June 28, 2019, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in NYC. That day in 1969 would alter the course of history for the LGBT community. Mark Segal, then a teenager, was among the patrons at The Stonewall Inn that early morning. His passion and activism for the gay rights movement would become his life’s calling.
Now an author, award-winning journalist, publisher, speaker, and advocate, Mark Segal talked to Out In Jersey about his experience at Stonewall. His memoir, And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, tells his remarkable story of how one person can truly change the world.
Before Stonewall, what was it like going to New York as a teenager? Did you feel safe?
Mark Segal: Like many LGBT youth in the 1960’s, the place where I lived in Philadelphia didn’t, to my knowledge, have gay people. We as a community then were invisible, so I went to New York in a sense to find my people, others like myself. Finding Christopher Street meant freedom and an opportunity to be myself.
When someone mentions Stonewall now, what is the first emotion it evokes in you?
MS: Dancing and the song that always comes to mind is “Let the Sunshine In,” by the Fifth Dimension.
Looking back on Stonewall, was it a necessary evil?
MS: Was it an evil? It allowed us to get off the street where police and others might harass us, arrest us, or even harm us. In Stonewall we were able to do what we could not do outside. Hold hands, dance together, and show affection. It was an illegal Mafia bar. But we didn’t think of it in those terms, since any bar that allowed us those rights would have been illegal at that time.
Do you think the history of Stonewall needs to be taught more to younger generations?
MS: Yes, we teach parts of every ethnic and religious history in our schools to make students feel a sense of pride and a part of our national fiber. Shouldn’t our LGBT youth feel that same?
What ignited your passion to form the Gay Liberation Front?
MS: A great question! Standing outside The Stonewall that night, I felt a need to do something that would be more than simply plead for our rights. I wanted to yell, “I’m gay, get used to it!” I wanted to take control of my own identity, not society’s identity of me. And I wanted an LGBT community. Gay Liberation Front helped create all of that. Without the GLF there would be no LGBT community.
Who was your hero growing up?
MS: The usual from American history. If you ask me today, it would be Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde, Baron Von Steuben, and the only one from my youth, Benjamin Franklin.
How was the idea for the first Gay Pride Parade conceived? And what was it like marching in it?
MS: Just thinking about it, I get chills. What many don’t focus on was that for the first time a group from the LGBT community were marching out of their assigned ghetto and marching across town openly. It was the ultimate statement of a community that would no longer be kept in a closet. We were out, loud, and proud.
Do you think it is important that LGBT Pride parades continue in today’s world?
MS: Absolutely! They continue to take us out of invisibility and are used as protest in places like Istanbul. They are used as a fight for marriage equality and basic civil rights in other places, as our original march was intended.
What still has to be done for the LGBT community now?
MS: The equality act needs to pass Congress. We need to be a community of diversity and inclusion.
What inspired you to write your book, And Then I Danced?
MS: For many years, my friends continued to urge me and I never thought I had a story to tell. Since for me, my life was going from one project to another and never looking back. Once I started writing, the life I was writing about surprised me. It also put me in touch with feelings I didn’t have time to fully examine before. Its success was completely unexpected.
What is the most important thing you want your readers to take away from the book?
MS: Anything is possible and don’t be afraid to think big. This kid of 18 standing outside the Stonewall could never imagine dancing at the White House with his husband.
What do you want to be remembered for most?
MS: Thank you for asking this. Not Stonewall. While I’m proud of my part in those nights, I take great pride in my campaign against the media. The goal was to end our [LGBT] invisibility. Every time I see an LGBT character on TV, or see Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper, I feel as though I might have had a little something to do with that. When the public gets to know us, they are no longer afraid of us.