PGN: Where are you originally from?
HZ: My roots are in Northeast Philly, I’m an Oxford Circle boy and I went to Northeast High, class 122. It was great ... I’m sorry I just saw a picture of me on the Radical Faeries wall in a dress. [Laughs.] I think that was first and last time I wore a gown.
PGN: Oh, how was your first time in a dress?
HZ: It was wonderful. I was wearing a beaded gown with a beautiful butterfly on the front. I thought it symbolized growth. I have no issues expressing my feminine side. I don’t see myself doing serious drag because I’ve seen some people do it so well, it’s like, “No way, you’re not a guy.” They’re just great and I couldn’t ever pull it off that well. I’d be ghastly.
PGN: That’s funny! Back to your childhood ...
HZ: I was the baby of the family and I have an older brother and sister. My father worked in haberdashery as a salesman. He worked for various companies and at one time had his own store. My mother was a career counselor. I had a very hardworking, middle-class upbringing.
PGN: Were they very progressive?
HZ: I don’t know that my father was, but my mother was. I learned some of the most seminal lessons regarding race from my mother. I was very naïve having grown up in a very white, Jewish neighborhood. I remember in elementary school they were busing in students from Germantown. Somewhere along the way, I must have heard the “N” word, though I had no idea of the meaning. I must have said something to my mother like, “We’re going to have n____s coming to our school.” My mother got this very serious look on her face, and she leaned down and said to me, “And you’re nothing but a kike.” Well, I knew what that word meant. I was horrified that she would call me that, it was just such an offensive word. My mother said, “As offensive as that is to you, that’s how offensive the ‘N’ word is and you will never, ever use that word again. Do you understand?” I got it. In that one moment, racial prejudice and the use of hate speech became crystal clear to me.
PGN: That was smart of her not just to say “Don’t use that word,” but to make you feel why it was bad.
HZ: Yes. Especially growing up in a Jewish household, in a Jewish neighborhood with mostly Jewish schoolmates, though my close circle of friends were not Jewish. I loved to dance and the best dances were at the Catholic schools, so I’d go to St. Timothy’s on Friday nights, on Saturdays it would be Our Lady of Ransom or wherever they had the best music.
PGN: Other than the incident with your mother, have you experienced anti-Semitism?
HZ: There was one instance where I was beat up pretty badly. I was in high school and I was dating someone who kind of lived on the border up in the Northeast. I was waiting for the bus one evening about 11 at night and a car full of guys drove by and called out some anti-Semitic epithets. They circled around again and got out of the car and beat me to a pulp. I was chased and called a Jew bitch and other things. I wound up in the hospital but, aside from that one incident, I don’t recall ever experiencing anything directed at me.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
HZ: I was very bookish. I was into art and puppets. I used to set up a theater in our garage and the neighborhood kids would come and I’d do little puppet shows. [Laughs.] I should have known where that was heading!
PGN: What was your favorite TV show as a kid?
HZ: “Mr. Rogers,” “Howdy Doody,” “Mr. Wizard” and of course I loved “Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop.” And Sally Starr, loved her! Our gal Sal.
PGN: Where did you go for college?
HZ: I went to Penn State. I’m a real history buff and I studied 19th and 20th century European history and did an honors program in pre-revolutionary Russian history. My grandparents were from Kiev, so I always had an attraction to all things Eastern European. I had my sense of identity from being Russian and Jewish and needed to know about the Holocaust and how it happened. To learn about the events that allowed such hatred and destruction. I think some of it ties back to the recognition of hate speech and anti-Semitism and prejudice that I learned from my mother.
PGN: How did you get started as an activist?
HZ: My mantra, even when I was a kid, was take care of our own. As I became aware of the injustices that befell the Jews even before the Holocaust and in the Diaspora after the Holocaust, I came to understand that if we don’t take care of each other, who will? When I was in college, I marched against the Vietnam War and then, fast forward, after coming out, I watched AIDS devastate my community. I actually worked as a bartender — I have a very checkered past — at the 247 (not to be confused with the 2/4). It was at 247 S. 17th St. and was kind of the precursor to The Bike Stop. Lo and behold, this thing started to happen and these handsome, beautiful men who would come to my bar started to disappear. That sense of having to take care of our own just took over and caused me to spring into action. People were getting infected and being thrown out of their apartments and homes and I watched the scourge just getting bigger and bigger. It was a nightmare. Since I had my days free, I started to volunteer for the AIDS Task Force. Because of my sense of history, I started clipping out and reading every article I could find about the “gay plague” or the “gay cancer.” I slowly but surely built of a collection of 14 large cardboard boxes full of information. I kept them housed in my teeny apartment so eventually I went to John Cunningham, who was involved with the library, and we were able to find people to help take the collection of random information and organize it to create the first AIDS library in the United States.
PGN: I can’t imagine how terrifying those early days must have been.
HZ: It was horrifying, partly because I saw up close what was happening to people I really cared about and also because, as a bartender, I observed people’s attitudes and behaviors and then was able to connect them to what was happening. I saw people go from just wanting to come into a bar and have a good time to being on oxygen and dying. I had a small group of personal friends, there were about 17 of us, and we would all hang out together and party and dance and frolic and be gay — and out of that group, only two of us survived. So not only was it horrifying to see what it looked like to die of AIDS, with all the health issues, but just to be around as lives were cut down all around you. It was horrifying to see the fear in people’s eyes. The party was over.
PGN: I’m guessing the fear was not only of the disease but of people’s reactions. I know a lot of people who were outed because of it.
HZ: Yes, the stigma and prejudice that surrounded AIDS was terrible. The fear felt as if the lights had been turned off and we were walking around in a room in the dark. Not knowing when you were going to bump into the wall or somebody else, there was just that incredible fear. There was AIDS-phobia and homophobia and sex-phobia and so in the midst of it I started to volunteer. I think some of the motivation was because if I stopped to think about what was happening — the loss and the grief and the fear — I would have gone crazy. At the time there was no such thing as an HIV test, so one could only guess at what point you were going to get sick. So I threw myself into AIDS activism and, along with the AIDS library, I founded the SafeGuards with Anna Forbes and John White. The SafeGuards motto, by the way, was “Taking care of our own.” So it was going back to those roots and the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
PGN: Tell me a little about coming out.
HZ: It’s interesting because I often hear stories of people coming out and the oppression and stigma that they faced. I don’t remember experiencing that. But then I remembered that I got married right out of college and experienced an idyllic life as a hetero-normative male who had this dark secret.
PGN: You oppressed yourself!
HZ: I did. Being gay wasn’t something you did, it was just a phase I figured I would get over as soon as I got married. But in my heart I knew and when the discussion turned to having children, I realized I couldn’t do it and made the decision to leave my wife and come out to my family.
PGN: How did that go?
HZ: Wife was naturally very hurt. Everyone was shocked.
PGN: Even with the puppet shows?
HZ: [Laughs.] Yes, even with the puppet shows and the singing and dancing! I was very good at living a dual life. My family didn’t actually find out until they read about it on the front page of The Inquirer! They interviewed me because I worked at a gay bar and because of my activism in the AIDS movement. They told me that it probably wouldn’t be printed for weeks and if it did, it would be buried on a back page. Over a month later, I got a call at 8 a.m. from my cousin who said, “Cuz, you’re on the front page of The Inquirer!” I said, “What are you talking about?” and he said, “There’s a story called, ‘How AIDS had changed the nature of being gay’ and you’re featured.” And so I was out. My family was great and told me how incredibly proud they were of me for the work that I’d been doing. They said that they’d had a suspicion only because of the fact that my wife and I had been so very happy, that the only reason I would have left her was for something like this.
PGN: What’s on your book list?
HZ: I love thrillers and espionage, so anything by Daniel Silva, who writes about the Israeli secret service and the Mossad. I love authors like David Ignatius from the Washington Post, I love historical biographies and literature. Growing up, I liked Huck Finn and “Tom Sawyer” and the Hardy Boys. I’m an avid reader: I’ll read anything.
PGN: Have you heard about the movement to take the N-word out of new editions of “Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” etc., for schools?
HZ: It’s crazy. History and literature have to reflect the time in which the story takes place — the whole atmosphere. So to take that out assumes that people weren’t using that language and that is really clouding history.
PGN: Whitewashing it, one could say. Plus including the original language opens dialogue and creates teaching moments like you were able to have with your mother.
HZ: Yes, and as a history buff I believe in as much historical accuracy as possible.
PGN: Which sport would you want to compete in during the Summer Olympics?
PGN: I don’t think that’s an Olympic sport.
HZ: No, I just read they are going to have yoga at the Olympics this summer.
PGN: What are your hobbies?
HZ: I love reading and I love my pets. I have a Maine Coon cat named Bubby and a Jack Russell-Schnauzer named Hamlet.
PGN: Do you have a human companion too?
HZ: Yes, David Fischer. I love him. He’s currently finishing up his Ph.D. in math education. He’s doing a dissertation on the intersection of queer identity and mathematical identity. A lot of queer kids are bullied and are afraid to ask for help in certain subjects. But if you don’t study higher math, there’s a statistical correlation in your ability to do well and make money.
PGN: What would people be surprised to know about you?
HZ: I think people have a sense that I’m tough. I’m tall and I can be loud but I’m actually a bleeding heart. I cry at the drop of a hat — “Terms of Endearment,” “The King’s Speech” — I cry at all those movies. I even cry at the Oscars! Just to see that people are acknowledged for working so hard makes me weep.
PGN: Worst fashion item?
HZ: My orange polyester Nik Nik disco shirt! It’s not good to wear anything that will melt on you in a fire!
PGN: Before we wrap up, tell me about the senior project you’re working on.
HZ: This year, there are more people turning 65 than ever before and a great number of them are LGBT folks. There is an absolute lack of culturally competent services and resources for LGBT elders. All of our energy for the past several decades has been to create support services around HIV/AIDS and we’ve never really focused on health and wellness in general and especially not for our elders. We need to help people who are getting older and whose families of choice are getting older too. We need a system of services to help people grow old vibrantly. It goes right back to my motto of taking care of our own.
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