At 5-foot-7 with a slightly high-pitched voice, Mark Segal may not look like it, but the guy is a badass.
As a longtime contributor to PGN, I knew about some of his escapades but it wasn’t until I read his book, “And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality,” that I realized how much of a rabble-rouser he has been. There are too many stories to fit into this story, so I’d suggest getting a copy for yourself. For our 40th-anniversary edition, I sat down with Segal at the PGN office.
PGN: Let’s start with some T&T — what was your favorite toy and TV show as a kid?
MS: Oh, some circus show that I can’t remember the name of and then later “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the spin-off, “Lou Grant,” about a newspaper editor.
PGN: Well, that makes sense. Favorite toy?
MS: That’s easy. Kenner’s girder and panel building set. I love architecture.
PGN: Are you originally from Philadelphia?
MS: Yes, 25th and Ritner. We lived in a housing project, across the tracks (and an expressway) from the middle-class neighborhoods.
PGN: Tell me about the family.
MS: I have a brother and two parents who believed you should love your children unconditionally and tell them that they’re the best things since sliced bread and encourage them in every way, shape and form. They taught me that I could be anything I wanted, as long as I was doing good. My dad did many things, including working as a salesman and a taxi driver.
PGN: I read that you drove a taxi too. Ever get the urge to make some extra cash with Uber?
MS: [Laughs] No, I’m past those days, at least I hope I am.
PGN: Something your mother taught you?
MS: Mom was the type that wanted her kids to be successful and to her that didn’t mean you had to make a lot of money, just that you had a happy life and family. And you got bonus points if you did things for others.
PGN: Your family didn’t talk about it, but how did having family members who were Holocaust survivors affect you?
MS: My grandparents made it to this country but some of their brothers and sisters did not and we lost all contact with their families … or so we were told. I was really uncomfortable even saying that for the longest time. What I discovered when I wrote about it was that a lot of people wrote and said that their parents said the same thing. We had to do our own research. I was lucky enough to know that some of the family was killed in Odessa, which is in the Ukraine. We associate Nazis with Germany, so who knew they were from other countries too? I went to what remained of the Jewish neighborhood there and tried to trace as much as I could but there wasn’t much left. They tend to not keep good records when slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people. Something I’m just beginning to realize is that, with all the sadness we might have had in the family — fighting for civil rights, fighting for women’s rights, dealing with anti-Semitism — my grandmother and my parents always gave me a sense of joy. When I began fighting for LGBT equality, there was a sense of joy in it. I felt I was following in the family footsteps.
PGN: Tell me about your grandmother.
MS: Fannie Weinstein. She was my Auntie Mame. She took me to my first civil-rights demonstration when I was 13. We marched around City Hall.
PGN: When my nephew was born, I whispered to him that I’d be his Auntie Mame. Hopefully, I’ve lived up to it!
MS: Awww, that’s so sweet! Actually you’re more interesting than the real Mame. I spent an afternoon with her and she wasn’t as impressive as one would think.
PGN: I read that your first “official” act of civil disobedience came in grade school when you refused to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Did you object to the Christian part or the war part?
MS: I don’t quite know. I just knew the song wasn’t right for me. I learned discrimination at an early age. I was told every day in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t Christian and my parents were pacifists to the umpteenth degree, so I refused to sing it. I got into trouble and my mother had to come and get me.
PGN: Did you go on to higher learning?
MS: No, though there’s a great belief that I went to Temple. I even had a former university president at my house for an event, Mr. Liacouras, and he berated me for not being part of the alumni association. I tried to explain that I hung out at Temple but didn’t graduate from there, but he wouldn’t listen!
PGN: What was your first realization of what homosexuality was … and that you were?
MS: I knew at a young age that guys were supposed to go out with girls and that it didn’t feel right for me. I pretended that it was, but I knew it wasn’t. I just knew. I find it surprising that a lot of people don’t figure it out until later.
PGN: I knew as far back as I can remember; in kindergarten I was playing house with two mommies!
MS: Right? We just know! And then we’re forced into the closet at such an early age; you don’t just decide to go in, you’re forced in because of the things you hear. You might hear your parents talking about “those” kind of people, or friends making jokes about “those” people, and you realize that you might be one of “those” people and if you talk about it they might not be too happy with you. So we put ourselves in a closet to protect ourselves, which is why it’s a real brave thing when someone decides to burst that door open and come out. It’s very personal. I’ve never been an advocate for outing people, the exception being clergy or people in power who advocate against the LGBT community who are themselves gay. But aside from that, it’s a personal issue and we should be more understanding. There are reasons some people can’t come out; it’s dangerous in some families or neighborhoods. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death. There are countries where being gay actually carries a death sentence. We should be working on helping people come out safely and in their own time.
PGN: Tell me a little about your early activism.
MS: I moved to New York May 10, 1969. That date is blazed into my mind because I had it written on a calendar in my bedroom, circled with stars around it. At that point, I was essentially in the closet; my parents didn’t know I was gay. So I couldn’t wait to escape to New York to go be with “my people.” I didn’t know there were gay people in Philadelphia! I knew they were in New York because I saw them on a Davis Susskind TV show. It was shown on PBS at midnight because there were sometimes real, live homosexuals on the show, some of whom I got to meet later on. So, I got to New York May 10 and tried to find where the gay people were. I knew they were in “The Village” but that’s a very large place. I eventually stumbled onto Christopher Street, which was the main drag with a lot of gay clubs and businesses around it. At 18, a typical night became just hanging out on Christopher Street, popping into clubs here and there, so that’s what I did. One of the clubs I popped into was the Stonewall Inn. It was very casual. One night I was in the back of the bar near the dance area and the lights flashed on. I didn’t know what that meant but everyone very calmly said, “Oh there’s going to be a raid.” I was frightened because I’d never experienced a raid before in my life. The police came in and started carding individuals and harassing the queens and I guess they were trying to extort money from the guys in suits and ties who looked like they had money. I looked like the kid next door so they had no use for me whatsoever and I was one of the first to be carded and let out. Being the curious type, I stood across the street and watched as things developed. I’d met a guy named Marty Robinson who was starting the Gay Action Group and he walked up and asked me what was happening. I’d joined the group and I tried to act cool and casual as I told him it was a raid but I was nervous as hell. He disappeared and came back with chalk. Marty’s known in the gay-rights struggle — quite honestly, he should be better known — but he gave us all chalk and said, “Write ‘Tomorrow Night Stonewall’ everywhere you can.” That’s how we created Future Knights of Stonewall, which eventually led to the Gay Liberation Front. The Gay Liberation Front to me, and I think now to historians, was one of the most important gay organizations that existed because it did two important things. We decided to define ourselves rather than letting society define us, which is important because before that there were gay groups that actually debated whether or not we were mentally ill! We started out with the premise that we weren’t. The second thing we did was to decide that we needed to find a way to have our own community and a way to stop the bar raids and people being arrested and harassed, so we started putting out legal and medical alerts, we took on the churches and synagogues, we started confronting mass media, we created the first youth organization, the first trans organization and the first gay community center, all in the first year! Then, along with Craig Rodwell, we organized the first gay Pride parade, but back then we called it a march.
PGN: Pretty impressive indeed.
MS: Think about it, in 1925 the gay-rights movement was started by a man in Chicago named Henry Gerber. It goes through various disruptions like the Compton’s cafeteria riot in San Francisco, the Dewey’s sit-ins in Philadelphia or the marches outside of Independence Hall, but not a single one had more than 100 people participate. Ever. The Gay Liberation Front’s gay Pride march? 15,000 people! That why it was probably the most important year we’ve seen thus far. It redefined us and created a gay community. GLF was an organization that supported a variety of causes outside of our own — civil rights, trans rights — and we collaborated with everyone from the Black Panthers to communists. We actually marched with the Panthers to free Angela Davis but before that happened, a group from the GLF went to them and said, “We’re willing to march with you but are you willing to stand for us and gay rights?” That was the kind of community building we were a part of. That spirit that GLF had is the reason this paper exists today.
PGN: What brought you back to Philly?
MS: My mother became ill. She had kidney disease; we didn’t know but she’d always been ill. She wasn’t supposed to have kids but wanted a family — hence I’m here — but it took a toll on her and my father asked me to move home to help.
PGN: I guess living at home turned out to be advantageous because it allowed you to be able to do a lot of the activist work you started.
MS: Correct. At first, I really didn’t want to leave New York. I’d developed an incredible group of friends and I’d learned to be a leader thanks to GLF. I’d started doing some media. You asked about higher learning … actually yes, I graduated from Gay Liberation U!
PGN: You definitely learned a lot! What was the trick you used to introduce the first nondiscrimination bill into City Council with the “support” of a group of priests and nuns?
MS: At the time, I was learning how media could be used to create social change. I’ve learned that passing legislation doesn’t change minds; people have to be educated and that means getting the issues before the public, into their homes and churches or synagogues or mosques. It might take time but we will always win if there’s a debate. Always. So I decided that we needed to do something to make people take notice when we got the bill introduced. Luckily for us, they were giving awards to both the Boy’s Club of America and the Northeast Catholic High School debate team that day. When legislation is introduced, they usually just read the number and the title; ours was Bill #1275: An Amendment to the Fair Practices Act. No one knew what it was so we went around the gallery asking people to join us in standing and applauding the bill to support Cesar Chavez and the lettuce workers in California. So when they introduced Bill 1275, my friend Harry Langhorne and I stood up and applauded and the Boy’s Club people and the nuns and priests also stood up and clapped. The following day the Daily News Headline was, “Gay Rights Bill Introduced; Priests and Nuns Applaud.”
MS: That’s what taught me you have to go the next step. It’s that old line, “Dog bites man” is not news, “Man bites dog” — news.
PGN: You took a bite out of City Council when you did a takeover.
MS: Ha. Well, Bill 1275 got introduced and then went nowhere. The president of City Council was George X. Schwartz — he was later convicted in the Abscam scandal, and he was homophobic to the core. He didn’t like me at all. Refused to have a hearing on the bill until his hand was forced. We had a few council members who were sympathetic and, of all people, Frank Rizzo, mostly because he didn’t like Schwartz and we used that to our advantage. City Council wouldn’t hold hearings so Rizzo got the Human Relations Commission to do it. Schwartz was left out and felt we’d gone over his head so he decided to hold a City Council hearing where he would be the chair. He wanted to draw as much blood as he could. [Tears up] I still get emotional about this. When it became my turn to testify, he began pelting me with rude questions. He wrapped up by shouting, “I’m trying to figure out Mr. Segal, what do you do it with?” I said, “Mr. President, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He yelled again, “What do you do it with?” I answered again, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He blurted, ”Do you do it with parakeets?” I was surprised and shocked and very hurt. I just thanked the City Council and walked out. To relegate our community to just sex is so homophobic; there’s so much more to us than just that. Thankfully, our friends at the Daily News got it and the next day they ran an editorial with a big, bold headline saying, “SHUT UP, GEORGE” with a picture of him with a cigar in his mouth. It was devastating to him.
PGN: And the takeover?
MS: Well, the bill never went any further that session and that December, when all bills die, the Gay Raiders, which is an organization I founded, decided to take over City Council. Along with the Dyketactics, which was the radical lesbian organization of its day.
PGN: That was Sharon Owens, correct?
MS: Yes, along with Sherrie Cohen and a lot of other women. In the middle of a session we took over. The president’s chair is elevated on a perch overlooking the other chairs so I went immediately for that and George ran like a scared mouse! I sat in his chair and put my feet up on the desk and was calling for order of the new City Council when a very, very large man walked up and said, “No, you won’t,” and picked me up and carried me out. That man was the Sergeant at Arms, who we know now as Congressman Bob Brady. We’ve been friends since that day.
PGN: Tell me more about the Gay Raiders.
MS: When I came back to Philly, I joined the Gay Activists Alliance. I said that if I was elected the political chair, I would get a gay-rights bill introduced, which no one had been able to do. But they were very formal, not radical in the slightest, and I still had GLF in my heart and running through my veins. Waiting for slow change wasn’t for me, so I created the Gay Raiders and our sole purpose was to break into the media to get society talking about our issues. We’re not considered green-eyed monsters anymore. Why? Because people got to see us, to know us. There were no faces representing us other than the marchers at Independence Hall, but that didn’t get publicity at the time. I lived here and I never saw it; that’s why I moved to New York. Nowadays I can call Channel 3, 6 or 10 and ask them about gay issues but then they wouldn’t have even returned the call. The only way to get through was to disrupt them, so we started doing what we called zaps. They looked spontaneous but they were all calculated and planned. And hopefully humorous; even during the struggle you can still express that joy I spoke about earlier. They were also nonviolent. My parents taught that you never resorted to violence, no matter what was done to you. We did a stunt every six weeks, like chaining ourselves to the Liberty Bell. It used to be inside of Independence Hall and to get to the bell, I was chased around from room to room by cops as I jumped over ropes and crashed into walls until I could handcuff myself to the rail above the bell. The United Way was next when we found out they didn’t fund a single gay organization. I put a big bike lock around my neck and attached it to the door. No one could get in or out without breaking my neck and the next year they funded their first LGBT organization. We then disrupted a fundraising dinner for Nixon and I’m proud to say that he personally denounced me. And then of course we did the TV zaps. Starting with “Summertime at the Pier,” which was a “Bandstand”-like show out of A.C., Sage Powell and I decided to see what would happen if two guys started dancing together while the show was being broadcast live. We danced for about three minutes before security was called and we were thrown out. Sage was black and joked that it was because we were an interracial couple. We then went to ABC where we distracted the guard and ran onto the set of a live newscast. Next we went on “The Mike Douglas Show” and chanted “Two, Four, Six, Eight: Gay is just as good as straight” until they called the police. We did several and oftentimes I was held down and wrapped with camera cables until the police arrived. The next step was when we zapped the set of “The Today Show.” We took the NBC tour and then hid in a closet until the show came on live. We zapped “The Tonight Show” — or tried to: They literally gagged me so I couldn’t talk. And most famously, we zapped “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite, which we went to trial for. The Gay Raiders were even featured in Life magazine, and Variety said that we cost the networks over $750,000. And I wasn’t getting paid for any of it, so living at home was essential and my parents supported the efforts 100 percent. I was becoming a famous gay activist and literally didn’t have 10 cents in my pocket. When I did talk shows later, I did them with holes in my shoes. If we got arrested, you had to find a friend who knew a lawyer who would do it pro bono. Gov. Milton Shapp gave me a jacket when I couldn’t afford one.
PGN: What was your favorite zap?
MS: I don’t think I have a favorite. I have two least favorites. We tried to disrupt the Miss America Pageant but their security was really, really good. We’d purchased a ticket to get in and all of a sudden two men sat down, one on each side of me. They started talking to each other across me, then one took out a piece of paper with a picture of me on it and started saying, “I understand there’s a guy planning to disrupt the event. I guess it’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen.” I could have stayed and done something anyway but I’m sure it would have led to violence and we didn’t want that to happen. As we grew, anyone a little left of center wanted to be part of what we were doing. We were very secretive; we had to be to pull off what we were doing. The other least favorite was when the guy who wrote, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” was coming to town. The book had horrible antigay and false information about LGBT people so we decided to zap him. One guy showed up who was not a member of the Gay Raiders and was not trained. He got into a scuffle with a policeman and got his head split open. He eventually sued the city and made a lot of money from it, but that’s not how we operated.
PGN: I think people would be surprised to find that a lot of the negative reactions you got were from inside the community.
MS: That was probably one of the harder parts to write about. Putting it in context again, 1925 — from the start of the gay-rights movement — through 1969, only 100 people in the U.S. were willing to speak publicly on camera or on the radio about being gay. Only 100 brave souls! They deserve every bit of credit, each and every one. I’m happy to say that Randy Wicker, the first gay man to hold a gay picket sign, is still with us. He did that in 1964 at an Army induction center in New York. We need to celebrate people like that instead of the celebrity du jour. Wait, what was the question? Oh yes, so this goes to say that 99.9 percent of our community was in the closet from the general public. So the line we consistently heard was, “You’re going to make it bad for us.” We were disliked by our own community for stirring things up and groups like the GLF and the Gay Raiders were really disliked because we weren’t politely marching or working the “system.” Politely marching brought out 100 people, GLF brought out 15,000. By the way, my husband Jason won’t let me read the book anymore because when I get to that chapter I get very emotional. It’s very eye-opening how scared we were of society. I was lucky that I had parents who were brave enough to support me and go to the family cousins’ club and stand up for me when they heard people saying horrible things about me.
PGN: They sacrificed for the cause as well.
MS: I wouldn’t say sacrificed because they believed in it too and were very proud of what I was doing. They never told me of what they faced at work or with family. I only learned after they passed. In fact, at my mother’s funeral, my Uncle Ralph confronted me about something I wrote in my mother’s obituary. I described her as a gay activist. He asked if it was true and I said yes and he replied, “Maybe it’s good that she’s gone.” If ever I were to succumb to violence, that would have been the moment. But he’s gone now. And [my parents] were totally supportive. We were the first family in America to go on a talk show; we were flown out to be on “The Phil Donahue Show.” One of my biggest regrets is that I don’t have a copy of that show. We’ve searched high and low and Phil Donahue himself told me it was gone. There was a warehouse fire and everything got burned.
PGN: Was that the uncle who attacked your cousin for being gay?
MS: No, that was my Uncle Bill. One of the ways we learn to be quiet about our feelings is by what we hear around us. One night, we were coming back from the cousins’ club and I was in the back seat. My parents were talking about my Uncle Bill and how he had beat up and thrown out his 15-year-old son because he found out he was a “fagula.” I should have picked up that my parents were talking about how awful it was, meaning what Bill had done. Many years later, I searched for my cousin Norman and found him in L.A. I was being inducted in L.A. as the president of the Gay and Lesbian Press Association and so I asked him to join me. Like many gay youths thrown out so young, he’d had a tough life. He’d had to do what he could to survive and that included living on the street, prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction. He was only 53 but he looked like an old, haggard man. We met for lunch and he came to the ceremony. From the stage, I introduced him and told the audience about him being a survivor and he got a standing ovation. He cried and took a bow and before I finished he smiled, blew me a kiss and left. I never saw him again, but I think it was one of the happiest moments of his life.
PGN: Wow. On to something lighter, I understand Gov. Shapp almost made you a state trooper!
MS: Not my idea! What a great man. He was my political mentor. He deserves credit for a lot of the changes in this country. I met him after my stunning appearance on the “CBS Evening News.” No governor had ever met with a gay activist, ever. I thought because it was a sensitive issue that he’d make the meeting secretive but he had the press corps there and asked what he could do to help the gay-rights struggle. I told him to appoint a commission to look into the problems of LGBT people. Well, back then we said “gays and lesbians.” That led to the governor’s Council for Sexual Minorities, the first of its kind in the world.
PGN: How did the PGN come about?
MS: In that magic year after I disrupted “CBS Evening News,” I became the most famous LGBT person in the nation and no one was more surprised by that than me. I still am fascinated by it. For about three years, I was on every talk show, in every newspaper you could imagine. I was talking to my friend Jim Austin who ran the Pittsburgh Gay News and he asked me if I would do a full-fledged gay newspaper in Philadelphia. I told him that I didn’t have the knowledge or ability and he said, “If I help you, you will.” I still hemmed and hawed until he said, “Mark, someday you’re going to have to make a living. Why not do something that will help build the community?” And that sold me. I’d like to believe that we’ve done that for the past 40 years. It’s not a fun paper; we’re here to be a communication tool for the community and that means including all viewpoints. If you don’t like our take, write an editorial and we’ll print it. We want to have all viewpoints. Are there any gay Trump supporters? We want to talk to you. There’s not a segment of the community we won’t cover.
PGN: What were some of the challenges you faced early on?
MS: Oh, we got death threats on a daily basis. The honor boxes were turned over or firebombed. We had the building spray-painted with hateful messages. We had our electrical and plumbing torn out of the building. We were in an old building that needed tarps on the inside if it rained. Come to think of it, we must be slacking: I haven’t gotten a death threat in over a year! The last one I got was a letter addressed to me and the person put their name and address on the return section! So the police went and checked it out and said he wasn’t anything to worry about. The threat I’m most proud of was in Thunderbolt, which is an American supremacist Nazi paper. They put me on their hit list.
PGN: Congrats! So when did you start feeling, Wow, we’ve really created something that has impact?
MS: I think we felt that way from the beginning. Going back to George Schwartz, whose comment is never far from my mind, I didn’t want people to think of the community as just being about sex, which is how we were perceived. So the first issue had a middle-aged guy on the cover who happened to be the health commissioner of Pennsylvania, who was the highest-ranking government official to come out at that time. For issue number two, we got the governor of Pennsylvania — not the Inquirer or the Daily News, we had the first interview with him. We quickly made people realize that we were a serious newspaper, emphasis on the news. To this day, if you want to run for office in this town, you’re going to come talk to PGN. President Obama learned that the hard way when he was running for president in ’08 and refused to do interviews with gay papers across the country. One of his last stops was in Pennsylvania and we ran a blank space on the front page where the interview would have been.
PGN: I remember that now!
MS: Yes, that got his attention and we met soon after that. He did an interview that September and we’ve had a relationship ever since. If you look on my wall, you’ll see two covers framed. A few years later, I asked him to sign a copy of the article we did and then I whipped out the blank cover. He said with a smile, “Mark, you’re not going to make me sign that one too, are you?” and I said, “Absolutely!” And he did. He’s got a good sense of humor.
PGN: You’ve converted a lot of politicians from foes to friend. Who stands out?
MS: The three that come to mind would be City Councilman Thatcher Longstreth, who used to publicly call members of our community fairies, but who I eventually got to vote for the domestic-partners bill — against, may I add, his good friend and then-arch homophobe John Street, who has now become a major supporter of this community. When he became mayor, he probably did more for us than all the others combined, including allowing the City of Philadelphia to fight all the way to the Supreme Court for the domestic-partner law that he’d originally opposed. He now teaches at Temple and I spoke at his class just last week. I believe that education is the way to win people over. One of the reasons we had gay marriage in Pennsylvania a year before the Supreme Court decision was because I had a working relationship with Tom Corbett. When the Pennsylvania ruling came down, I was able to ask him not to appeal it. You have to open up dialogues. I’ve always been willing to meet with people considered adversaries. Even my early confrontations were always just designed to get people talking. I knew once we got the ball rolling, eventually equality would win.
PGN: How would you deal with a President Trump?
MS: I’d try to keep dialogue open. I have to say, out of all the people I’ve seen running for public office, he scares me the most. I honestly believe he’s a fascist.
PGN: What are other things are you involved with?
MS: For 15 years, this paper was denied entrance to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the oldest existing press association in America, and I now sit on the board, which tickles me to no end. I’m on the Philadelphia International Airport board. I serve city government in various ways. I helped build the LGBT-friendly senior-housing complex. I’m the president of the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund; he founded the first gay organization in the world. And one of the things I’m really excited about is that I’m on the Comcast Diversity Board. It’s been so educational; there was a session on Native Americans and I never realized the extent of what was done to Native Americans. I cried, it was a holocaust. Learning about other communities and creating bridges is so important, I love doing it. It’s kind of funny: I started out being arrested at NBC, now I’m an advisor for Comcast, which owns NBC.
PGN: What don’t people know about you?
MS: I’ve learned over the years how to get government money for the community. We pay taxes, why shouldn’t some of it come back to us? I got the first $300,000 for William Way with a Republican Congress that had never given money to an LGBT cause! I raised over $20 million for the John C. Anderson building and over a million for William Way. I think I’m over $30 million so far for the community in total and there’s more to come.
PGN: From driving a taxi to changing a community, do you ever surprise yourself at what you’ve accomplished?
MS: You know, I never looked back until I wrote the book. It was all slow but steady progress so I never really took note while it was happening.
PGN: What’s life like now? You’re a married man!
MS: Yes, to the love of my life. Jason came into my life when I was having a very bad time. I was down but he saw the potential in me to be as he would say, “better than I already was.” I’d done a lot already and if I wanted to stop there it was OK as long as I was happy, but if I was ready to do more, he was willing to help me. He was counter to everything I ever expected. I thought I wanted someone more my age, but he’s considerably younger than me. When we met, he was a swimmer on the NYU swim team — he won’t boast but he has won several championships and he used to be on the same swim team as a guy who holds several Olympic medals. He gave that up soon after we began our relationship and has become an incredible writer and producer. For the past year, he’s been doing a fellowship at Boston University so I only see him every other weekend. We can’t wait for that to finish! He’s been an amazing influence on me. He’s made me forget the bitter times and celebrate the joy of every day. There’s nothing better than just spending quiet time at home together. It’s sublime.
PGN: What had you so down?
MS: I’d broken up a long-term relationship and was realizing how toxic it was.
PGN: It’s good that you share that; it lets people know that even you can have the same problems that others may be going through.
MS: One of the things we’ve always tried to do was address problems, good and bad. Years ago, I remember hearing about a growing problem in the community with meth and I called Nurit Shein at Mazzoni. I asked her about it and suggested that more than just doing a story on it, we do a whole campaign on the subject, with PSAs in every paper. She loved the idea and we went ahead. We got so much pushback, I was astonished. I called her and said, “Look, I’ve dealt with worse than this, but are you OK with continuing?” Happily, she said yes. We have to face the issues in our community and the reasons why. The columns that are award-winning are the ones written from passion. The angriest chapter in my book is about AIDS.
PGN: We haven’t even spoken about the epidemic and how it affected you.
MS: Let me give you one statistic. I’m proud that the man who wrote “Body Count,” the definitive book on AIDS in America, proofread that chapter before I published it. It’s the only one I wanted someone to fact check for me. I wrote that in just the United States of America, over 500,000 people have died from HIV/AIDS. He corrected that; the correct number is over 600,000. Think about that. That’s more than all the people who have died in recent conflicts. People of my generation went through a war. We got used to people saying, “OK, I’m going to go commit suicide, nice knowing you.” That was common! And is anybody doing anything for post-traumatic stress? It was hell on earth and we were all scarred by it. The silence around it is stunning to me. But we rose up through it, and it taught us how to organize. We made the medical community change its methods and where did people look for information? LGBT media. It was a war, but once we got through it, it changed us for the better.
PGN: True. Random questions. Play any instruments?
MS: I learned a little organ when I was a kid, but couldn’t play it now.
PGN: Worst clothing disaster?
MS: In the 1970s, flashy prints were all the rage. I couldn’t afford clothes so my mother decided she was going to sew. She made me this shirt that was a little bit off — one arm longer than the other — but I still wore it with pride since she made it for me. I still have it! The other “clothing” disaster was with the former spouse I mentioned. He didn’t like the way I looked and wanted to change me. I was losing my hair so he decided I should wear a toupee; it was the most uncomfortable and hateful thing I’ve ever worn in my life. As soon as he was gone, it was gone too.
PGN: Who would you contact at a séance, outside of family?
MS: Oscar Wilde or Abraham Lincoln. No wait, Baron von Steuben. I have a fascination with him. He was a gay man and if it wasn’t for his military expertise, there would be no United States today. Or maybe Ben Franklin, who I call the father of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” since he hired von Steuben. I love gay history.
PGN: Any hobbies?
MS: I’m a huge Sondheim buff, I love musicals. I’m also an architectural buff and I’m pretty handy with a hammer. I love doing sheet rock; I haven’t done it for years but I can do it seamlessly, which is an art. But I’m no longer allowed to do stuff around the house. Last time I was on a ladder, I shattered my heel and was in a wheelchair for 90 days. I’m also into anthropology, which is leading me to genealogy. It’s what drew me back to Odessa to see where the family was murdered.
PGN: Favorite movie line?
MS: From Auntie Mame, she says, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” It became my motto. I think I’ve done pretty well.