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At 18 He Helped Make History at Stonewall and He’s Still Making News Today

After witnessing the Stonewall riots first hand, Mark Segal went on to become one of the most influential LGBT activists and publishers in America

Peter Fox
June 27, 2019
Photo: John Kessler, courtesy Mark Segal
Photo: John Kessler, courtesy Mark Segal
Photo: John Kessler, courtesy Mark Segal
Photo: John Kessler, courtesy Mark Segal

Mark Segal was 18 years old on the night of June 28th, 1969, when he entered the Stonewall Inn. On the night of the historic Stonewall riots Segal had been living in New York for just six weeks, but he had already become immersed in the elusive Greenwich Village gay night scene. Raised by the only Jewish family in south Philadelphia’s Wilson Park housing project, Segal was no stranger to being an outsider. He told his parents he was leaving Philly to go to school in New York. In truth, he’d left to find a gay community. Watching an episode of The David Susskind Show years earlier he’d learned that gay people existed in New York and he knew then that was where he belonged.

Segal would go on to organize some of the earliest American LGBT organizations, help plan the first Pride March in 1970, found the longest running LGBT weekly newspaper, the Philadelphia Gay News, and become one of the most important figures in the alternative gay press. But on that night at Stonewall he was still a teenager just exulting in the chance to drink and socialize with other LGBT people at a time when homosexuality was still treated as a psychological affliction by the medical establishment, immoral by most religions, and criminal under law. In 1969 homosexuality was a crime in every state except Illinois.

The Mafia-run Stonewall Inn located in New York’s famed Greenwich Village was a kind of sanctuary. It appealed to the less-privileged LGBT people who couldn’t fit in among the more white-collar and buttoned-up secret societies of gays that existed at the time. If you were a well-off gay white male you went to Julius’s—the oldest gay bar in New York. If you were poor, or more radical, your home was Stonewall. The inn was a gathering place for street kids, artists, and gay people of all different races and ethnic backgrounds. It was one of the hearts of New York’s vibrant, bohemian LGBT community and it would become the birthplace of America’s gay civil rights movement.

It started when New York City police raided the bar as they had many times before. The cops were looking to bust an illegally run, Mafia-owned establishment selling water-downed liquor without a license but also came to abuse the patrons, throwing around anti-gay slurs and using the vulnerable population as a chance to arrest as many people as possible and pad their records. They had done this many times before, including just four nights earlier at the Stonewall Inn.

Segal was carded by the police that night but with no money to offer for a bribe, he says that he was fortunate to be quickly released. The people arrested were primarily minors, trans women, and crossdressers, which was still illegal at the time. Segal watched from across the street, terrified as the raid unraveled into chaos.

Yet the terror was mixed with other emotions.

“There was an odd, celebratory feel to it,” he says. Within moments of taking in the scene, he thought to himself, “this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

Most people ran away to avoid arrest, but those who remained were drag queens, hustlers, runaways, street kids—the people who had nothing to lose and were willing to fight back.

In 1969, American society was all about rebellion. “African Americans can fight for their rights, Latinos can fight for their rights, women can fight for their rights, what about us?” Segal saw the social uproar of the era and thought, “why not me? Why not my people?”

For Segal, the aftermath of the Stonewall riots was a “magical year.” He played a role in starting the Gay Liberation Front, an umbrella group that became one of the first major American LGBT organizations, and helped found the first transgender and gay youth organizations, serving as its president at the age of 19.

“We created the first legal alerts, medical alerts, we demonstrated against police. We demonstrated against the media. We created the first community center. At the end of that first year we had the Christopher Street Liberation March which was the first gay pride.”

In 1971, just as Segal was emerging as a prominent gay activist in New York, he received a call from his dad asking him to move back to Philadelphia. His mother had developed a terminal illness, and his family needed all the support. His parents and grandmother became Segal’s greatest supporters, fully accepting their son at a time when few others would. They assured him that he could continue his activism if he moved home.

Forty-eight years later, Segal is still in Philly. He credits his success to his family, and particularly to his grandmother, Fannie Weinstein, who took him to his first civil rights rally when he was 13. “Everything I’ve done for the last 50 years I honestly believe comes from being a Jewish man.”

Even with a supportive family, it wasn’t easy. “We were poor, which in the Jewish community is almost a sin against God, or in our case a sin against the rest of the family,” Segal wrote in his memoir, And Then I Danced. “Living at home was essential and my parents supported the efforts 100%,” he told Tablet. “I was becoming a famous gay activist and literally didn’t have 10 cents in my pocket. When I did talk shows later, I did them with holes in my shoes.”

In Philadelphia, Segal founded a more radical group called The Gay Raiders that staged elaborate takeovers of major political events and TV news-tapings known as “zaps.”

He zapped a fundraising dinner for Richard Nixon in 1972, chained himself to the Liberty Bell, and most famously, zapped Walter Cronkite’s evening broadcast of the CBS News in 1973 which was seen by 60 million people. Fourteen minutes into the broadcast, Segal darted in front of the camera with a sign reading “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” He was later tackled to the ground, arrested, and brought to trial.

At the court hearing, Segal felt a tap on his shoulder from Cronkite. “Why did you do that?”

“Your news censors,” Segal responded. “If I can prove it,” Segal then asked, “would you do something to change it?”

Cronkite agreed to listen. “Why haven’t you reported on the 23 other cities that have passed gay rights bills?” Segal asked. “Why do you cover 5,000 women walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City when they proclaim International Women’s Year on the network news, and you do not cover 50,000 gays and lesbians walking down that same avenue proclaiming Gay Pride Day? That’s censorship.”

Cronkite was persuaded and on May 6, 1974, less than six months after Segal’s zap, the veteran anchor’s newscast featured a segment on gay rights. “Part of the new morality of the ’60s and ’70s is a new attitude toward homosexuality,” Cronkite told his audience. “The homosexual men and women have organized to fight for acceptance and respectability.”

After spending the first half of the 1970s combating and zapping journalists and TV news, in 1975 Segal broke into the media. With no professional background in journalism, Segal started his own paper, Philadelphia Gay News, in 1976. That same year, he was elected the first president of the National Gay Press Association. Though he’d initially been reluctant, Segal had been urged to get into the business by influential LGBT publisher Jim Austin. At that time, Austin had already successfully launched the Pittsburgh Gay News and a network of other papers and he wanted Segal to do the same for Philly.

The LGBT press was born out of necessity, the same inspiration that created the Jewish, abolitionist, and feminist presses that came before it. “In 1969 the coverage of Stonewall was minimal. And it was outrageously stereotypical and condescending,” Segal notes.

The New York Daily News ran with the headline, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees are Stinging Mad” and The New York Times only gave the perspective of the cops, declaring: “4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID.”

From the start, Segal’s paper was different from most other LGBT publications. “The paper was founded by someone who was born in that spirit of Gay Liberation Front and my mission was always to be very visible and public,” Segal told Tablet. “The very name, Philadelphia Gay News, said to everybody that we were out proud and for the gay community.” While earlier forms of representation in the gay rights movement focused exclusively on white-collar gay men, Segal wanted his paper’s coverage to reflect the full spectrum of the LGBT community, including trans voices and people of color.

One example is PGN’s 17-year coverage of Nizah Morris, a transgender woman who suffered a fatal head wound while in the custody of Philadelphia police in December 2002. Her homicide, which remains unsolved, is reported on in the paper every year on the anniversary of her tragic death.

In the early days of the HIV crisis, most publications ignored the issue completely. “We made the medical community change its methods and where did people look for information? LGBT media.” He says, “it was a war, but once we got through it, it changed us for the better.”

To Segal’s surprise, his paper grew in prominence. Today, it’s the longest-running LGBT weekly publication as well as the largest in the Northeast, with 25,000 weekly readers.

Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s most LGBT publications struggled to survive because discrimination limited their potential readership. Today, LGBT issues have become so common that there’s less distinction in the coverage between the gay papers and the mainstream ones. Ironically, the prevalence of stories focused on equality is causing many LGBT outlets to lose business.

What has helped Segal’s paper prevail is its emphasis on local news.“You can get national news and information from thousands of sites on the web. We need to do original stories that we own and cannot be found elsewhere.”

For many decades, Segal told Tablet, “only gay businesses would advertise with us. Today the majority of advertisers are non-LGBT companies that want to reach the gay community, like TD Bank, which amazes me to this day. There’s almost no segment of the community that doesn’t advertise to us.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed for PGN, marking the first time a major-party presidential candidate had written for an LGBT newspaper. It wasn’t Segal’s first run-in with presidential politics. In 2014 after Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage, Segal got married and was invited to dance at the White House later that year.

This Sunday, Segal will once again join in New York’s Pride March—this time, as a distinguished grand marshall honoring his years of activism along with other original members of the Gay Liberation Front.

“I have the same passion for activism today as I had that night at Stonewall. That has not changed. What has changed is society.”

Today Segal serves on the board of Comcast and NBC Universal’s Joint Diversity Advisory Council—a point of pride since he was arrested in NBC’s studios four decades earlier.

Thinking of his mom, he says, “I’m 68, I’m an old man. And guess what? I’m happily married. She would be happy for me and your son got everything you would want him to have, which is what I think every Jewish mother would love to hear.”


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Peter Fox is a social commentary writer whose work has appeared in CNN Opinion, Newsweek, The Jerusalem Post, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.