The LGBTQ fight for equal rights became organized in 1969, after the riots at New York City's Stonewall Inn. LGBTQ civil rights activist and author Mark Segal has been involved in the movement from its beginning. Mark joins Robert Traynham for a candid and intimate discussion about his life, his role in the fight for equality, and the state of LGBTQ rights across America and around the globe. Mark is the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News
. Interview recorded on May 17, 2017.
Traynham: The fight for gay rights has been hard-fought for decades. Close to 50 years ago, that fight became organized after the riots at Stonewall Inn in New York City. Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Robert Traynham. Joining me is LGBTQ civil-rights activist Mark Segal. He´s also the founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. Mark was at Stonewall, as well as many other key events, and he joins me now to share his perspective on the state of equality and the evolution of the LGBT community. Mark, it is an honor to have you on the program, and it´s good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
Segal: Robert, great to see you again.
Traynham: You are a living legend. Let me just be completely honest and transparent about it.
Segal: I´m just old.
Traynham: You´re not old. You are a living legend. As I mentioned a few moments ago, you have been at the forefront of so many trials and tribulations -- peaks and valleys -- within the community. So, one, thank you for being you, thank you for standing up for people like you and I. And just as importantly, I want to chat with you about where we are today, in 2017. Do you feel as though we´ve made some significant progress over the last 50 years?
Segal: I think each of us have our own perspective on that. I think I´m lucky enough to have been someone who joined this movement when there weren´t more than 100 out gay people in America. Think -- before Stonewall, the largest demonstrations were in Philadelphia every July 4th, and no more than 100 people showed up at those demonstrations. After Stonewall, which was held just two weeks after that last 1969 demonstration in Philadelphia, a couple hundred gay people rioted. I was lucky enough to have been a witness to that -- or participant. And one year later, we held what we called the first Gay Pride march. At that first Gay Pride march, we had somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people. Now, taking a movement, in one year, from 100 to 5,000 to 15,000 is amazing. But then take a look at where we´ve come in just 50 years. We have gays in the military. We have marriage equality. We have 30 states that now have nondiscrimination. We´ve moved, and we´ve moved incredibly well as a community.
Traynham: So, you can say that the needle has been moved in the positive direction. I want to go back to the 1970s and early ´80s. I think this is important. You mentioned how there were a lot of people that were in the closet, I assume, out of fear. I assume they came out of the closet because of people like you that had the courage to stand up. Was it conviction? Was it courage? Was it a combination of both? Why did you do what you did back in the ´70s?
Segal: For me, I give credit to my parents and my grandmother. My grandmother, who was an immigrant -- because of the pogroms in Russia, came to the United States -- she joined the -- she was a suffragette -- joined the women´s rights struggle. She took me on my first civil-rights demonstration when I was 13 years old. Standing outside the Stonewall that night in June of 1969, my mind easily said to me -- I watched as women were having their rights, I watched as African-Americans were having their rights, I watched as Latinos were having their rights -- and something clicked in me that night and said, "Why not us?" And so in an instant, I guess, standing there, I said, "This is what I´m going to do with my life." So, it´s been a conviction of me, but that conviction comes from my family.
Traynham: And it sounds like the two women in your life -- your grandmother and your mother -- clearly had -- They saw something in you to say to stand up and fight and don´t be afraid or ashamed to be who you are.
Segal: Well, we were the only Jewish family in a Philadelphia housing project. And when I would be bullied because I was Jewish, my mother would go down to school, argue with the principal. And the day that we were told to stand up and sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers," and for some odd reason, I didn´t want to do so, I sat down. I guess that was my first point of disruption, and that was the second grade. My mother had to go to school and debate with the principal why me, a Jew, would not stand up and sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
Traynham: I want to go around the world and talk about some other countries that are not as progressive as the United States. You mentioned the rights of African-Americans, the rights of women, the rights of Latinos in this country, and the rise of the civil-rights movement, if you will. But again, in 2017, there are still some countries that are probably not in 2017. They´re probably more 1917 or 1927. How do we kind of move the needle, if you will, on the world stage?
Segal: Depends on where you go on the world stage -- Africa, Middle East, Europe, Eastern Europe. Or, luckily for me, I just got back from Cuba, and so I got a chance to see what the fledgling LGBT community in Cuba was like, and that was an eye-opener for me. I was there for their 10th annual Global Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. And they literally had a march which, to me, looked like a Gay Pride march. Approximately 1,000 LGBT Cubans came out to march, and I found that amazing to march with them. So, they were marching, and in between Socialist slogans, you would hear them put up their fist and say, "Down with homophobia! Down with transphobia!" And that sort of, like, brought me back to that first Gay Pride in 1970 in New York. And I remember walking -- As we were walking up 17th Street, I climbed up a pole to see how big our crowd was behind us, and they were still coming out of Christopher Street.
Traynham: You know, that reminds me of something, Mark. A couple of -- About two years ago, I was on a segregation march -- pilgrimage with Congressman John Lewis -- as you may know, is a civil-rights icon.
Segal: One of my heroes.
Traynham: My hero, too. And I remember he just grabbed my elbow and he said, "The struggle continues. We´ve made progress, Robert" -- meaning from an African-American perspective -- "but the struggle continues." And in that moment, I understood what he meant. As far as we´ve come -- from an African-American perspective -- there´s still a lot more to do. And I get the sense, in the LGBT community, that is very much in play, no?
Segal: Absolutely. And you bring up a great -- a great man. When he said to you, "I still have more to do," or, "We still have more to do," last year, he went and held a sit-in in the halls of Congress. That should be an inspiration to everybody.
Segal: What an incredible hero.
Traynham: And that sit-in was several hours long.
Segal: He did it all night long.
Segal: The man was incredible. The struggle goes on. We will continue. But what I want to say to everybody -- everybody must know, especially young people -- I was standing outside Stonewall at 18 years old, not a dime in my pocket, living in the YMCA, literally no job, not knowing what my future was. I danced at the White House. I got to meet the president. So, what do I bring with all that? I can truly say to you, life gets better. It will get better. Hang in there. There´s a community out there that loves you and wants to embrace you.
Traynham: That was the last question that I was going to ask you, Mark. For the folks that are watching this program now -- whether they are an ally, perhaps maybe they´re part of the LGBT community -- let´s say, hypothetically, they´re in Alabama or perhaps Mississippi or perhaps some other rural place, and they feel like "A," there´s no one in the world that can understand what they´re going through, they feel like no one can understand what it feels like to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender -- what are your final words to them?
Segal: Reach out to your own community. There are gay organizations everyplace in America -- Alabama, Mississippi. They might be small, but they´re there. There are church organizations -- Metropolitan Community Church, which is a gay Christian denomination which is all over this country. There is Dignity, a gay Catholic organization. And you will find religious organizations of every stripe in the gay community. You will find community centers. You will find gay health centers. You will find legal clinics. Reach out. Get on the Web. Find the gay organization in your area. Speak to the people there. They love you. They will embrace you. They will work with you. You have a future. You not only have a future for yourself, you have a future that can help your community grow.
Traynham: Mark Segal, I have one other final request of you, please?
Traynham: Continue to keep up the good work, please.
Segal: Thanks, Robert.
Traynham: Really appreciate it. And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewmakers.com. I´m Robert Traynham.