The Philadelphia book opening for activist Mark Segal’s new work And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality was adroitly staged at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall where Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers blared their Comcast grievances beside the program entrance, as both a Comcast and union leader arrived in the author’s honor. Activists, politicians, business and labor leaders, and many Philadelphia area recipients of his lifetime of social justice advocacy mixed in intensive networking and sharing of his often daring exploits throughout the party-like atmosphere and formal proceedings. Regardless of your politics there is an immense amount to be learned about methods of effective activism for every and any cause in And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, Mark Segal’s fascinating and instructive, story-filled autobiography that brings forth a good deal of often suppressed GBLT movement history of which many are likely unaware.
And Then I Danced is a flowing read across decades of incidents and strategies leading to today’s remarkable degree of GBLTQ inclusion as equal human beings the mitzvah of kavod habriyut—honor for all that lives. At the podium Mark Segal offers the same bold, celebration of life and liberty as in his writing. The room at the book opening was filled with a rare kind of pure loving appreciation, including that from residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments, the first federally-funded LGBT-friendly residence in the nation, which is located in downtown Philadelphia. Mark Segal takes “Yes we can!” to the level of “Yes we did!”
Mark himself had many tales to tell that he delivered with passion, power and gratitude from the dais. His connection to Jewish values of liberty and justice for all shone through steadily and he did not spare the Yiddishisms in his talk. At points his writing reveals the Jewish appreciation of the importance of making common cause with those who are oppressed. He explains:
…my favorite headline came from the Times Leader: “Shapp Aide Tells Berger to Reconsider Homos Ban.”…After one long day of fighting, I asked Shapp why he was taking this on, and he told me, “Mark, I’m in the closet as well.” When I looked at him strangely, he laughed and followed up with, “My real name is Shapiro, I had to change it to Shapp to enter politics. So I understand discrimination.”
In June of 1975, Milton Shapp became first governor in the nation to have his state officially proclaim Gay Pride Month.
A rare charisma that arrives sans unhealthy narcissism shines from Mark Segal along with his capacity for the mitzvah of hakarat hatov — seeing the good done by those with whom he developed effective collaborations and naming it. Book clubs will love his presentations.
What Makes This Man Possible?
How does a person come to be so aware, and capable of a life of dedicated caring activism? The only Jewish family in the Wilson Park projects, born to immigrant parents, Mark Segal recalls:
Our new neighbors were hardly welcoming. I still remember the first few days of kindergarten when Irish and Italian kids would say to me “You killed our Christ,” or the one that always stumped me, “you’re a devil with horns.” Somehow I had become a deformed six-year-old murderer. For a while I’d subconsciously touch the top of my head, waiting for the horns to grow, and I wondered, how could I possibly comb my hair with horns?
One time my mother went to my grade school to defend me because the teachers had demanded that I sing “Onward Christian Solders.” In those days there was still prayer in public schools, and they had us sing Christian songs…, so I knew discrimination from a very young age… My refusal to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was my first political action, my first defiance of conformity and the status quo.
Segal also writes of his anguish over his parents’ shame and pain at being unable to give him things, the toys a child would want. Poverty shrieks through his guilt when he shares how his mother cried when a rare, hard-earned gift to him falls through a hole in his bag and is lost. Many will rethink parenting of all possible kinds of children after reading this autobiography.
Mark Segal’s parents’ acceptance of their son as gay seems almost miraculous, for its time. His cousin Norman’s experience was…more normative:
I didn’t want to kiss the girls. I’d look at the guys in my class and feel far more attracted to them. There was no doubt in my mind about this, but I didn’t know the word for who I was or what I was feeling. I knew, however, that I was okay with it. Now, I wasn’t going to tell anybody, not in the 1960’s…
When I was younger, maybe five or six years old, my cousin Norman was sixteen. His father discovered that he was gay, gave him a major beating, and threw him out of the house. Cousin Norman was the family member whom nobody mentioned. One day, I was in the backseat of my parents’ Studebaker while they were discussing him and I somehow picked upon the fact that he was a guy who liked guys — a fegeleh … I knew that whatever it all meant, I too was a fegeleh … As a teenager, I read in TV Guide one afternoon that on his PBS talk show, David Susskind was going to interview “real live homosexuals.” A new word different from fegeleh, somehow I knew it also referred to me. I just knew it …
Awakening and the Role of Riots
The movement for GBLT equality has historical flashpoints, as with all revolutions. The legendary Stonewall Riots were at a New York City bar and Mark Segal was there:
For me it started out as a frightening event … I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out. The lights in the room blinked-a signal that there would be a raid—then turned all the way up. Stonewall was filled that night with the usual clientele: drag queens, hustlers, older men who liked younger guys, and stragglers like me—the boy next door who didn’t know what he was searching for and felt he had little to offer. That all changed when the police raided the bar. As they always did, they walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured they could do whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply to harass the fags that night …
… As the riot was happening all around me, the idea of a circus came to mind, and then it hit me: we can shout who we are and not be ashamed, we can demand respect. It was at that point that Marty Robinson’s words hit a chord. We are fighting for our rights just as women, African Americans, and others had done throughout history.
Segal also cites San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Dewey’s sit-in n Philadelphia in 1965:
Drag queens and street kids who played a huge role in both events never documented those riots; thus they have been widely eliminated by the white upper middle class, many of whom were ashamed of those elements of our community. But Stonewall, Compton, and Dewey’s all have one thing in common: drag queens and street kids. For some historians, drag queens are not the ideal representatives of the LGBT community. Oppression within oppression was and is still of concern.
Once activated, Segal brought his intelligence and creativity to the journey toward equal rights. These came to be called “Zaps.” These often meant somewhat risky strategic actions, such as in service of exposure of media prejudice. He once went after CBS’ secure studio by means of asking a student training in the Radio, Film, and Television department at Temple to obtain the program’s Temple University stationary. Posing as students it only took two weeks to secure an invitation to view a broadcast firsthand, December 11, 1973:
Their usual pattern called for CBS to later rebroadcast the six pm show to the remainder of the country or, if breaking news warranted, they would broadcast it live again. At about fourteen minutes into the program, as Walter Cronkite was reporting to the American public about security procedures for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, I knew this was the moment, and for the first time while doing a zap my heart started beating very fast. I wasn’t scared but somehow I knew that after this event things would change forever. I rushed onto the set, holding up my sign and yelling the message printed on it, “Gays protest CBS prejudice!” The CBS Evening News broke down right in front of Walter. I stepped between him and the camera shutting him out of the picture to show only that sign. As millions watched, I sat on his desk and held the sign right into the camera lens so that everyone could clearly see the words. Gays Protest CBS Prejudice …
… “Why,” Cronkite asked the activist with genuine curiosity, “Why did you do that?”
“Your news program censors,” Segal pleaded. If I can prove, it would you do something to change it?” …
“Yes,” Cronkite said, “I wrote this show.”
Philadelphians will find many political surprises in And Then I Danced. For example, support for GBLT rights sometimes came from both sides of the aisle:
Arlen [Spector] was district attorney of Philadelphia. He had not taken a stand on the gay rights bill that was before city council. Efforts to set up a meeting went unanswered. So we had to be a little creative. One crisp Monday morning, a caterer delivered two large coffeemakers and dozens of donuts to Arlen’s office. His staff thought that he had ordered the special treat, and Arlen thought his staff had arranged it. At the same time, in the City Hall courtyard, and in the corridors of the building, members of the Gay Raiders were handing out flyers that read, District Attorney Arlen Specter invites you to a reception in honor gay rights legislation in city council. Please join him at ten a.m. in his office, Room 666 (that really was his office number.)
At ten a.m. we, along with hundreds of city workers and a huge collection of news people arrived at his office, we walked in and there was Arlen’s staff trying not to look too surprised at a reception held in the office that their boss was hosting, about legislation he had not endorsed. Arlen remained in his inner office. At first, the media took pictures of me handing out coffee and donuts to City Hall staffers, and we weren’t sure if Arlen would even come out of his private office. Finally, the door opened, and there he was all smiles…
Now, here’s what most people never knew: in Arlen’s Republican years in the US Senate, when it was hard to support LGBT rights, he was always behind the curtain ready to vote yes on gay rights if it was needed to assure passage.
Addressing The Biblically Ignorant
Reading the Torah in service of GBLT rights takes new eyes. Mark Segal gives an example of how to do so:
“Says Leviticus,” she bellowed, “Man who lays with man is an abomination!” She was just going on and on until Phil interrupted her and asked if she’d like to hear my response.
“Madam, from what you say it seems you don’t respect religion,” was my reply.
She said, “I’m a true Christian.”
I stare her down. “A true Christian respects the rights of other religions. My religion accepts who I am. Are you inferring that Judaism is a false religion? If you’d like to talk religion we can do so, but I’ll also quote other parts of the Bible you seem to have forgotten.”
She exploded and just started tossing out various biblical verses at me.
“You don’t know your Bible well,” I said. That sentence would become a trademark comment from me in religious discussions. I continued, “you use your Bible like you were ordering from a restaurant menu. I call that Bible a la carte. You choose what parts of the Bible you wish to obey and what others to ignore.”
Then I looked her over and explained that all she was wearing that made her an abomination according to that same Leviticus chapter, which condemns wearing clothing of two different fabrics. Polyester-cotton blend, anyone? I followed that up by asking the audience a quick succession of questions about shellfish, metals, pigskin, and all the rest, then asked, “Do all of you obey your husbands? While I know none of you would commit adultery, I’m sure you’re aware that in cases of adultery your husband has the right to kill you. So, if I’m going to hell, you’re all joining me. As the Good Book says, he who has not sinned should throw the first stone. Is there anyone in this audience who has not sinned?”
As total silence fell over the room, I directed my next comment back to the lady with the Bible. “Oh, and one more thing, remember the Ten Commandments? Gluttony? How many of you are joining me in hell now?” No LGBT person had ever challenged an entire TV audience in that manner before. This kept the Bible-toting crowd focused on issues like discrimination, hate crimes, and entrapment.
Yes You Can
And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality came out in October of 2015. A second run of 10,000 has already been announced. The sheer number of political strategy memories can expand readers’ skills and savvy. Mark Segal’s sharing reveals realities and opportunities taken that have long needed better documentation. With inspired reader encouragement this valuable guidebook can enter not only homes, but also enter university and religious settings and serve to teach empathy and activism for generations to come.
Note: Learn more about the evolving acceptance of homosexuality across the spectrum of Judaism: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.