The Stonewall Uprising: 50 Years On
with Mark Segal of Philadelphia Gay News
The Gay Liberation Front was organized following the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969, a direct confrontation to police raids that targeted New York City’s gay community.
Mark Segal, LGBTQ activist, journalist, and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, experienced Stonewall firsthand. Segal discusses America’s journey toward LGBTQ equality and the current state of the movement.
May 29, 2019
Lisnek: It was June 28, 1969. New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn. It was a gay club -- gay club -- in Greenwich Village. The raid sparked a riot with six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. Stonewall was a defining moment n the history of the LGBTQ civil rights and is considered to be a catalyst inspiring the modern gay-liberation freedom movement. Mark Segal was there five decades ago. He became a long-life fighter for equality. He's also the founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. Mark, it's an honor to have you here.
Segal: It's great to be here.
Lisnek: And I read your book, called "And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality." Stonewall, for many, is almost a mythical time. We read about it, but you were there. How much do you remember about that evening?
Segal: A lot, strangely enough. But I want to make sure people realize there are... Memories are sometimes clouded when you get to be 68 years old.
Lisnek: [ Chuckles ]
Segal: But that night seems to be crystal clear, and I can't quite figure out the reason why. Maybe it was the magic of that year. Maybe it was the magic of that night, but made my life.
Lisnek: I want to ask you about it. There were some -- I think they're myths, but you would know because you were there. One of the myths is that the day this happened was also the day of Judy Garland's funeral. Now, in the gay, lesbian, et cetera community, Judy Garland is sort of this, you know, incredible figure. But apparently, it may or may not have been connected to that. What do you think?
Segal: Absolutely is not connected. People my age, 18, who wore ripped shirts and jeans, went to Stonewall. We were dancing to Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, the Beatles. And my memory is Fifth Dimension and, you know, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." She was a different generation. I've been doing some research on it, because I think it trivializes what took place that night and quite honestly, makes me a little angry.
Lisnek: Some people, though, have said, "You know what? If some people want to believe it, let them believe it."
Segal: One of the things I've learned is it's really tough to break a myth, even when you have firsthand knowledge.
Lisnek: There's another myth about that night that said it started because -- it all began with the arrest of a lesbian, and that's what triggered people. True?
Segal: No. What happened was the police came into the bar, as they would normally do, just to raid the bar. It was an illegal bar, and they would come in and harass those people who were stereotypical, whether it be lesbians, gay men, or trans people. And older people who looked like they were established, they would just go up to them and tell them to take out their wallet and they would take their money, then push them around. That was an everyday occurrence in the LGBT community until then.
Lisnek: Young people who are watching us right now might not be able to relate to some of that, so I think I have to have you take us back to the days of Stonewall. What was it like to be a gay man in that environment? Today, people just go, "Can't you just hang around your own bars, do your own thing?"
Segal: Well, I escaped to New York when I was 18 because where I lived, in Philadelphia, I didn't think there were any other gay people because in those days, there were no gay people in what we're doing right now -- TV. No characters, no newspeople. There was no articles in the newspapers, in magazines, nothing on the radio. There was no cable television, there was no Internet, there were no cellphones. If I wanted to find out about gay people, I have to go to the public library, and there I would find an academic book that made us sound like a science project. So I, of course, like other people, discovered there's all these crazy people, like beatniks and counterculture people, in a place called Greenwich Village in New York, so at 18, I moved to New York to find my people.
Lisnek: Did you have, growing up -- You know, now there's books like -- well, let's say it's an older book now -- "Loving Someone Gay" by Donald Clark and these books that a lot of kids gave to their parents and said, "Here, read this." What kind of support did you get from your family?
Segal: After I came out -- I'm one of the lucky ones that had great support from their parents. I think I'm doing what I'm doing today because of my parents and my grandmother. They told me to fight for what I believed in.
Lisnek: What was it about the night of Stonewall? I mean, it could have just been one more raid, one more bar. It wasn't like that's the first time that ever happened. These were common. What happened on that night that made it become a symbol for all time to come?
Segal: I think each of us are asking that. Each of us who were there are asking that question. The interesting aspect of that night is that, as you said, it wasn't one night. Many of us had been meeting before Stonewall in little groups, trying to figure out, "What are we gonna do?" We didn't fit in with the people before us, who, you know, wanted equality for homosexuals. We didn't even think the word "homosexuals" described us at all. That night, I think many of us who were around the Stonewall decided, "Okay, it's the right time." And it was spontaneous in the sense that the police made a mistake by letting us out one by one. And as we came out, rather than disperse, we gathered around the front door. And as a group, somehow, we felt empowered. I think it was the times. It was the counterculture 1960s. Women were fighting for their rights, black people were fighting for their rights, Latinos were fighting for their rights. And I think all of us, collectively and individually to ourselves, said, "Why not us? Let's stop being pushed around."
Lisnek: So, here you were in New York City. If we were to pick a place where people could kind of be who they are, maybe New York City would be one of those places. Back in those days, what kind of support, if any, was there, at Stonewall time, from the mayor, from the chief of police? Or were you guys on your own?
Segal: We were on our own. There was zero. No politician in the United States of America would come out for gay rights -- zero. No police department would come out for the gay community. If anything, we were illegal in most states in the United States. We're still illegal in some of them, even though we have marriage equality. So, in those days, Stonewall -- most people think of Stonewall as the night. Some people think of it as six nights. Other people say it's four nights. I can tell you about the riot, what I was doing on that night, which is writing up and down the streets, on walls, on Christopher Street, "Tomorrow night -- Stonewall." That's organizing. That was organized by Marty Robinson. I could tell you, the second night, Martha Shelley was talking from those steps, in front of the Stonewall. That was the second night. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh, we were organizing Gay Liberation Front. That is the magic of that period. You cannot say "Stonewall" without saying "Gay Liberation Front." We're the ones who were organizing from that night forward. We're the ones who, after Stonewall, decided that we needed to accept our own identity. We're the ones that had to create a community. There was no LGBT community before GLF.
Lisnek: It also sounds like there was no plan. I mean, it was because of that first-night raid this activism began. You didn't go into the bar that night to start planning.
Segal: No, I stood outside after I was carded and looked at everything that was going on and just said to myself, "You know, I'm gay. This is what I'm gonna do the rest of my life. I'm gonna fight for our rights. Why do I have to be ashamed of being gay? I should be able to shout it out loud." And that's one of the things that made our slogan -- "Out, loud, and proud."
Lisnek: 50 years later, how do you feel?
Segal: Conflicted. I'm proud of everything we did, and I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that it's history. I don't know if I could accept that yet. I don't know why. It's just...very strange.
Lisnek: Maybe on the 60th, we'll revisit.
Segal: [ Laughs ]
Lisnek: Come back and talk to me. Mark Segal from the Philadelphia Gay News, thanks for sharing your personal story. It's incredible.
Segal: My pleasure.
Lisnek: Thank you, too, for joining us. For more conversations with leaders in your community and across our country, just go to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.