A Wiccan, writer, and puppeteer helps build New Jersey’s only LGBTQ magazine

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Leon Calafiore at his desk. Photo by Lana Leonard
Leon Calafiore at his desk. Photo by Lana Leonard

It was a Saturday. The sun was shining bright over the Bronx. The Bronx 4 elevated train pulled up to its last stop, Woodlawn. The platform overlooked two opposing sights: the park and the cemetery.

Bronx NY subway stop. Photo by Lana Leonard
Bronx NY subway stop. Photo by Lana Leonard

“Get off on the cemetery side,” Leon Calafiore said over the phone.

He walked up to the train steps in front of a Woodlawn convenience store. Dutifully, he led the way to his apartment building. “It’s not Greenwood Cemetery, but we got Duke Ellington,” he said, walking. Ellington is also from New Jersey, and now permanently resides in Woodlawn Cemetery.

The wind howled until the building doors closed behind us. As sunshine opened the sky, Calafiore’s book shelves adorned the walls. The warmth of the room grew. The sounds of percolating coffee filled the air, along with the smell of Calafiore’s cigarette smoke.

Slowly sinking into history, Calafiore begins to chat.

He was one of the first ever Out In Jersey writers, and the magazine just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Every Out In Jersey issue spreads over his living room furniture. Without question, Calafiore is a piece of the magazine’s history.

Alternatively, Calafiore is modest about his impact on the magazine, but he credits the commitment to survival.

“Well, we all grew up with commitment,” said Calafiore. The magazine started after the AIDS epidemic, but it was during the AIDS crisis that the LGBTQ community anchored to their chosen family. That’s what Calafiore did, and that’s what Out In Jersey would become.

“All we could do was visit and help friends as they were dying in hospitals when nurses in the tri-state area wouldn’t work with them,” said Calafiore.

Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, Calafiore says he found acceptance among fluid sexual identities in magical communities. Soon, Calafiore began coorganizing the annual Witches’ Balls in New York, among other parties at the Zodiac Lounge.

“Our at-large parties would have a mix of members from the New York occult scene and fortune 500 CFOs. Everybody got along fine,” said the organizer.

Out In Jersey magazines from the last 20 years. Photo by Lana Leonard
Out In Jersey magazines from the last 20 years. Photo by Lana Leonard

This acceptance in one community turned into action for the overlapping other. The year was 1996.

By 1990 the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act was enacted; the largest federally funded program in the United States for people living with HIV/AIDS. By 1996, the death rate from AIDS dropped for the first time since the epidemics started, according to the CDC. This would inspire a revolutionary act from Calafiore and his magical peers.

Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center was down the block from the LGBTQ community center [and still is]. A Catholic nun ran the pediatrics wing. Indeed, the magical community went high in a world of medical lows during the AIDS epidemic. Unlike previous years, the organizers invited the local diocese to show up to the Witches’ Ball, and to take a check for the Ryan White foundation for Pediatric AIDS center.

The Church agreed.

“We had Sister Mary on stage with me in a crystal pleated, black skirt, seam stockings, four inch heels and a tuxedo jacket. Having a Liza Minnelli moment, I handed her a check for a couple thousand dollars.”

“It was not advertised in any of the diocesan newspapers, but they showed up. They had to be surrounded by gay pagans, trans pagans, poly pagans and the church cheerfully accepted money from us, which I felt, in our own small way, knocked a few bricks out of the wall of Christian supremacy,” Carafiore shares.

“This was just before the magazine,” he adds.

Calafiore was born into a working-class family in North Jersey on Nov. 4, 1955, six days before the Vietnam War started. His family moved to Hillside in 1960, then Menlo Park Terrace before his family built a house in Edison in 1962, the start of the gay liberation movement.

“…From every angle, you know, the school protected the rights of students to express themselves. That’s really very much unlike today…”

While growing up in Edison, he went to J.P. Stevens High School. “Edison was a very peculiar postwar matrix of privilege and protections,” said Calafiore.

However, it was a place of intellectual freedom. Calafiore’s teachers were within the age of his generation. One of those teachers was Toby Grace, who was the one of the founders of Out In Jersey, now the magazine’s editor emeritus. Grace, among other teachers, supported the need to challenge the mainstream. He also encouraged diverse theology like paganism, and excellence in journalism. Some might say that’s where Out In Jersey’s roots formed.

Paganism, by the way, is an umbrella term for a diverse group of religious and spiritual belief systems. For example, Wicca would fall under the pagan umbrella as a modern religion with historical ties to pre-Christian religious and witchcraft traditions in Europe.

“We had a very supportive culture of teachers and administration in our high school,” shared Calafiore.

Along with his peers, Calafiore helped grow the school paper’s African-American column and the news section, which included coverage of the Vietnam War. No “rah rah team spirit,” as Calafiore called it. Instead the paper became “a cross between the Village Voice and Zap Comix.” They also did the newspaper layout the “old fashioned way.” This meant students copied and pasted columns, headlines and articles under a desk lamp among numerous eyes and hands.

“From every angle, you know, the school protected the rights of students to express themselves. That’s really very much unlike today,” he said.

Books line the walls in Leon Calafiore's home office space.
Books line the walls in Leon Calafiore’s home office space. Photo by Lana Leonard

One time, in 1972, the school administration supported students in joining the march against the bombing of Cambodia. The parents didn’t know.

Calafiore and his classmates were puppeteering when they weren’t chasing deadlines. Toby Grace was instrumental in this teaching as well. This led to an award grant for the students to tour all over the state of New Jersey. Eventually, they’d travel to the midwest as a traveling medicine show.

Like magic, being gay was ever present, but his realization would come later while studying at Parsons School of Design. “I realized I was gay at the same time that my last girlfriend realized she was gay,” he said. He smiles in retrospect.

In lieu of his discovery, he recalls his mother giving him an ultimatum to “sit down and talk or leave.” With it so, Calafiore chose to leave.

However, in 1978 he found an apartment, the same apartment in which he now sits. His mother and his stepfather (who Calafiore emphasized as “a Sicilian, Nixon supporter”), were not the most supportive.

“Let’s say we had a difference of viewpoint on basically everything,” Calafiore said.

Going back to his childhood, Calafiore says, magic came when he was 12 years old. His curiosity was an extension of his fascination with Greek and Roman mythology. This fascination simmered with his discovery of summaries of medieval grimoires, The Secret Lore of Magic by Idris Shah. Initially, he says he dove headfirst into ceremonial work on an occult podcast called Witchhassel. At age 12, the young pagan evoked Astaroth, the Duke of Hell, without much knowledge of closing the ceremony.

“That was six months of fun,” Calafiore said in reflection.

Calafiore speaks as he walks into his bedroom. The windows leak light onto Calafiore’s altar. This is where he performs his magic rituals.

For him now, Wicca is a practice to maintain that which he already has. “I don’t need anything,” said Calafiore, sipping his wine.

When he isn’t practicing magic, he’s selling luxury Italian shoes. “I’ve sold shoes to the Germanotta sisters,” he says, to give an example.

However, the practicing Wiccan is far more interested in magic.

For instance, Out of the Broomcloset, Calafiore’s Out In Jersey column, which works “as a roadmap or travel guide to lay out your potential journey” in magic, is a longtime love affair. He also does horoscopes for the magazine. When he pulls his birth chart, we go over the geometric patterns that align houses to celestial bodies.

“Can you read birth charts?” he asks. I cannot.

When he finally sits down, so does the sun.

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.