, saying that this is something as a country we don't do. We don't discriminate. You don't have to like each other. You can think what you want and say what you want. You can publish a newspaper about it and refuse to print dissenting opinions. Law creates the edge past which behavior is not acceptable. You're talking about eliminating the edge. Will people give in to their inner drive towards discrimination and bigotry? Of course. Then, people who didn't feel strongly one way or another will see that, 'Yeah, it is better this way. I won't rent to black people either. I'll have the gay teacher in my school fired too. I'll bring Christian prayer back to public schools and the Jews can go f--- themselves. It's a great idea. It never occurred to me, but now that you mention it, let's do it.'
"It's not about the PC Police or the Thought Police, like so many people created this bizarre bogeyman of the Left. You can say whatever you want. You just can't discriminate."
"Would you like to see same-sex marriage?"
"Yes. Is it my number one issue? No."
"Do you think everyone on the Forward staff supports same-sex marriage?"
"My guess is most."
"Do you fear more getting beat up because you are gay or getting beat up because you are a Jew?"
"Gay. But I don't spend that much time worrying about either one."
"Have you ever been beaten up for either?"
"No. I've had my share of verbal harassment for both and I've been pushed around as a gay person physically."
"Have you received more insults for being gay or for being Jewish?"
"No contest. For being gay. A hundred fold. In elementary school, I wasn't out as a gay person but it didn't stop people from calling me faggot. When was the last time I encountered anti-gay harassment? Two days ago. When was the last time I encountered anti-Semitism? Many months ago. I can't think of one."
"What's the most serious anti-Jewish thing you've had done to you?"
"There was a kid in elementary school who used to harass me regularly. He'd call me a dirty Jew, a kike, and a hebe. He kept bringing up that the Jews had killed Jesus and that the Jews had killed the Pope. That was pretty bad."
"What's the most severe anti-gay thing you've had done to you?"
Wayne laughs, "Other than being denied my civil rights? Beyond that? Other than that, actually being pushed in Boston by a stranger. He was calling me faggot and that I was going to get AIDS and that I needed to get the f--- out of the city. It was on Harvard Square. It was 1988. I was walking down the street with a pink triangle pin on my jacket. At that moment, I was not being a practicing homosexual, but I was being an out gay man. Also, I was borderline queer. See the difference?"
"How do you feel when gay people call themselves faggot?"
"I call myself faggot sometimes. It depends on the context. It's fine. Do you want me to call myself a faggot? I'm a faggot."
"Does it annoy you that black people can call themselves nigger but you can't?"
"What about the terms shiksa, shaygetz and shvartze?"
"Shvartze bothers me. Shaygetz is not used that often so it doesn't have as much of a charge as shiksa. I can at least imagine the word shiksa, because I've experienced it, being used ironically. Using it in a purely derogatory way is crappy. I can't imagine using the word shvartze in a way that's anything but really horrible."
"Let's say I say in a unironic tone, man, my place was robbed by shvartzes last night. How would you react?"
"I would call you on it. That's racist."
"What about if I said with no inflection, I went out with this great shiksa last night?"
"I would probably call you on that too. I'd be quicker to call you on shvartze."
"Well, thank you. I've enjoyed this. I'll send you a transcript."
"Am I the first faggot you've talked to?"
I laugh. "You are the first in this book."
"But hopefully not the last."
"You are the first identifying gay person I've spoken to for this book."
"The first Left-wing atheist faggot you've interviewed for the book?"
"Almost everyone has been Left-wing. I use the term 'homosexual.' I'm old fashioned. I'm also Right-wing. I don't like the word 'gay.' I think it has been hijacked. I come from Australia. 'Gay' meant happy."
"It still does."
"But it's primary meaning has been hijacked to mean what it means."
"It just means happy. That's how I use it.
"The most recent time I encountered an anti-gay incident was two days ago. I was on the New Jersey transit coming back into the city from visiting a friend. Someone was walking down the aisle. A man wearing some kind of freakish attire you really only see in New York. Long black robes. Red leather headgear. Some kind of alien priest. I don't know if he was referring to me or the guy across the aisle from me or just talking in general. He said, 'Oh man, there are sodomites all over this train.'
"I thought, 'sodomites.' That's the one word we haven't taken back yet. Then again, this remark came from a man wearing a dress."
"Do you think 'sodomite' in a unironic tone is a nasty term?"
"It is so archaic as to be hilarious."
"I have such a hard time using 'gay,'" I confess. "I hope you will forgive me."
"You'll come around in 20-30 years, when we're on to our next term."