by Mark Segal
(Mark Segal is the publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. This column originally appeared in PGN last month during LGBT History Month. It is reprinted here with permission.)
As I write this, my feeling is both melancholy and cheerful that a question I’ve pondered for a long time is finally answered. Lessons learned should always be appreciated.
LGBT History Month is personal to me as I begin to appreciate my part in it. This week in particular is bringing about major changes in my understanding of our history. As a reviewer of my memoir wrote in 2015, “Mark Segal is sort of the Forrest Gump of the LGBT community, he pops up at various parts of our history.” This week for me is an experience that brings that lesson home. Something I was never comfortable with before. As I write this it’s Tuesday morning, and I have four more events to participate in this week.
It started Sunday, where I spoke at an event and helped unveil a Pennsylvania Historical Commission Plaque celebrating the LGBT progress that Gov. Milton Shapp brought to the nation in 1974. He issued the first statewide non-discrimination order for state employees and created the first official governmental commission to study and correct the issues that the LGBT community had with state government. It was not only the first such council in the nation, but the world.
Thanks to the state archives, which preserved my initial letters to the governor, it is now known that it was my vision when Shapp became the first governor to meet with a gay activist in 1974. That activist was me. The original commission and executive order are what every LGBT governmental commission in the nation and every LGBT liaison to an elected official today stand on, our shoulders.
At the marker unveiling ceremony, there were other members of that 1974 commission, and for the first time they thanked me for my work in getting the commission started. When I asked why they hadn’t thanked me in the past, one of them said, “We were scared of you.” That brought a smile and brought back to a line in my book: “When I was a disrupter by disrupting live TV shows in 1972-1973 for visibility of the LGBT community, 99 percent of our community didn’t support those actions.”
Gov. Shapp made it a point to state that those actions are why he met with me. Those disruptions led the Government and the television media to change. And Gov. Shapp became a friend and an LGBT rights pioneer.
On Monday, I was sent a posting by the National Parks Service with pictures of me in 1973 chaining myself above the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall. That zap, as we called them, has almost been censored from our history. So thank you, National Park Service. You can read their post on the Independence NHP Facebook page.
Monday night I participated in “50 Years of Coming Out,” a discussion about LGBT media. My role was to explain the hazards of creating LGBT media and organizing the first LGBT newspapers association in 1976, the Gay Press Association.
Finally, this Sunday, I’m speaking at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago at the opening of the exhibit “Rise Up Stonewall.” There I’ll talk about what I did that infamous night in June 1969 and the following year leading to the first ever gay pride march.
That last piece reminds me of some people today who are revising the LGBT history of Stonewall and that first Gay Pride for their own purposes, and as they do so they ignore those of us who were a part of it. Is it agism, or simply that they don’t want facts to get in the way of their own political agenda? Either way, many of us are still here to make sure the record is correct and history recognizes who did the work.
And that work continues today. We still have challenges we are facing locally, statewide, and nationally. For me, I’ll be focusing on issues including how to pass the Fairness Act in Pennsylvania, something that our community has been working on for decades, but seems to be at a standstill about how to get done. But if there’s one lesson to remember from decades of activism, it’s that you have to persevere, because that’s the only way real change can happen.