“I Would Say I’m A Cradle-to-Grave Gay Activist.”

by mark segal

“What Was It Like? Stories by LGBTQ Elders” is a new program by I’m From Driftwood, in partnership with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, and SAGE, the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ older adults. Learn more about the program here.

Mark Segal’s 7 Video Stories and transcripts can be seen below.

1956: “SOME PEOPLE CALL THEM QUEER.”

The first time that I recall ever knowing about gay people – homosexuals, “those kind of people,” queers, was when I was about 6 years old. My parents had taken me to to visit other relatives. And we were driving home. And I was asleep in the back – or they thought I was asleep in the back seat because it was late at night. And they were talking about my Uncle Bill and Aunt Minnie. And Uncle Bill had just thrown my cousin, Norman, who was 17 at the time, 16 or 17, out of the house. But before he threw him out of the house, he beat him to a pulp. And my parents were talking about this. And I remember my mother asked my father, “Why did it Bill do that?”

And my father said, “He’s a fagala.”

And in Jewish, that’s not such a nice word for being gay. And my mother said, “What do you mean a fagala?”

And my father said you know one of those kind of people. And he went on a little further and start talking about how some people call them “queer.” And I remember very clearly my father saying some people call them queer.

And my mother finally got it. And she said, “But why did he have to throw them out? What’s wrong with that?”

That conversation stayed with me forever and I always wondered whatever happened to Norman. Because I really don’t remember Norman from that time period my life. It was 1950s, probably about 1956.

I grew up, got involved in the gay rights movement. And many years later I was about ready to be inducted as president of the National Gay and Lesbian Press Association in Los Angeles. And I discovered through a fluke that Norman was living in Long Beach. So the day I was being sworn in as President of the Gay Press Association, I had lunch just before at the Sheraton Universal Studio Hotel with cousin Norman, who came and told me his life story, which started with my Uncle Bill beating him up, him being homeless, him living… taking drugs and getting drunk, fights and constantly being beat up. So I, after this lunch where I was in tears, he was in tears, I invited him to come into the auditorium and to watch his cousin be inducted as President of the Gay Press Association. I still get emotional when I think about it.

He watched. And he stood up and cried. And I asked the people who were present, I said, “I’ve had a very emotional day today and being sworn in isn’t the emotional part. Today, for the first time, I met my cousin Norman.”

And I told them the story of my cousin Norman. And I asked, I summed it by saying, “Cousin Normal is a survivor. He’s still here today. Cousin, would you please stand up.”

And Norman stood up and for the first time in his life he was applauded for being gay. So, I lost touch with him after that, I must say, and I can’t find him today. I assume he was already at least 10 years older than I was. And he had a very hard life, so I suspect he’s not with us anymore.

The impact Norman had on me, I think, is the same impact that it has on every gay man, lesbian woman, or trans person. We knew we were different and we understood society didn’t like us. And it said to me, while my parents might have understood, they didn’t completely get it and they weren’t going to tell Uncle Bill he can’t do what he did. They might not like it, but they’ll keep quiet about it because that was society norms. So as a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old child, I heard that gay people couldn’t be talked about. It wouldn’t be proper for me to talk about it.

“WITHOUT GENERAL VON STEUBEN, A GAY MAN, THERE WOULD BE NO UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

One evening, I was sitting on the couch, just relaxing, watching TV. It was a typical talk show where they try to debate the issues. And that night, they had a conservative on, right-wing Republican, and they were talking about the founding fathers in the gay rights struggle. And they said, “The founding fathers didn’t found this country for those kind of people.”

To me that was a challenge. Sitting there, I decided to take on the challenge. And luckily for us, Philadelphia Gay News had been coordinating a gay history project for many, many years, and thereby every October we publish articles in coordination with 29 other local LGBT publications throughout the nation. And so I decided that this year we would dedicate the project to LGBT people who helped found this nation.

And in my research I discovered Baron von Steuben, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who’d been a Prussian Officer and who became very important to our revolution. At one point, we had an ambassador in France. His name was Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was in France as our ambassador during the war to do two things: A. to get money from the French Court for our country, which couldn’t afford to fight a war, and B. to get some talent for military. Because we had this guy by the name of George Washington running our military, who literally wasn’t seasoned. And that’s why they called it a rag tag army that was losing up to that point.

So Franklin interviewed von Steuben because he had had success in the various German states. But for some odd reason, von Steuben was thrown out of all those very states where he had the military victories and was now living in Paris. So, for some odd reason, Franklin didn’t quite like von Steuben. And then all of a sudden one of Franklin’s aides came up to him and said, “That guy you liked except you didn’t really like for some odd reason? He’s about ready to be arrested, so if you really want him, you gotta get him and get him out of the country.”

So Ben Franklin decided to take von Steuben knowing what he knew and literally smuggle him out of France before he was arrested. So therefore, that makes Benjamin Franklin the father of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

So von Steuben comes to the United States with a letter from Ben Franklin, goes to Valley Forge, where in no time short he’s literally writing the manual for how an army should march, how it should be drilled, how there should be sanitation on the fort, how they can fire their muskets. Everything you could possibly imagine. He works his way all the way up to being the chief of staff to General George Washington. People are giving credit in the Continental Congress to von Steuben for our army finally beginning to win. He remained in that position and the last letter that George Washington writes to the Continental Congress is a letter saying that of all the men that have served with me, General von Steuben is one of the most important, that he should be given retirement benefits. Von Steuben is a war hero of the revolution and quite simply, without General von Steuben, a gay man, there would be no United States of America.

The story of von Steuben has been whispered about and written about lightly before we took it on. But what we did was deep research and we found some things have never been unearthed before, including the writings of John Adams, who worried about his son, who had left his wife and was living with von Steuben.

So when we first published it, some people on the fringes of historians tried to discount it. But then the German American Society now has agreed with us and also the current biographer of von Steuben agree that our facts are correct. His book is called The Drill Master of Valley Forge. And we’ve offered a $10,000 reward for anybody willing to debate the issue with us, and they’ll put up $10,000, we’ll put up $10,000 and whoever loses the debate, the other person gets to decide where their $10,000 is going to which nonprofit. No one has taken up the challenge yet.

“WE CREATED A MOVEMENT. THAT’S THE LEGACY OF THE GAY LIBERATION FRONT.”

Just before I was supposed to graduate from high school, I left. Went to New York, that was in May of 1969. Great time to be in New York. So if you’re 18 like I was at that time and you moved to New York and you weren’t quite sure where gay people were, and I didn’t, I just knew they were in that city – you automatically assume there’s this wild please called The Village. And in Greenwich Village, you’d find them. Of course, you did. And the place you find them primarily was around Christopher Street.

So if you are poor like I was and living at the YMCA as I was with no money, your typical night every single night was to go to Christopher Street and walk up and down that street and that’s where you met your friends. As usual I was just walking up and down. I popped into the Stonewall.

So as I was standing there talking with my friends at Stonewall, all of a sudden the lights blinked. And they blinked a second time. And I thought something was wrong, and I looked at my friend and said, “What’s going on?”

And the friend just said, “Oh. Just another raid.”

Now they might have been casual, but I’d never been in a raid in my life before. I was scared! They came in, they harassed the more stereotypical people – the queens. They would push them around. I mean, I actually witnessed some older guy taking money out of this wallet and handing it to the police.

In order to get out of the bar, they were carding each and every individual. That was their excuse to do what they were doing. And they carded me and found out that I was above 18, which was the legal drinking age. And I looked like the kid next door. They had no use for me. I had no money they could extort. I didn’t look stereotypical. I’m sure someone said, “Get out of here, faggot.” I was so scared, I don’t remember the exact words. All I remember is showing ID and them telling me to go.

So I went out and stood across the street. I had met a guy named Marty Robinson a couple weeks earlier who wanted to do something for a new generation of gay people. And he created something called The Action Group. There are only two of us left that are still alive from The Action Group. Mike Lafferty, who went on to be one of the founders of Lambda Legal, and myself. We’re the only two surviving members at this point.

Marty came up to me that night as I’m standing outside Stonewall and he says, “What’s going on?”

Looking very nonchalant like I was like everybody else. “Oh, just being raided.”

He disappeared and later on as people start getting out of Stonewall, they created a semi circle around the door. And somebody started throwing stones. I don’t remember rocks being thrown and being as dramatic a lot of people or as that horrible movie makes it seem. But it was a riot.

And all of a sudden, out of nowhere comes Marty back with chalk. And he says, “Write on the buildings and on the street, up and down Christopher Street, “Tomorrow night Stonewall.”

That’s very important because that became the birth of Gay Liberation Front, probably the most important LGBT organization to have ever existed to this day in the LGBT community. Up until that point in 1969, there were no more than 100 gay activists out in the entire United States of America. GLF comes comes along and we decide we’re going to create a gay community. Every single night we were leafleting up and down Christopher Street and other areas of the Village. We had regular meetings and they were open and public, not secret. So to embolden all of that, we created the first gay youth organization that existed, we created the first trans organization that ever existed. Medical alerts. Legal alerts. A legal committee. We demonstrated. And if all of that were not enough, along with Craig Robwell, we created the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, which became the first Gay Pride Day.

And on that first gay pride day, approximately 5,000 people marched from the Village to Central Park. In one year, we created a movement from 100 people to 5,000. That’s the legacy of Gay Liberation Front. We defined ourselves, we created a movement, and we created a community.

I’m lucky that I came from a family that understood what civil rights was. My grandmother took me to my first civil rights march when I was 13 years old. So I knew what the fight for social justice was about and something deep inside of me said, “You know what? Why not us?”

So I was along for the ride, and I wanted to be one of those drivers in that bus.

1972: ACTIVISTS HIJACK LIVE SHOW, DEMAND GAY LIBERATION

Philadelphia was known for – is known for American Bandstand. It’s the birthplace of American Bandstand and all those teenage dancing shows in the afternoon. Well, the progression of that in Philadelphia was in the summertime they had “Summertime on Steel Pier in Atlantic City” where they would do a broadcast of people dancing, teenangers dancing to whatever the current Rock ‘n Roll music was. So Sadge Pal and I decided to go to Atlantic City and we were gonna dance on the show. Gay people had a right to dance just like anybody else.

So we were on Steel Pier. And Ed Hearst was the announcer for the show, and he saw us dancing and he said, “Get those faggots off the floor!”

So to protest that, we decided to disrupt that station’s newscast.

It was 1972. We were standing outside the television station. I could remember my heart beating a little fast and being a little nervous. I’d never done anything like this before. And we noticed that there was a guard outside and we needed to create some type diversion to get him out of the way. We knew we were going because we looked station blueprints. And all we had to do was get the guard out of the way and we felt we would be able to do what we needed to do. So we had a guy pretend there was a fire, screamed, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” a few feet away from the door. As the guard went out that side, we went in this side.

And we got in. We found our way to right outside the doors of studio and waited. Our timing was so the newscasts would go on and we would be able to burst into the studio. So we heard the action news “da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da” and the announcer said, “And tonight’s big story!”

We opened the door, stormed onto the set, live on camera. So everybody at that time in Philadelphia was watching because they were the number one news station. I have no memory of what we said. Probably something like, “Gay people protest your bigotry!” I’m sure it was something of that sort. We made sure we got gay in there as much as we possibly could. That was the key idea was to to make sure the audience knew we were gay. That was the only thing that counted. We knew that there would be at least 600,000 people if not more watching this and we wanted them for the first time to hear the words “gay.”

We would not leave the station. I’m sure they were willing to let us go but we wouldn’t. We kept screaming. They had us arrested, which was our goal. And the police came and booked us and let us out.

I must admit that I am still to this day shocked by the reaction. The following morning, it was the front page of all three of the city’s newspapers.When I say the front page, it was huge pictures, huge headlines. Philadelphia Daily News but it on their entire cover. It was the biggest news story, local news story to happen. And that really showed me that the theory would work.That we would get to Americans because from that morning on, the phone would not stop ringing. Who is calling? All the radio talk shows.

Philadelphia was washed in the gay liberation.

I think it follows a pattern of my life, where I knew that there was nothing wrong with who I was. It got to the point where I realized that the media – the camera – is where it’s at, you gotta do it live and you will get to the people. And we noticed that from the first one, and we realized it immediately, the reaction was so outrageous. So we thought, why not do this on a national scale? And that’s how the campaign against networks began.

“[YOUR ACTIVISM] IS RUINING IT FOR THE REST OF US.”

We knew the way to do what we wanted to do, which was to get our LGBT people before the mainstream of America. So we wanted to go national and we couldn’t figure out a way to do that because we were stuck in Philadelphia. So the one show that was being taped in Philadelphia for a national audience was The Mike Douglas Show. And so we decided to disrupt The Mike Douglas Show. But we knew that it wasn’t live like the action news was, so it was taped, so we had then a different set of priorities, what our demands would be.

So during their taping, I, at this point, was sitting in the audience and I quickly left the audience while Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American theatre, and Tony Bennett were having their foot read by professional foot reader, and went down to the camera and handcuffed myself to the camera and started yelling, “Gay rights! Gay rights! Gay rights!”

Well, very quickly the producer came running over to camera and said, “What do I have to do to keep you quiet?”

And I said, “You have to agree to have someone come on the show and broadcast them talking about the gay rights struggle.”

And he says, “Anybody but you!”

That person became Reverend Troy Perry of Metropolitan Community Church.

My objective was to get people to start talking about gay people. So that was really working well in the mainstream – wasn’t working so well in our community. I would say that 90 percent of our community hated what I was doing. As I talk to people my age now and people who’d been activists at that time, we all heard the same exact line and we tell it to each other right now and we all smile. The line is very simple: “You’re ruining it for us. You’re ruining it for us.”

That’s what they all told us. And they hated us. I’m just really beginning to appreciate that or realize that and accept the pain that caused. We felt that we were right. Somehow, deep inside us, we knew we were right. My parents used to always tell me, “Go with your gut instinct.” In this case, they were very right.

“I’M PROBABLY ONE OF THE LUCKIEST GAY ACTIVISTS IN THE WORLD TO HAVE HAD [MY PARENTS].”

About 1970, to further gay youth, I created the gay youth organization inside Gay Liberation Front, which is how it became the first gay youth organization in America. And about 1971 or late 1970, I was counseling people about how to come out to their parents, but yet I hadn’t come out to my parents. So being the brave soul I am, I picked up the telephone, called my parents, and my father answered and I said, “Dad, I wanted to tell you something.”

And he says “What?”

And I said, “Well, I’m gay.”

And my father says, “Yeah, I always thought so. Here, talk you mother.”

That was the end of that. And so now it was my time to talk to my mother.

And I said, “Mom, I need to tell you something.”

And she said, “What?”

And I said, “I’m gay.”

Her reaction was probably the same thing that every mother in America would say. “I’m worried for you. I love you. I’m worried for you. I’m particularly worried for you when you get old.”

Mom, I’m 66 years old.

And then about a year later, 1971, my father called and said, “Mom’s sick. Would you come home and help out?”

And he knew at this point that I was part of the gay liberation movement. That’s when we call every single week, that’s what we’d talk about.

“What are you doing?”

And I said, “I’ve been arrested this week or I’m, you know, leafleting or demonstrating” every single week because that’s what GLF did.

My mother would ask, “Are you eating?” Typical mother things.

So when my father asked me to come home, he added the line, “You can do what you’re doing in New York and Philadelphia.”

Of course that meant I would be living at home while doing my activities. So I would be at home, I would go out and get arrested, and there’d be a front page article and then I would go home.

So what amazes me after my – I started to think about how my parents reacted to all of this when my mother died, because I had an uncle who wasn’t a very nice uncle. And in the newspaper obituary for my mother, the reporters spoke to me of course. And by this point I’d known, this is 1978. So I’ve been doing I’ve been doing this for 6 years in Philadelphia. I was, in a sense, a media darling because I was the only out gay person being interviewed constantly. So when my mother died, the people at the Philadelphia Daily News wanted to do something very nice as a present for me. So, of course, they called me up and very sensitively asked me about my mother and parts of her life. And they said, “Well, how do you think she felt living with you?”

And I said, “Well she supported me. She went on the Phil Donahue Show with me, you know, to show what a gay family was, to show what a supportive gay family was.”

And so my uncle at the funeral comes up to me and says, “Is that true what it says in the paper? Your mother was a gay activist?”

And I said, “Yes, it is.”

And he said, “Well, maybe it’s good she’s gone.”

It was the first time that I realized that some of my family were probably screaming at my mother and father and they never told me about it. They had shielded me from that. That’s incredible.

After mother died, my father would often come up to me when he read something in the newspaper and hug me and say, “You’re doing a good job. I’m proud of you. I love you.”

I’m probably one of the luckiest gay activists in the world to have had that. It makes me who I am today. You want to ask what makes me who I am today? My grandmother, my mother, my father, and Gay Liberation Front. That’s what made me who I am.

AFTER FOUNDING LGBT-FRIENDLY SENIOR HOUSING IN PHILADELPHIA, “I’M A CRADLE-TO-GRAVE ACTIVIST.”

In every part of our community since 1969, when Gay Liberation Front started, we have been creating a community. And by creating a community, that means that you have to work to solve the problems of most in danger in your community. In GLF we did so for youth, we did so for trans people. Well, while I was there for youth and gay youth in GLF, I’m now a senior. And a lot people that I worked with in Gay Liberation Front, my brothers and sisters were older than me, because obviously I was gay youth. In those days, they were late twenties, early thirties, and some in their forties. Well, they’re all seniors.

Now, one of my best friends at Gay Liberation Front was Jerry Hoos. Jerry was living on a 5-story walk-up on Christopher Street. And it was an old building and when it rained – he was on the top floor – it rained in his apartment. He also had terminal cancer. This was a difficult life for him and he couldn’t afford anything else. That was it. And I discovered that that was true for many members of Gay Liberation Front. They were living outside of the community they had started, and some of them were not in great shape. And they were living in affordable housing that didn’t treat them fairly. These were the pioneers of our community and we’re doing nothing for them?

So in 1998, I started to look into that problem. And I got a grant from the government to see what the problems were. And I discovered for seniors in our community, the problem with housing. That’s when the first idea of John C. Anderson building started. I still remember the outcry in the community against it, which was people who, gay people who lived in the area or had business near it, some of them will come out and say the following line, which is embedded in my brain: “Well, if you have affordable housing in this neighborhood, you’re gonna have 3 things: the first thing you’re going to have, of course, are prostitutes. You’re then gonna have drug addicts.”

To which my response was, “Well, if you have affordable housing, there are certain laws and you can have people with drugs they would be thrown out. And really, 62-year-old prostitutes?”

And the third thing they said, “There will be drag queens.”

To which I answered, “Yes, we will. Bring them all. We want them.”

If you’re a drag queen, if you’re 62 years old or older and you’re a drag queen way back when when you were your young age, you were the lowest of the low in the gay community. And you couldn’t get a 401K, you couldn’t keep a decent job. You probably need affordable housing. Yeah, we want to house them.

So those were some of the problems. And I was lucky that in 2008, a man by the name of Barack Obama became president. I’m also lucky that a man by the name of Arlen Specter, who was the US senator from Pennsylvania, invited me to be one of the official hosts for President Barack Obama on his his first visit to Philadelphia. If you are a person who is the official host of the President when he comes your city, and there are about 12 people in each city when this happens, you get to spend some private time with the president to talk about what your interests are.

And when I met him, he says, “Well aren’t you glad for the stuff we’re doing from the lesbian and gay community?”

And I said, “Well, you’re doing some good words, but what about spending?”

And he looked at me, he said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “Well, you’re spending federal dollars for this group, you spending federal dollars for that group. Would about the lesbian and gay community? We have a problem – LGBT seniors. They’re being mistreated in their homes all over the country. We’re trying to build one here in Philadelphia. What can you do to help us?”

And he said, “Well, send me the plans. If they seem like they’re possible, we’ll see what we can do to help you.”

I said, “Yeah. You’re going to look at the plans. You don’t have time in the day.”

And he looked over and said, “Reggie” – this was to Reggie Love his bag man – “Give him your card.”

And I had Reggie Love’s email, and he and I started emailing. And the plans, which are sitting right over there, were emailed to the President of the United States. And I got a call about a week later and started working with people in the White House and HUD and the Vice President’s office.

And four years, later we were at a groundbreaking. And the John C. Anderson LGBT Friendly Senior Apartments were opened to great fanfare and they’re running to this day. And the need for it? How important is it? We have a 300-person waiting list. And there are only four of five of these buildings in this country right now.

So what takes it to get that kind of thing? Everybody that spoke at the opening kept saying what a pain in the ass I was. I’m so proud to be a pain in the ass. No one on our board got money. None of us were paid. None of us got a consulting fee or anything else. We did it, just like in the old days, because we believed in it.

So I guess what I would say from my own memory, which I like to say I guess, founding gay youth, founding this, I’m a cradle-to-grave gay activist.

Mark Segal

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