Much like today, in the year 1969, most 18-year-olds were pondering their transition from high school to the ‘real world’ as they hovered on the precipice of adulthood. For Mark Segal, that ‘real world’ transition occurred with an unexpected acceleration on one of the most notorious nights in US history, a night that is today known as ‘Stonewall’ or ‘The Stonewall Uprising.’
On that fateful night, Segal, an openly ‘queer’ young adult, was among the patrons of the Stonewall Inn – a gay club, located in the West Village neighborhood of New York City. Note, the term ‘queer’ today is deemed by some to be an antiquated expression, but at that time, for men who identified as homosexual, it was equivalent to the modern reference of being ‘gay.’
In the early evening of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the club. Such raids had become increasingly routine as a constant form of homophobic harassment. To put it in perspective, during the 1960s, the New York State Liquor Authority would shut down bars that served alcohol to gay anyone suspected LGBT people, and the gathering of ‘homosexuals’ was deemed illegal and disorderly.
The raid that night would yield a very different response from patrons than their previous altercations with the law, as detailed by The History Channel:
“Armed with a warrant, police officers entered the club, roughed up patrons, and, finding bootlegged alcohol, arrested 13 people, including employees and people violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute (female officers would take suspected cross-dressing patrons into the bathroom to check their sex).”
The patrons fought back, triggering six days of violent protests, arrests, and stand-offs, transforming the otherwise quiet New York neighborhood into the epicenter of the gay rights movement in the United States.
Mark Segal was on the front line, fighting for justice during the riots. He, too, was transformed into one of the leading voices and advocates for gay rights. He quickly became a coordinator of the LGBT’s organized rebellion against discrimination. He went on to help form the Gay Liberation Front that that same year, and became a member of the Christopher Street Gay liberation committee, which organized the first Gay Pride Parade in 1970. Again, at the time of these accomplishments, he was only 18.
I had the distinct honor of recently interviewing Segal, who today at 69 years old, is one of the most celebrated gay rights trailblazers. His role in the Stonewall riots put him on a trajectory to become a game-changer on a national and global level. He led civil disobedience campaigns and disruptive protests throughout the 1970s and 1980s to combat the pervasive negative stereotypes of LGBTQ people in the media. As Segal explained,
“Up to that point, we were invisible. We weren’t on TV, we weren’t on the radio, we weren’t in magazines, we weren’t in newspapers, and we weren’t on film …and if we were, we were the negative characters; we were either the killers or the ones who committed suicide.”
Over the years, as Segal pushed back against the system, his protestant acts became more emboldened. One of those prime examples is the night he infamously burst into THE CBS News studios with a protest sign as famed anchor Walter Cronkite was broadcasting live on air. The sign read, “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.”
Confused and startled, producers quickly tackled Segal and wrestled him to the ground. Millions of television screens across America went black for nearly three seconds, a big deal considering the cost involved with media sponsors who fund broadcasts.
That moment was not merely about shock value. It was calculated and purposeful to reach an otherwise unreachable audience. Segal explains,
“There are very few shows today that get the viewership that the CBS evening news Walter Cronkite got. In those days, there were only three networks. There was no cable news or cable TV. It was NBC, ABC, and CBS, and the King of all of that was Walter Cronkite. Walter Cronkite, on a regular night in 1973, got sixty-six million viewers. The only shows to get that kind of number these days are shows like the SuperBowl.”
That ‘stunt’ was a game-changer, taking Segal from regional hero to national figure. The very next day, as he recalls, his story was featured in nearly every newspaper across the country. For the first time, sixty-six million people saw his Cronkite disruption, and the news media in America collectively began a dialogue about gay rights and LGBT representation. Ultimately even Cronkite himself became a friend and supporter of Segal. The power of that friendship undoubtedly helped to influence public thought and perception.
Segal’s continued advocacy became the catalyst for arguably his most influential work: The PGN – Philadephia Gay News, which he founded in 1976. Before PGN, there was no resource for the LGBT community as comprehensive and organized, covering both local Philadelphia and national stories. The PGN is the oldest LGBT publication in the US, the largest on the East Coast, with 25,000 weekly readers, and a member of the National Gay Newspaper Guild.
On March 19, 2020, GLAAD Media was to honor Mark Segal in New York City with the prestigious Special Recognition Award for his indelible impression on gay rights in America. Unfortunately, the ceremony was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak; however, Segal still received the award. He joins a long list of past GLAAD Awards recipients, including Madonna, Sean Hayes, Andy Cohen, Beyonce, and Jay-Z.
That’s quite good company and a well-deserved honor.