Crosswords feature more LGBTQ constructors

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 21, 2023
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Rafael Musa holds his Pride-themed crossword puzzle that appeared in the June 4 issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Rafael Musa holds his Pride-themed crossword puzzle that appeared in the June 4 issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Solvers of the New York Times Magazine's weekly Sunday crossword puzzle discovered a special Pride-themed edition June 4. Its grid included six across answers related to the colors of the rainbow flag adjacent to eight-letter answers entered into boxes shaded to match the corresponding flag colors.

Rafael Musa, a gay San Francisco resident, had created the puzzle and submitted it months ago, with it coincidentally appearing in a special issue of the magazine devoted to stories about California. The idea came to him while sitting at the traffic light at the intersection of Castro and Market streets with the gigantic Pride flag flapping overhead in the wind.

"It was very exciting to see it in person out in the world. It's been really great," Musa, 27, who works as a software engineer at Airbnb, told the Bay Area Reporter the Monday after his puzzle's publication.

He had gone down to his local corner store in the city's North of the Panhandle district to buy a few copies of the Sunday paper with the magazine inserted inside. Musa joked that the printed version of the rainbow colors the New York Times had used didn't exactly match those found on Pride flags, "but we will allow it."

The response to the puzzle has been overwhelmingly positive, said Musa, with people he hasn't spoken to in a while reaching out to him to offer congratulations. Having an LGBTQ-inspired puzzle published in such a visible outlet was a fun way to kick off Pride Month, noted Musa.

"I would love to have gotten even more LGBTQ stuff in there," he said. "We don't usually get our cake and eat it too!"

From Brazil, Musa moved to the Bay Area a decade ago to attend Stanford, where he earned his B.A. and master's degrees in computer science. He has called San Francisco home since graduating in 2018, which is the same year he started solving crosswords. Musa now solves up to six a day.

"I got hooked quickly," recalled Musa, who a year later started making his own puzzles. "I would make my friends solve them. Then, once the pandemic happened, a lot of people — myself included — found themselves with a lot of free time and looking for something to fill that time with."

As he got better at creating crosswords, Musa tried his luck with getting one published by the New York Times, which has an open submission process. The one published by the magazine was his third to be accepted, with five more in the pipeline that should reach print over the next nine months. His first debuted on October 20, 2022, which was a Friday and won Musa praise for his "fabulous colloquial entries."

"I feel like I am always trying to put things in puzzles that matter to me and that I like," said Musa, which can vary from LGBTQ pop references to geography and foods he enjoys.

Two years ago Musa also had a special Pride-themed puzzle published during June. It was part of a monthlong initiative that featured LGBTQ constructors and was Musa's first one to be professionally accepted.

"It helped my puzzle career take off," said Musa, as until that happened, "I wasn't sure if this was a space for me or if I was any good."

David Steinberg is the puzzles and games editor at Andrews McMeel Universal. Photo: Courtesy David Steinberg  

30 days of queer puzzles
The 30 days of LGBTQ puzzles, which were syndicated via Universal Crossword and ran in USA Today and other publications, was the brainchild of David Steinberg, 26, a straight ally who resides in Pacific Grove along California's Central Coast. Steinberg, who had his first puzzle published by the New York Times at age 14, is the puzzles and games editor at Andrews McMeel Universal, known as AMU for short.

He has edited the company's Universal Crossword, a daily and Sunday internationally syndicated feature, since his senior year at Stanford in 2019. Seeing few constructors who were not straight, white men, Steinberg began working to raise the profile of a more diverse group of puzzle makers, particularly women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.

A mentorship program he launched in 2019 paired experienced constructors with seven underrepresented puzzle makers, all of whom ended up being published. The next year Steinberg published 30 days of puzzles made by women during Women's History Month in March, followed by the Pride Month initiative in June 2021.

"I just thought it would be nice to have more voices," recalled Steinberg. "It has been nice, especially in the last two years, to see a huge influx of constructors from different backgrounds. Puzzles have gotten more interesting as a result."

Amanda Rafkin is the puzzle editor for USA Today. Photo: Courtesy Amanda Rafkin  

When the LGBTQ-constructed puzzles ran in USA Today, Amanda Rafkin was serving as the associate puzzle editor for the crosswords that appear in the nationally distributed newspaper. This spring, Rafkin became the editor.

"As more people from all walks of life started making them, the direct consequence is more people are reflected in these puzzles," said Rafkin, 35, who identifies as both lesbian and queer and lives in Los Angeles near North Hollywood.

Growing up in the West Palm Beach area of South Florida, Rafkin started solving puzzles as a teenager. In 2018, she found a mentor in constructing crosswords in Ross Troudeau, who in April became the puzzles editor at Apple News.

"Sometimes something gets its hooks in you and you go off the deep end getting into it. I made a bajillion puzzles," recalled Rafkin, who during the summer of 2020 had a number of crosswords published in various outlets, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

These days she is submitting fewer puzzles due to the demands of her new position, though one of her crosswords ran in the June 10 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Constructors usually are only given a few days to a weeks' notice of the publication date for their puzzle.

A renaissance
The COVID pandemic, said Rafkin, resulted in "a renaissance of sorts" for the crossword puzzle field.

"Some people made sourdough and some did crosswords and some did both," she told the B.A.R.

Steinberg has been a serious solver of crosswords since the seventh grade. It wasn't until seeing the documentary "Word Play" in 2006 that he was inspired to make his own, with the board game "Clue" the theme of his inaugural puzzle.

The New York Times accepted his 14th submitted puzzle as the first it published from Steinberg. After Steinberg gave it a requested rewrite, it came out on a Thursday, considered one of the tougher days for solving a crossword.

As he grew up in Irvine, the Orange County Register profiled Steinberg, with him telling the reporter that his "dream job" would be Will Shortz's as the crossword editor of the New York Times. A few weeks later the Southern California newspaper hired Steinberg as its freelance crossword editor at the age of 15.

"I didn't think it could be a career for me. It is such a small industry and was even smaller back then," said Steinberg, who interned over several summers with Shortz while in college. "I got my degree in 2019 from Stanford — I couldn't major in crosswords — so I did it in psychology and a minor in computer science. I thought I would be one of those tech bros but I wasn't really good at it."

During his junior year at Stanford Steinberg edited The Puzzle Society Crossword, which AMU later merged with its syndicated Universal Crossword. He continues to edit the company's daily puzzles and also oversees the teams supplying crosswords to USA Today and the digital site The Modern Crossword.

He told the B.A.R. he is unsure if the company will do another series of Pride Month puzzles with LGBTQ constructors. But due to the positive reception the one in 2021 received, Steinberg is open to reviving the idea, especially since there is an even larger pool now of diverse puzzle makers.

"We had a huge influx of new people making puzzles during COVID. That was really exciting; we also have a lot more solvers," noted Steinberg. "It has breathed new life into the art form and brought a younger audience than we have ever had."

Anna Gundlach has been solving crossword puzzles since she was a child; she now constructs them as well. Photo: Courtesy Anna Gundlach  

One of the people who works at AMU with Steinberg and Rafkin as a puzzle editor is Anna Gundlach, 41, a transgender lesbian who has lived in Portland, Oregon roughly six years now. A native of Washington state, Gundlach had her first crossword published in the Los Angeles Times in 2010. She started solving crosswords as a child, helping her mom and grandmother complete them.

"I would grab the latest New York Times and my smoking jacket at the age of 10 and solve a puzzle. It has just been a lifelong nerdy pursuit, I guess," recalled Gundlach. "I have always been into puzzles and wordplay and that kind of thing."

She, too, first thought of it as a professional pursuit after seeing the "Word Play" film.

"It was a light-bulb moment. Oh, wait, I could probably do that too," said Gundlach, who created her first puzzles using graph paper. "I didn't have the assistance software I do now. I made a lot of terrible puzzles."

Back in 2018 Gundlach contributed a puzzle for The Queer Qrosswords that compiled those created by LGBTQ constructors into a collection to raise money for LGBTQ nonprofits. It put out two such editions of crosswords, raising more than $60,000 to date, according to its website.

"It definitely, for quite a while, used to be a white, middle age, male kind of pursuit. What is funny, too, is the first editor for the New York Times ... who codified all of modern crosswording was a woman," noted Gundlach, referring to Margaret Petherbridge Farrar, who oversaw the paper's crosswords in the 1940s through the late 1960s. "She brought them to the mainstream. After that, every editor at any big venue was a cis-het white person ... and references in puzzles used to really reflect that much more."

Moving to mainstream
But over the last decade more queer, female, and people of color constructors have crossed over from the underground crossword scene into the mainstream, said Gundlach. It is reflected in the cultural references seen in their puzzles, she noted, which largely has been celebrated among the crossword-solving community.

"You can definitely go into the comments sections of any blog about a crossword and find some anonymous trolls. Outside of that, the person really into crosswords is generally a kind, intelligent person, not just mentally intelligent but emotionally intelligent and open," said Gundlach. "The kind of person solving a puzzle is generally interested in learning about new ideas and new things."

Looking up answers
Speaking of which, all four puzzle creators told the B.A.R. that if someone is stuck on a crossword, there is no rule against looking up the answer to a clue. Doing so not only will teach a solver something new, it may open up their solving other words that cross that answer in the puzzle's grid.

"I don't take it that seriously. Who cares if I have to look something up?" asked Rafkin.

Added Gundlach, "There is no such thing of cheating at crosswords. Solving them is a conversation between you and the constructor, and you might not know everything. I have done crosswords a long time now, and I still sometimes don't know a reference or the word."

Crosswords published by newspapers do get progressively tougher to solve between Monday and Sunday. As people solve more puzzles, they pick up on oft-repeated words and catch on to gimmicks and tricks used by constructors that can be confounding to beginners. One example is a rebus square, which will contain a full word or several letters rather than a single letter.

Since being included in the Pride Month puzzle series in 2021, Musa said he has noticed more LGBTQ references included in crosswords. It is a striking change from years past, he said.

"I think a huge part of that is more diverse people are making the puzzles, and that is wonderful," said Musa, who constructs his crosswords mostly at night after having dinner. "That is a result of initiatives like that plus the whole pandemic effect of people having a lot of time. New people are getting involved."

Musa recently submitted a puzzle for the syndicated Universal Crossword that should show up this August, he hopes, in newspapers across the country. It was inspired by one of the TV shows he enjoys.

"The other day I realized 'RuPaul's Drag Race' is 15 letters and thought that is perfect. It took a Sunday and took a couple hours to build a grid around that and send it to David," said Musa.

His advice to crossword solvers is to embrace one's curiosity and allow puzzles to open new doors of exploration.

"Be willing to let puzzles expand your horizon instead of getting angry a puzzle is trying to show you something you didn't know. It should be celebrated and shouldn't be shunned," he said.

Musa told the B.A.R. he is grateful to be a part of a new generation of crossword makers bringing a more diverse perspective to the field.

"It is exciting to see. I am honored to help be a part of that and one of the people who gets to put things like that in their puzzles," said Musa. "Some people do ask if I am trying to push an agenda. I tell them, 'No, I am putting this in because it is something I care about, like musical artists I enjoy or a TV show I watch.' I am not trying to spread the gay agenda; I am just making puzzles I love. That is the beauty of it for me."

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