After witnessing the Stonewall riots first hand, Mark Segal went on to become one of the most influential LGBT activists and publishers in America
By Peter Fox
June 27, 2019
Mark Segal was 18 years old on the night of June 28th, 1969, when he entered the Stonewall Inn. On the night of the historic Stonewall riots Segal had been living in New York for just six weeks, but he had already become immersed in the elusive Greenwich Village gay night scene. Raised by the only Jewish family in south Philadelphia’s Wilson Park housing project, Segal was no stranger to being an outsider. He told his parents he was leaving Philly to go to school in New York. In truth, he’d left to find a gay community. Watching an episode of The David Susskind Show years earlier he’d learned that gay people existed in New York and he knew then that was where he belonged.
Segal would go on to organize some of the earliest American LGBT organizations, help plan the first Pride March in 1970, found the longest running LGBT weekly newspaper, the Philadelphia Gay News, and become one of the most important figures in the alternative gay press. But on that night at Stonewall he was still a teenager just exulting in the chance to drink and socialize with other LGBT people at a time when homosexuality was still treated as a psychological affliction by the medical establishment, immoral by most religions, and criminal under law. In 1969 homosexuality was a crime in every state except Illinois.
The Mafia-run Stonewall Inn located in New York’s famed Greenwich Village was a kind of sanctuary. It appealed to the less-privileged LGBT people who couldn’t fit in among the more white-collar and buttoned-up secret societies of gays that existed at the time. If you were a well-off gay white male you went to Julius’s—the oldest gay bar in New York. If you were poor, or more radical, your home was Stonewall. The inn was a gathering place for street kids, artists, and gay people of all different races and ethnic backgrounds. It was one of the hearts of New York’s vibrant, bohemian LGBT community and it would become the birthplace of America’s gay civil rights movement.
It started when New York City police raided the bar as they had many times before. The cops were looking to bust an illegally run, Mafia-owned establishment selling water-downed liquor without a license but also came to abuse the patrons, throwing around anti-gay slurs and using the vulnerable population as a chance to arrest as many people as possible and pad their records. They had done this many times before, including just four nights earlier at the Stonewall Inn.
Segal was carded by the police that night but with no money to offer for a bribe, he says that he was fortunate to be quickly released. The people arrested were primarily minors, trans women, and crossdressers, which was still illegal at the time. Segal watched from across the street, terrified as the raid unraveled into chaos.
Yet the terror was mixed with other emotions.
“There was an odd, celebratory feel to it,” he says. Within moments of taking in the scene, he thought to himself, “this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
Most people ran away to avoid arrest, but those who remained were drag queens, hustlers, runaways, street kids—the people who had nothing to lose and were willing to fight back.
In 1969, American society was all about rebellion. “African Americans can fight for their rights, Latinos can fight for their rights, women can fight for their rights, what about us?” Segal saw the social uproar of the era and thought, “why not me? Why not my people?”
For Segal, the aftermath of the Stonewall riots was a “magical year.” He played a role in starting the Gay Liberation Front, an umbrella group that became one of the first major American LGBT organizations, and helped found the first transgender and gay youth organizations, serving as its president at the age of 19.