Mark Segal is one of the major actors in the struggle for LGBT equality in the U.S. Most people know him as the award-winning founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, one of our oldest and most important community newspapers.
Segal’s career as an activist literally goes back to Stonewall, which he took part in as an 18-year old. Like the community that he has fought for, Segal’s life story has taken him from radical outsider to respected business and political leader. If any one life can symbolize the progress of gay America that life will most likely be Mark Segal’s.
A life as eventful as Segal’s demands that a book be written about it. Segal, who in the past has written nothing more substantial than his “Mark My Words” columns for PGN, finally took time out from his busy schedule to write his story.
“And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality,” is Segal’s long-awaited memoir. Published by Open Lens, an imprint of Akashic Books, it will be released October 6 to coincide with LGBT History Month.
I was fortunate to read an advanced copy of the book and to ask Segal questions about it. Segal has enjoyed one of the longest and most successful careers in the LGBT movement. To what does he owe his success?
“My secret to success is to just keep your eye on your current project. Until writing the book, my past was the past and I seldom thought about it. Researching some of the actions and issues brought back memories that had been suppressed for many years.”
“Stonewall for me was one of the luckiest evenings ever. Standing outside that bar and watching that carnival atmosphere and witnessing our community fighting back allowed me to get in touch with that oppression all LGBT people grow up with and say, no more. On that spot that night I knew what I’d dedicate my life to. And at that point there was no career called ‘gay Activist.’ My views haven’t changed at all, society’s have, but I guess we help society a little by ending one word: our Invisibility.”
“My grandmother fought for the right of women to vote. She also took me to my first civil rights demonstration at 13. My family knew oppression by being the only Jewish family in a city housing project. So at Stonewall, something clicked in my mind. The reality of Stonewall is that it made me something that didn’t have a title, a career without a salary. I became a gay activist. That would be and has been my life.”
The years after Stonewall were the Heroic Age of Gay Liberation. Segal was out and proud and young at a time when most of us were in the closet. The best chapters in Segal’s book detail his involvement, with the late Marty Robinson and others, in some of the Stonewall Age groups: “Marty Robinson organized The Action Group. I joined on May 10th 1969 [before the Riots]. We held a few meetings which I have forgotten about but Michael Levery tells me I attended.
Michael and I are the last two members of The Action Group still around. Marty had the good sense to realize that Stonewall could serve as a spark to create change. During the Riot he found chalk and we began to write on the streets and walls up and down Christopher Street: ‘Meet at Stonewall tomorrow night.’ Those following nights helped in the creation of Gay Liberation Front.”
The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was the first major group to emerge from the Stonewall Uprising. Though Segal admits that GLF was “dysfunctional,” he credits it for giving him the kind of education others got in college.
GLF, Segal recalls, “was the nation’s first ‘In Your Face’ LGBT organization. In just one year we created the first Trans organization; Gay Youth, which I founded; health alerts; the world’s first LGBT Community Center and so much more. We created community where there was none before.”
Though GLF was followed by more established groups like Gay Activists Alliance, Segal gives GLF credit for its achievements. “GLF changed the world and it did it in one year. In that one year there was no GAA or Gay Task Force; they split from GLF later. GLF, while ‘in your face,’ was also diversified and accepting. You didn’t need a pedigree to join.”
Like other GLF activists, Segal lived a hand to mouth existence at that time. In his memoir, Segal recalls signing up for welfare, noting that back then you could go to a welfare office, tell them you are “homosexual” and could not keep a job, and get public assistance. Living in Florida, which was never as generous with its public assistance as New York or Pennsylvania were or are, I was amazed that Stonewall Age gays could do that. “I’m not sure when that policy ended but I was on welfare until I left NY in 1971. And it allowed me to dedicate my time to GLF and Gay Youth.”
Segal was a master of the “zap,” a form of public demonstration designed to embarrass a public figure while calling attention to LGBT issues. Segal conducted many zaps as part of the Gay Raiders, a group he created after he returned to Philadelphia in 1971. Segal first zapped in 1972, after he and a boy friend were thrown out of a TV dance show. (Segal crashed the network’s news broadcast.) Segal’s most famous zap took place on December 11, 1973, when he disrupted the live broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Ironically, as publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, Segal is now part of the media establishment he once challenged. “Today I proudly serve on The Comcast Joint Diversity Board. Forty-two years ago when I tried to get the networks to change their bias against the LGBT community, they had me arrested and taken out in hand cuffs. Today thanks to Comcast JDC I get to sit at the table and advise NBC News.”
As publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, Segal has recorded LGBT history for almost as long as he has made it. It earned him many awards from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), including induction into the NLGJA Hall of Fame. “I’ve been in our community for almost 50 years. I’ve seen homelessness, I’ve witnessed suicides, harassment, discrimination. My family and GLF taught me to accept diversity. These are not concepts to me, they are real, and PGN has covered each and every segment of our community and we’ve also given a voice to those who disagree with us. I’m proud that our community has a place for debate, and yes even controversy.”