Pride Month 2019: Separating Stonewall’s myths and facts | Mark Segal

Philadelphia Gay News founder and publisher Mark Segal reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City during a 5/20/19 appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

By Mark Segal

Last week, i traveled to Pilgrim House during Provincetown’s second annual Gay Pride for a speaking engagement. The organizers wanted a Stonewall participant to help separate the myths from the facts.

But, more importantly, people wanted to understand how our actions and accomplishments that night in 1969 could be applied to today’s climate of politics and activism. That’s an audience I really appreciate.

Naturally, I was excited and the timing was perfect, as The New York Times had just released a video for Gay Pride Month that attempted to sort myth from fact during that infamous night at Stonewall (and those days and nights that followed). Featured in the video are historians, researchers and Stonewall participants. It’s a factual and amusing piece about a millennial’s attempt to unearth the Stonewall spirit. You can watch Shane O’Neil’s video at nytimes.com.

The night before my talk, I was almost euphoric because the facts were actually out there. But then I remembered that reality doesn’t always topple mythology. My brothers, sisters and I from the Gay Liberation Front wonder why that is.

It seems like we might as well accept the common myths, since our attempts to correct the record seem to go unnoticed. People want to make us out to be more than we were. Each of us at Stonewall that night, for our own reasons, has an issue with that.

To answer the question Shane raised in the Times: No one threw that first brick (and Judy Garland had nothing to do with the riots). I won’t give away how Shane made that point.

You’ll have to watch the video, but his piece was with me until the Provincetown Gay Pride Parade that followed my talk. Called a sashay to Tea Dance, it was led by an outrageously dressed drag queen carrying — you guessed it — a giant brick.

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That night, my husband Jason and I thought we’d take in one of Provincetown’s many drag shows. We picked Miss Richfield 1981. As she neared the end of an amusing show, she wished everyone in the audience a happy Gay Pride and said something like, “We should be grateful for what Judy Garland started.”

Jason grabbed and squeezed my leg, smiling at me.

He knew it was painful to hear — but sometimes you just have to smile.

I’ve already started what I’m calling my “Stonewall 50 Tour,” which includes more than 20 speaking gigs, interviews, exhibit openings, parades and conferences.

It culminates on June 30, when I share the honor of being Grand Marshal of New York’s World Pride/Stonewall 50 parade with my fellow sisters and brothers of Gay Liberation Front New York 1969-71. I want to share this journey with you; so, here are a few of the things that have happened thus far.

Two weeks ago, Jason and I traveled to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to address a couple of fundraisers for The Stonewall National Museum and Archives.

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On the way to the airport, our Lyft driver was very talkative and asked what I did for a living. Simple answer: Publish a newspaper for the LGBT community. That seemed to surprise him and he then asked if gays could marry each other.  I answered: “Yes, and we are married.”

Then he asked — I did tell you he was talkative — of the two of us, “Who is the man and who is the wife?” My thoughts immediately turned to [Gay Liberation Front] 1969, along with strong memories.

One of the first items that [Gay Liberation Front] tackled was identity. We took our identity away from society along with their labels for us. Now, we would self-identify.

To do that, we examined masculinity and femininity, which was strongly debated each week and sometimes got out of hand. But we were in new territory.

Never before had our community demanded to self-identify, including across gender lines. We were determined to be inclusive even if we did not totally appreciate or understand others’ views. On top of it all, we had different political views, and it was a dysfunctional organization. But it was also magic, and these conversations and debates created the LGBT community we have today.

So, here is what I think of the Lyft driver’s question, through the lens of the GLF’s membership.

The core of the question is very personal. It asks about our sex life, and it’s totally inappropriate. Maybe I should have asked him who’s the top in his marriage. It shows how some still think of us — in only sexual terms.

A couple of answers come to mind when I think of the question asked to my husband and me that day. Maybe, “What do you and your wife do in bed?” Or, if being polite, “That’s a personal question. One I wouldn’t ask you.”

This journey to Stonewall has held many experiences. The question from the Lyft driver was only one of many. Last week, filming for BBC and BBC America outside of Stonewall, a couple of men were a little impatient when we took a break from filming and said, “Stop hogging the site. Who do you think you are?”

The BBC crew and I smiled at one another and the host came over and said to me, “Without what you and your friends did here 50 years ago, they wouldn’t be here for a picture.”

We moved out of the way and watched them take their picture — two men cuddling in front of a neon Stonewall sign.

It really was cute. 

Mark Seagal is the founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, where this piece first appeared. It is reprinted by kind permission. 

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