Inside Story: Activist Mark Segal speaks on being gay in Philadelphia

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Tamala Edwards speaks with LGBT activist and journalist Mark Segal. (WPVI)

Segal: All the titles I have in my life, right now the one that you could call me which makes me the happiest is gay activist.
If it happened in the gay rights movement, Mark Segal was probably there. He stopped by Inside Story to speak about his new memoir. The book is called And Then I Danced.

Tamala: I was joking with you that you were the Forrest Gump of the gay movement; if it happened, you were there.

That's where my first question comes from. You grew up in Philadelphia in a time when you're ashamed to be poor, you're ashamed to be Jewish in a non-Jewish neighborhood, and it is not an easy place to be gay. You see a family member beaten and run out of the family for being gay, and yet, at an early age, you decided to live life out. Many people would've said, 'I'm finding a closet and going to the back of it.' Why did you decide to do that?

Mark: I had this incredible grandmother, Fannie Weinstein, who at age 13 took me to my first civil rights march. She was suffragette. She taught me how the family fought to get out of Europe. She talked about our family who struggled through the Holocaust. She was a fighter and she instilled that fight in me. But the book isn't all about that kind of sadness, it's full of stories - inside stories of Philadelphia and Patti LaBelle, Elton John, and practically every politician we've known for the last 20 years, including Barack Obama.

Tamala: You know them all.

Mark: I've met them all. I'm the Forrest Gump, as you said.

Tamala: From the very beginning, you become famous. There's a number of gay organizations out there, you're part of one called Gay Raiders and you said, 'if we make a spectacle, they can't ignore us.' So you start showing up at places like the Mike Douglas Show here at WPVI, you interrupt Walter Cronkite as he's doing the evening news, but in the end, any number of these people that you stop, Walter Cronkite, Governor Shapp, Bob Brady, John Street, people who often disagree with you to begin with, you change how they feel about the issues and they become your friends. That's sort of surprising, they don't become your enemies - 'this guy interrupted what I was doing' - they become your friends. What lesson is that in our divided politics for the rest of us?

Mark: Learn to talk to people. Learn to befriend them. If you have differences, talk to them. I've always believed the issue of LGBT rights is one of education, one of invisibility. We did the 'zaps' starting in 1973 because LGBT people weren't on TV, there were only three networks and PBS. At that time, there were no LGBT stories on TV, we never appeared on the news, and our reason for disrupting the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was he had never run a story on gay rights. The point was end invisibility. If you end invisibility, people will see who we are and they'll begin to really support us and that's what we've done here in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the most LGBT friendly city in America.

Tamala: Speaking of Philadelphia, you have some showdowns with various people - Councilman Fran Rafferty, even people at your mother's funeral, at various times people come up and they're incredibly nasty and you don't give it back. You just walk away. I thought that was interesting. You engage, engage, engage, but not with that.

Mark: No. You have to move on. Don't let the negative or bitterness be a part of your life. There's joy out there. Try to accept it, try to have it. The book, And Then I Danced, is full of joy, at least I believe it is because every battle that I ever had had was somebody I at least got them over to the point where they appreciate the issue and luckily for me, we've become friends.

Tamala: Somebody might look at the book, and most of those battles, Mark, you win and they would say gay marriage is now the law of the land. If somebody said to you, 'if you compare where you started and you look at where you are now, is everything just peachy if you're gay in America?' What would you tell people as they sat down to read your book?

Mark: Well, as you mentioned, marriage equality is the law of the land. But most people don't realize in Pennsylvania, it became law of the state one year before the Supreme Court ruled. The inside story of how that happened has never been told before and it's in the book.

But I'm lucky, standing outside Stonewall in 1969, watching that riot go on, I was a poor guy who had went to New York, no money in my pocket, and with no prospects, I thought I had no future, and watching that unfold in front of me, all of a sudden, I realized even though there wasn't a word for it, I was going to be a gay activist. All the titles I have in my life, right now the one that you could call me which makes me the happiest is gay activist.

Tamala: What would you say is the next big fight for gay America?

Mark: Today you can get married anywhere in the United States, but in most of the United States, you can be fired for getting married. So nondiscrimination is the next battle. Here in Pennsylvania, we have no nondiscrimination law.

Tamala: Finally, it sounds like of all the things you're proud of, and there are so many things you are proud of in the book, the senior center in Philadelphia seems to me the one that means the most to you and goes full circle back to your cousin Norman.

Mark: Cousin Norman was thrown out of his house. Last time I saw him, he was a gay senior who was homeless. My feeling is that is the first out generation. Unfortunately, we in the gay community are not taking care of our seniors so that put me on the plight to try and open an LGBT friendly senior home, affordable home, where LGBT seniors who were out way back in the 1960s and 1950s can afford to live with dignity.

Tamala: Mark Segal, the book is called And Then I Danced. Thank you for coming to talk about it.

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societyphilly newsgay rights
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