Mark Segal Interview

Dublin Core

Title

Mark Segal Interview

Subject

First hand account of the night of the Stonewall rebellion and the genesis of the Gay Liberation Front.

Description

Mark Segal, journalist and the founder of Philadelphia Gay News discusses the night of the Stonewall riot and the creation of the Gay Liberation Front as it relates to the broader gay rights movement.

Creator

Christopher Gioia

Source

NA

Publisher

Christopher Gioia

Date

February 2017

Contributor

Mark Segal

Rights

This recording and transcript is provided for education and research purposes and should not be altered in any way. All Rights reserved, Christopher Gioia (interviewer) with permission from subject.

Relation

NA

Format

MP3 Digital Recording

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Identifier

[no text]

Coverage

NA

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Christopher Gioia

Interviewee

Mark Segal

Location

Via telephone: New York and Philadelphia

Transcription

Mark Segal Interview

CG: So, I’m talking with Mark Segal today and to begin with, Mark well, just to let you know, I have about five questions so you can spend as little or as much as you like on each of them, but to begin, if you can just tell me a little bit about yourself… your background.

MS: Background-- let’s see, I was brought up in Philadelphia-- at 18 moved to New York. That was May 10th 1969. When in New York I happened to meet Marty Robinson who was a member or was involved in some way shape or form in Mattachine. But his feeling was that the organization was too slow and too old, using old techniques and we had to become more radicalized in some sections. So therefore he felt that for gay liberation to uh fight and get more people empowered he created a group called the gay action group or the action group. Um I became a member of that along with Jim Owles um and Michael, who’s name I can’t remember right now who still… Michael Laverty.

CG: Right.

MS: Who later went on to find be one of the founders of Lambda legal. Um and we as the action group did one laughter we-- according to Michael and I don’t have a memory of this we had one or two meetings which accomplished nothing ah but were known for one very small action which was the night of Stonewall Marty somehow showed up with chalk later during the evening uh and had us writing on the walls and along the streets “tomorrow night Stonewall” which resulted of course in the following three nights of protest and speeches outside of stonewall which brought the birth of Gay Liberation Front.

CG: Wow, great. So when you created the gay action group that was earlier in 1969?

MS: Not me. That was Marty! I was just a member I didn’t…

CG: No I’m saying…

MS: know what I was doing. I was 18 years old um…

CG: but that was 1969 though right? That he began that…

MS: Correct.

CG: Ok interesting yeah. So um so you kind of dove right in but if you can step back a few steps and tell me what you remember about the stonewall Inn or what it was like if you had actually been to the bar before the event.

MS: Oh yeah well as an 18 year old, when you moved to, many people like myself who were living outside of New York um thought there were no gay people living anywhere else because in 1969 basically we were invisible. You didn’t see us on TV, you didn’t see us on the radio, you didn’t see us in magazines. You basically didn’t see us in books if you saw us in books, those books might have been maybe in your public library. Remember there was no internet, there were no cell phones. If you wanted information you had to go to your library or read your local newspaper, radio station or TV and we were absent from all of the above. Any books you might have found in the library usually would have been very negative about us. Um therefore people like me weren’t, as we were growing up were very deeply in the closet and people like me who went to New York did so because we didn’t want to be. We didn’t understand the reasoning behind that. I can speak for me and for me only; I didn’t think there was something wrong with me and I didn’t understand why the rest of the world thought there was something wrong with me!
So meeting Marty ah and him -- him explaining to me how we needed to fight back against oppression rang a bell! And also rang a bell in me because I come from a family that has deep roots in fighting back from my grandmother who ah basically
left Ukraine because of the pogroms, to becoming a suffragette, to joining the civil rights movement. She took me to my first civil rights demonstration when I was 13 years old so I had an affinity for the idea of fighting back and understanding oppression. So when Marty talked to me it rang true to me immediately. And You got to to remember it was the counterculture 1960s and what was happening then was women’s liberation, black liberation, um it was the high benchmark for the civil rights movements all at one time, plus the counterculture hippie influence so uh – and the people in Mattachine were people who wore dresses and suits and ties and we were the type of people who wore ripped jeans and ripped tee shirts so they didn’t speak to us. And Marty said we need ted to do something new and we weren’t sure what that was but we were -- and the idea of the action group was to discover and find what that was. Later that became… or thanks to the Stonewall and thanks to those actions GLF answered those questions. GLF probably… as I’ve said on a a number of occasions and I mentioned in my memoirs, was probably the most important LGBT organization in the history of the gay rights struggle because it did two things. First, it said we were going to define ourselves and no longer allow society to define us. And when we defined ourselves we were going to tell the masses (society) who we were rather than allow them to put their images on us. Whereas the military and police thought of us as criminals, the medical industry thought of us as psychologically damaged, churches thought of us as immoral. We fought against every single bit of that and we did it from the beginning. Um and at the same time we would during our meetings, discuss who we were, and try to figure it out we were discussing what was masculine what was feminine what were we like as men and women who just happened to be LGBT. That was the first thing we did which was extremely revolutionary. The Second thing that we did was create what we now call the LGBT community.

CG: Right
MS: That’s sort of a surprising thing that I don’t think anyone’s put into context before. Um LGBT community didn’t exist before Gay Liberation Front founded it. And what I mean by that is if you take a look at what LGBT community what LGBT life was like before GLF what you had was several gay organizations in major cities around the country being run by two or three people. And maybe they would have meetings where 10 or 20 people would show up. Um then there were the few gay bars that existed then there was maybe a newsletter and public places where gay people met. That was the extent of it. What GLF did which was totally revolutionary was we brought our community out in the streets. There was not a weeknight or a weekend night that we, meaning myself and others, were not out on Christopher street handing out leaflets. Those leaflets said come to meetings, those leaflets were medical alerts, they were alerts of the police, they were legal alerts and when we found there was a problem, when the police acted up we demonstrated against the police. We demonstrated against Village Voice. We were organized and we were public, we were no longer going to be in the closet. This was an almost a daily activity and so creating that -- on top of that we also realized there were other parts of our community that weren’t being served and we were going to serve them. So we created the nation’s first trans organization. Everyone knows the names of Sylvia and Marsha but they might no know the name of STAR, which was Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, which was a cell or committee inside Gay Liberation Front. And some people might not realize we created the first gay youth organization gay youth NY was part of GLF We also created the first gay community center in America which was on Fourth street in NY Um and at the end of all of that we joined with Craig Rodwell who created the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee and held what now is considered the first Gay Pride March. And that’s where you find where the culmination of everything comes together. Which as I mentioned to you earlier up until 1969, the most public organization or --demonstrations were those marches in Philadelphia held by Mattachine every July fourth from 65-69.

CG: Right July Fourth.

MS: If you look at those photos you will note that there’s not more than 100 people in those photos, mostly forty is what I counted. Most of those photos were taken by Kay Lahusen by the way um, Hah, that was a premiere demonstration once a year so you take that and then you look at the first gay pride which we helped create, Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee and you look at the New York Times reporting of that and it states that that the crowd was anywhere from between five and fifteen thousand.

CG: Yup yeah.

(Laughter)

MS: Not bad for one year! Um we took a community that literally had a gay rights struggle out of 100 gay people -- I use that figure from either that march or the two or three people in each major city around the country who were parts of Daughters of Bilitis, Mattachine -- or incorporator of all those organizations.
Of all those brave people that existed before GLF and realized that we took it and made a huge advancement in one year and not only were we one of those important organizations because we were trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing and not having any road map we were also probably the most dysfunctional organization that ever existed in the gay community. And by the away I’m very proud of that dysfunction because the results it brought were magnificent.

CG: Yeah, yeah. No, definitely and I would say that you know, there continues to be dysfunction in various organizations. But you’re right. I mean that…

MS: It worked at that time.

CG: …that sort of um – you might want to call it a zeitgeist or something like that -- an immediate and powerful, right, um, reaction? So I did want to see some or hear some specifics…

MS: How about your first question?!

(Laughs)

CG: Yeah, yeah, some specifics, I mean just briefly if you can tell me about your memories of the Stonewall Inn before that night, if you’d been inside and what kind of place was it ?

MS: Oh ok, as an 18 year old being in New York trying to escape being in the closet, I wanted to, like everybody else, immerse myself in my community and other people like me. I had no idea there was a complete group of people who got together who were just like me. So what I discovered was that they hung out basically on Christopher Street. And there were several clubs, bars around that area and if you were eighteen the way you socialized was every night you walked up and down Christopher Street and you slowly picked up friends and you got to know them and you’d sit on a step here or there and you’d talk and you’d joke and then your friends would walk up and down the street with you and then you would pop into a club and of course one of the clubs you always popped into was Stonewall. Especially if you were young, if you were a runaway, if you were trans, if you were new to the city and if you were an older man looking for a younger man to be very honest, that’s where you went. And you went there to party and you would go in there two or three times a night. I mean you would pop in and out of there literally.

CG: Yeah, yeah interesting.

MS: I mean I often hear people talk about the doorman and pol… it wasn’t as tight as people say. (laughter) I read about it and it sounds like a speakeasy from the nineteen twenties. It was a lot more open than that.

CG: Yeah so, so I know you were there that evening either inside or at Christopher Park, do you have any specific recollections about that night before, you know…

MS: Yes, yes, I do… uh …first you gotta remember I had only been in New York for about six weeks. And so I was new to all of that. I mean within six weeks I really immersed myself in it. I was on Christopher Street every night if not in Stonewall every night. So -- I don’t even remember if they were open every night. But I am sixty-six now and the memories are what they are for a sixty-six year old, but that night is very clear for anybody who was there I remember being in the bar. I remember the lights flashing. I remember asking somebody [I don’t remember who] “what does that mean?” And someone said “Oh were just going to be raided!” And everybody who was a regular there took that very nonchalant. They were just used to it cause that was part of what life was like for gay people at that point. Me on the other hand had never been through a raid. I tried to look nonchalant but I gotta tell you its not --[laughs] I was very nervous. Now I look like the guy next door. So the first thing the police did when they came through the door was they harassed the queens as much as they could. They extorted money from the people who looked like they had decent jobs and then they started carding people to let people out. I look like the, as I said, I look like the boy next door. They had no use for me. They couldn’t get money out of me. They didn’t care about people like me. So I was one of the first to be let out. Um and I was curious of course so I went across the street to watch all this. And at one point Marty came up and said, “what’s going on?” And I said, “Oh, it’s a raid.” Trying to act nonchalant again. Uh and he said oh basically, “Oh another raid this has to end.” He went and got chalk and came back and made a suggestion but that was later in the evening. As people were coming out they started forming a semi circle around the door and that eventually and as the police let out more and more people at one point the only people left in the bar or most of the people left in the bar were the people that worked there and the police. At which point people just started throwing things at the door. Um, ah [sigh] that’s basically when people started breaking things, running up and down the street. Some windows were broken. People took things out of the windows. My funniest recollection of it is someone put a dress on the Sheridan statue in Sheridan Square.

[Laughs]

MS: Um and personally the best recollection, somewhere during the middle of this… [sigh] this circus of amazing colors and lights and people running I’m just looking at the door and saying to myself somewhere thanks to my grandmother who taught me this, um “African Americans can fight for their rights, Latinos can fight for their rights, women can fight for their rights, what about us?” And I think it was -- and all of that was in a second an instant maybe-- I decided at that point um that’s
what I’d be doing the rest of my life -- and there wasn’t anything, any job description, or I didn’t even know what that meant. I just thought I’d end up being poor, um you know-- a vagrant fighting for gay liberation whatever that might be. I had no idea even what that meant. I don’t think any of us did. But thanks to people like Martha Shelley thanks to people who, in the next four nights helped to create Gay Liberation Front, we began to build that. And I was lucky enough to be a part of that. Um, so when people today ask me what University I went to my stock answer is I went to GLF. It taught me what I needed to know to further what I believed in my whole life.

CG: Yeah uh so then I mean it really was a sort of self-actualization, self-realization moment in your life. Yeah, yeah.

MS: Oh absolutely, absolutely.

CG: So I’m gonna segue, yeah go ahead…

MS: My, my total action was lock stock and barrel, was writing on the walls and streets. I didn’t throw anything I didn’t fight anybody. I think I would have been too frightened to do something like that to be honest.

CG: Right.

MS: I think of myself as a simple, if there is such a thing, soldier that night

CG: Yeah.

MS: Doing what I was told to do by people who seemed to know what they were doing.

CG: Right, right, um so I want to segue a little bit just to, since you’re on that topic almost already… of what does it-- you know overall, obviously you just explained what it means to you in terms of like, it was that birth of consciousness around the liberation-- that concept of liberation. But if you can, try to put into words what the Stonewall event means to you now, in retrospect.

MS: [Sigh] Its very difficult. I find myself in a unique position um because unlike other people that were there that evening I’ve had a constant involvement in the gay community which has never ceased from that day forward. Where others might have taken a break now and then I’ve been doing it now for forty seven years. On top of that I moved back to Philadelphia eventually in 1971 and I didn’t get involved with all the squabbles in the NY community about stonewall and I kept silent about a lot for many years, with the exception of talking to my friends Jerry Hoose, Jim Fourratt or Perry Brass. Um I didn’t make my views public because I didn’t want to get in the squabble that they were all in. I didn’t live in New York. I didn’t think it was fair of me to be involved and I didn’t want to take sides.

CG: Mhmm.

MS: And what I would like to say now very (laughs) clearly… it was a riot.

MS: Nobody was taking notes on what was happening nobody was doing attendance records. And that seems to be what everybody seems to be fighting about. Um and I think everybody’s memories are different and I accept practically or I think that everybody should accept all those memories and put them all together and you’ll get a picture of what it was really like because we each have our own perspective.

CG:Exactly, exactly.

MS: But Jerry, do you know who Jerry Hoose is?

CG: No, no I don’t. I think I’ve heard the name…

MS: Again one of the founders of Gay Liberation Front he lived on Christopher Street. Um I knew Jerry before Stonewall he had become one of my good friends. He and Doug Carver were probably the closest people I –they’re both gone now-- closest to at that point and uh Jerry and I through the years talked about it uh, he’s one of the few people in New York I would talk to about it . But interestingly enough he and I would disagree on it. Bob Kohler and I and jerry would all disagree on it. Everybody who had some involvement had a different view of it and I find that not surprising to say the least especially since we’re all, since the rest of the world has made it an image that none of us seem to-- can agree matches what we saw. I think when you’re involved in something you loose a little objectivity so that’s why -- and being a journalist I understand that to some extent uh, so I try to be as unbiased as possible. And that’s why I give what happened to me and what my feelings were and I don’t want to give other peoples feelings because that’s stealing from them and their views and I think their just as valid as mine are.

CG: Yeah, yeah absolutely. Yeah no, and I love hearing the different viewpoints and the different accounts too because its, its to me it just, I recognize that everyone, like you said everyone’s perspective is going to be different and everyone’s memory is going to focus on -- your memory focuses on a different aspect --everyone has a personal… what were you going to say?

MS: And we’re clouded by time.

CG: Exactly.

MS: Um, What I can tell you is the most interesting aspect to me right now is I’m coming to terms and still attempting to come to terms with its historical significance that story of to know that I was part of something that was historic. To know that I was part of something historic was very difficult to contemplate um and I remember when the most important part of that for me was of course President Obama making it, making that point in his second inauguration speech.
And almost like magic, the moment I saw that I Skype’d Jerry Hoose and he and I looked at each other through our computers and just started crying. And the way I described that in the book was that cry was washing away both our years of feeling we were the bastard children of civil rights struggles round the world. And that’s what Obama said. He said that our movement was equal to the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and we had always felt like the bastard step child.

CG: Yea, yeah

MS: And that’s what that meant to me and that is a total separate thing from the way the LGBT community looks at Stonewall. I mean that way is the way the rest of society looks at Stonewall. How our community looks at Stonewall is totally different. So there’s different perspectives of how the world sees it and how the LGBT community sees it. And therefore each of us who were there are dealing with all those emotions and we’re dealing with how other people view it and how we view it and so when someone asks us about it-- we try [at least I do] to give them the best concept I can and no matter what I say its not going to match what their feelings or their image of it is. Um…

CG: Yeah

MS: I hope that answers your question!

CG: Yeah no, it does it actually even begins to answer what usually is my last question which is: what does Stonewall represent to the community in terms of identity. And I think you hit on something there too that it – there’s sort of a sense of people’s hopes, you know are tied up in it too, you know? So the idea that someone like Marsha Johnson or someone um like Sylvia Rivera were um you know such, such important factors in what took place or in what took place after or in the creation of GLF or their participation becomes…

MS: Can I touch that for a minute?

CG: Yeah.

MS: Cause that’s very important.

So, some of my fellow GLF people have stated uh that Marsha and Sylvia were not there. Umm, now as I said to you, no one was taking attendance. Now, and I cannot remember whether or not they were there or not. But I don’t think it really matters.
For one very simple reason um regardless of if they were there or not what they did in Gay liberation Front and what everybody did in Gay Liberation Front…

CG: Right, right.

MS: throughout the next year and a half is probably more important than Stonewall…

CG: Right.

MS: …and I know that might shock people to hear that but that’s where self identity came from…

CG: Yes.

MS: That’s where community came from…

CG: Yes

MS: That’s where the first trans organization came from and it was Sylvia and Marsha who did that as part of GLF.

CG: Right.

MS: And if they had, I mean there was no organizing done at that first night of Stonewall…

CG: Right.

MS: It was all after that and that evolved into GLF and that created everything that we have today.

CG: Exactly, yeah so right I mean it wasn’t like…

MS: I don’t need to…

CG: People mis-under…

MS: Argue whether they were there or not, yes they were there. Absolutely.

[Laughter]

CG: Exactly, yeah um you know cause they became-- whether they were there or not, its kind of almost irrelevant. Right?
Because as you’re saying, I mean its interesting to hear too it was a little-- it was chaos. It’s hard…

MS: It was a riot! You’re not taking attendance!

[Laughter]

CG: Its hard to get a pin-- to get a handle though on what really transpired and I don’t think I’m gonna have any allusions that I’m gonna-- that any body can do that.

MS: People ask me, because I was in the gay militants, there was all this factual stuff that I was there and people keep saying to me,“ok who was there? You tell me, was that person there?” and my reaction to that is: I had only been in New York for six weeks I was just beginning to know people. How would I know?

CG: Yeah, yeah and also in a crowd….


MS: I mean Jerry Hoose-- you might-- although he’s not here anymore, Jerry might have been able to answer that.

CG: And also, standing in a crowd of 300 people, you know, what’s your vantage point going to be? Its going to be your immediate…

MS: And that’s a myth.

CG: Oh?

MS: Ok, There you go.

CG: What?

MS: That’s a perfect example of why any of us who were there, when we tell our story it doesn’t always meet the expectation of the audience we speak before.

CG: Ok.

MS: So let’s take a look at the bar and by the numbers…

CG: Yes.

MS: This is kind of important. So if you take a look at the numbers of people that could -- could fit in the bar if it was absolutely packed that night --what somewhere between 3 and 500 I would guess at the most? Ok, so a lot of those people were what I would call suit and tie guys. They weren’t wearing suits and ties inside the bar but those kinds of guys that had a good job during the day. So any time-- the minute they got out of the bar they ran. The only people who stayed on the streets were people like me who didn’t have jobs, a place to live, the people who were the bottom of the LGBT community basically um and that wasn’t three hundred.

CG: Right, right. Ok.

MS: It was a lot…

CG: Less.

MS: Lower than that. My assumption of it would be 1 to 150 but that’s an old, old memory. And I wouldn’t even take my guess at that.

CG: Ok yeah, I mean its still a big, a sizeable crowd nevertheless.

MS: Yeah

CG: So um if you want to um just wrap up if -- I don’t know if there any remarks you want to make about the legacy of you know the movement, maybe really just talk a little bit about the legacy of GLF, although you did talk about it initially. It um…


MS: I think one of the issues that rings home for me very true-- as GLF became very successful in motivating our community for change and liberation or revolution (whatever word you want to use) other people thought, “oh this is going to be popular maybe I’ll get involved.” And then those people at one point decided we in GLF were going a little too far by trying to include ourselves with --and this goes back to what today is. We wanted to include all other movements as part of our movement and be interlocked with the women’s movement, the black movement the Latino movement, so we started to be supportive and work with black and brown people, with women’s groups and eventually that got to be a little too much for the people I call… the people that wear those shirts with the polo players and the alligator on them.

[Laughter]

MS: Uh they didn’t want us to be involved. They wanted to show the part of our community that wasn’t trans, that wasn’t young people, wasn’t working class. They wanted to show an image of middle class men and women who were just like the guy next door and hence came Gay Activists Alliance and later to be succeeded by the Human Rights Campaign… I’m sorry the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force which was founded by Bruce Voeller. Um and they were going to be the most professional and they were the first uh, pay for gay in the country.

CG: But I…

MS: And so, where are we at today? Today we are again fighting that same exact thing. When I spoke at the committee that was organizing the Democratic National Committee here a bunch of young gay people who are part of the organizing (literally putting the Democratic National Convention together here in Philadelphia) and for Gay Pride I spoke to that whole group-- and it wasn’t just gay people-- it was that whole Democratic National Committee, um but a gay woman, using the question and answer section, an African American out woman said, “you know I’m sort of torn. I want to work with Black Lives Matter yet I want to be a gay activist.” And I looked at her and I said, “why cant you do both?”

CG: Do both. Yeah.

MS: I think that would be great. You can bring liberation to both groups of people. To non people of color in the gay rights struggle you can show them how important you are and how empowering that would be if we had African Americans-- a larger portion in that struggle, and in the Black Lives Matter you can make them realize how important inclusion is of LGBT people.

CG: Exactly.

MS: It’s a wonder-- the cross over is wonderful!

CG: Exact… yeah we really need to focus on this one word…

MS: Inclusion.

CG: No I was thinking…

MS: Diversity and inclusion are two of the most powerful words.
They existed from 1969 to 1971 and then our community once again reverted.

CG: I was also thinking of solidarity.

MS: Yes.

CG: I sent an email to my professor and he always closes with, each email with “Solidarity”. You know?

MS: And he’s right, one of -- one of the funnier things for me and -- and writing the memoirs brought back a lot of memories and the research was sort of a surprise, and one of the things that amazes me to this date, uh is people in my area think of me as an establishment business type. That delights me to no end because my positions have never changed. They-- my political positions are still the same. Um but, so when someone does that and I look at them and I go do you realize I marched with The Black Panthers? And they’re like totally perplexed. It’s like the dog who hears a sound and doesn’t understand and tilts its head.

[Laughs ]

CG: Yes, don’t judge a book by the cover right?

MS: Correct.

CG: Well Mark, thank you, I know you are a busy man and I actually have something as well…

MS: Do I get to see a sample of this thing that you’re doing some time?

CG: Yes absolutely!

Original Format

Digital Recording

Duration

35 minutes

Bit Rate/Frequency

16 bit/44.1 kHz

Time Summary

NA

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Citation

Christopher Gioia, “Mark Segal Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed June 17, 2019, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/18.

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