Longtime Voice editor alleges sexual harassment, age discrimination
Richard Goldstein, the longtime executive editor of the Village Voice who says he was fired in August 2004 by the newspaper—which insists instead he was laid off in a restructuring—last week filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging in stark detail that he had, from 1997 forward, been the victim of a sustained and growing workplace pattern of homophobic insults, sexual harassment, retaliation, denial of compensation and benefits, and finally age discrimination.
The lawsuit asserts that the lost wages, benefits, and emotional distress visited on Goldstein from his treatment on the job and his firing and the punitive damages that will be imposed on the Voice for its conduct toward him will total more than $1 million, but the most sensational aspects of the filing are the allegations he levels against Donald Forst, the newspaper’s editor in chief for nearly a decade.
According to the complaint, after Forst arrived at the Voice, where Goldstein first went to work in 1966, he “bragged” about the fact that he had regularly used the word “faggot” in the newsroom of his previous employer, Newsday. By 1997, Goldstein alleges, the editor turned his scathing tongue on his executive editor, who held the number three position in the editorial department and had pioneered the Voice’s annual Queer Issue in 1979.
“Forst called plaintiff an ‘ass-licker,’ criticized his movements as ‘prancing’ and ‘dancelike,’ [and] said he ‘walk[ed] like a ballerina,’” the complaint reads. Among other derogatory slurs Goldstein says Forst made about him were “slut boy” and “pussy boy.”
When Goldstein left the Voice last year, Forst only commented publicly in a New York Times interview, in which he insisted that Goldstein’s departure was a layoff that was part of a much larger restructuring of the newspaper and its Web operations, a view echoed by spokeswoman Jessica Bellucci in an e-mail to Gay City News. This week, Bellucci said, again in an e-mail, “We believe the suit is without merit and we intend to defend it vigorously. These same charges have been fully investigated by the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and have been dismissed. The Village Voice is very proud of our diverse staff, which reflects a wide range of generations, sexual orientations and ethnicities.”
Though the EEOC did not take up Goldstein’s confidential complaint for investigation, the dismissal was without prejudice and his standing to sue in federal court was affirmed.
Forst would not comment this week.
In a telephone interview on October 18, Goldstein described the effect the abuse he alleges had on his morale.
“When a straight man calls you a slut, it really has a connotation of insult and servitude,” he said. “It is a horrible experience. It’s not like someone on the street saying it. This is why these rules apply to employers in work relationships and not to people on the street in a free speech society. How can you respond? What was I going to do, start calling my boss names? There was nothing I could do.”
The complaint also alleges that Forst “insinuated falsely that plaintiff was having sexual relations with a male co-worker whose work he was editing.” Goldstein recalled that right around the time that Forst made this suggestion, unfounded rumors of the sexual relationship began flying around the Voice newsroom, humiliating the straight man about whom there was a suggestion that he would sleep his way to success.
“He had to deal with the gossip,” Goldstein recalled. “It was certainly a bad experience for him. It was very weird.”
By 1999, Goldstein says, having begun taking anti-depressant medications, he had gone through enough. In a formal complaint to the Voice’s in-house counsel at the time, Goldstein laid out his allegations of sexual and sexual orientation harassment against Forst. The counsel said she found Goldstein’s charges “credible,” but also found Forst’s denials “credible.” Goldstein says that the attorney confided in him that she herself had been the object of unwelcome lewd comments from Forst. At a meeting with Forst and the counsel, Goldstein says his boss committed to treat him appropriately and emphasized his desire that he stay on.
Instead, Goldstein alleges, he became the object of retaliation which, beginning in 2000, denied him his customary annual raises and over time increasingly stripped him of autonomy, editorial oversight, and hiring and other authority within the newspaper. Despite his constricted opportunities at the Voice, Goldstein who said that the newspaper had been “his entire professional life,” was for the most part barred from contributing to other publications. He also alleges that he was denied domestic partner benefits by Forst, even though they were given to non-management union employees and at least one other manager.
Goldstein’s complaint also alleges that in the last years of his employment, the Voice, eager to lower the median age of its readership, used “the pretext of ‘restructuring,’” to fire many of its older writers and editors, who were also its most seasoned journalists. The complaint specifically mentions the discharge of Leighton Kerner, C. Carr, Jules Feiffer, Thulani Davis, Sylvia Plachy, Alisa Solomon, and Greg Tate.
Solomon, for one, whom the newspaper nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about immigration, continues to write freelance for the Voice. Still, in an interview with Gay City News last year, she acknowledged, “I was absolutely blind-sided by my layoff,” and about Goldstein’s departure, said, “Losing Richard is enormous and tragic. I think it is just absurd.”
Even as he was experiencing ongoing harassment and retaliation, Goldstein said he began to hear of many instances of Forst’s abusive and harassing behavior toward other employees. The lawsuit mentions ethnic slurs against a Vietnamese employee, lesbian-baiting, and unsavory comments about “succulent breast” and a “pretty little ass” directed at a pregnant staffer.
By June of last year, Goldstein, who is 61, says that his ongoing distress about his own mistreatment was compounded by an unshakable belief that older workers were being purged. The Voice, in his view, was not only throwing away its most experienced talent, it was also making a bet “that young people only like to read the words of young people,” an assumption that he said was belied by the number of hits his work received on the Web and by his popularity on the college campus lecture circuit.
Concerned that his own job might be in jeopardy, Goldstein filed a second formal complaint that month, adding his assertions about age discrimination to his complaints about the harassment he suffered at Forst’s hands. Judy Miszner, the publisher, and Susan Meisel, the in-house counsel, quickly convened a meeting with Goldstein where he says he was told that his continued employment under Forst had become untenable but that he could negotiate a severance package. As those negotiations faltered for unspecified reasons that Goldstein would only say related to his career as a journalist, he was told that his layoff had long been part of the company’s plans for its ongoing restructuring.
Goldstein left the Voice on August 2 and was “not paid a penny,” in severance, he says, despite a longstanding promise that, under such circumstances, he would receive the one-year in salary that he had been guaranteed during his pre-management days as a union employee.
Though Goldstein last year told Gay City News that his firing involved “scandalous” circumstances that his attorney advised him not to discuss, this week he emphasized that a federal lawsuit with all the attendant publicity is an option of last resort. At first, he filed a confidential complaint with the EEOC, which led to mediation sessions with the Voice. Steven A. Rosen, the Manhattan civil rights attorney who represents Goldstein, said the newspaper “did not budge” during those discussions. Meanwhile, the EEOC, overwhelmed by a huge caseload and not particularly aggressive since George W. Bush became president, did what Rosen said it does in most cases—it declined to take on the case, even as it made no finding of fact and ruled that Goldstein does have a right to take the case to federal court.
“I was very reluctant to sue the Village Voice. I love the Village Voice,” Goldstein said, recalling that he had “started the careers of dozens of writers” there, that he had introduced rock music criticism there in the 1960s, an art form he said now comprises the newspaper’s largest revenue stream. Even as Forst was curtailing his editorial responsibilities, Mark Schoofs, a writer he “hired and mentored,” was being recognized with a Pulitzer for a ground-breaking series on AIDS in Africa.
“When somebody behaves this way, you cannot let this go on,” Goldstein said of his decision to pursue legal action focused on Forst’s behavior. “In the course of my life, I have debated hard core homophobes… No one ever used such language… No other Voice editor ever used this kind of language. No staff member ever did either. It was unheard of.”
Goldstein explained that he was particularly pained because of the Voice’s 50-year tradition as a beacon of progressive values.
“I wasn’t working for the New York Post,” he said. “It was the Village Voice… I had a moral problem I had to confront.”
As Goldstein waits for the lawsuit to play out—Rosen said the newspaper will have between 30 and 60 days to respond, and discovery will likely take up to a year, unless settlement talks get underway—he remains a contributor to the Nation magazine, where he periodically writes about the relationship of politics to pop culture under the rubric “Spectacle,” and is working on a book that will examine the “neo-macho man” in American culture, a phenomenon by which he argues masculinity’s backlash against feminism has entered U.S. politics in the wake of 9/11. Next spring, Goldstein will be a visiting professor at Hunter College, where he oversee the Queer Culture Project, an enterprise that will involve both teaching and public programs citywide.