Former Mt. Airyite a celebrated pioneer: Surviving death threats, suicides, Nazis, for 35 years

Breaking News, Local Life March 18, 2011 0 Comments

Former Mt. Airyite a celebrated pioneer: Surviving death threats, suicides, Nazis, for 35 years

By Mark Segal

The Philadelphia Gay News has routinely covered gay rights demonstrations over the years, like this one in Washington, D.C., last year.

Ed. Note: Mark Segal, 60, founder of the Philadelphia Gay News and its editor and publisher for the entire 35 years of its existence, lived in Mt. Airy all of his teenage years (“Good years that I still remember with affection,” he told me). He attended Germantown High School, Phila. Community College and Temple University.

I’ve been very emotional in the last few weeks. After all, 35 years is a big deal. At milestones like this, we often reflect on the past.
I’ve been paging through 35 years of the Philadelphia Gay News. It has been an emotional journey. I was so busy on that journey that I never had much time to look back. Until I did so — looking at the wealth of community and PGN history and achievement — I never realized how hard it really was. We just fought the fight that had to be fought.

Our newspaper has survived bomb threats, broken windows, graffiti, suicides, death threats, cars deliberately plowing into our vending boxes, the trashing of our offices and the American Nazi Party putting us on its hit list.

On occasion, PGN staff members have had to watch police cart their publisher off to jail. When the United Way wouldn’t fund LGBT organizations, I secured my neck to their front door. Many a TV station was disrupted or, for my last visit to jail, I toilet-papered WCAU-TV after they did biased and negative news reporting on our community. And that was when I was beginning to use my parenting skills with my nephew. He watched Uncle Mark being handcuffed and hauled away. (A good civics lesson?) Certainly one of the many family moments members of the PGN staff have had. The staff truly makes this paper, and there have been births in our family and, of course, deaths.

But through all of this, we have built a community together and have held true to our mission of being a communication platform for debate within our community. There is no issue that cannot be discussed. Sometimes it brings us pain, as we can’t only portray the lighthearted side of the community, as some would like us to do.
When there are issues in this community, these are the pages where those issues are discussed and sometimes resolved, or where we agree to disagree. Most importantly, we have chronicled the growth of the community. And the pages of this paper over the years clearly show that growth.

When we started in the 1970s, it was usual for us to cover events like police raids on gay bars and the D.A. investigating the wholesale blackmailing of gay men. PGN took on organizations such as the American Red Cross, Blue Cross Blue Shield and United Way, and sadly, we chronicled the brutality of hate crimes and murders.
We pushed every envelope, including but definitely not limited to police hiring, lesbian nuns, runaway gay children, the homeless in our community, HIV/AIDS, community funding, equal employment and domestic-partner rights.

As a community, we did all that — and we won many battles. Today, our community has three “out” city judges; we have had an open lesbian, Alba Martinez, as president of that same United Way that once refused to fund LGBT organizations; and had a gay man, Andy Chirls, as chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. We have active community, health and youth centers. And this paper, your newspaper, has grown to be the nation’s most award-winning LGBT weekly, one that even interviews soon-to-be presidents.

And I can’t help but get emotional when I think of our start in a building with no electricity, no plumbing and, when it rained, needed a plastic tarp. I’m not only proud of this paper, but proud too of the community we serve, and look forward to the future battles we’ll wage together to bring growth and services to our community.

When this paper started, we weren’t taken seriously. We changed that in our second issue with a groundbreaking interview with the governor of Pennsylvania. At that point, no other LGBT medium had ever spoken to such a high-level elected official in its pages. We made it a point if you were running for office, you’d speak to the LGBT community through its media and be accountable. Even a candidate named Barack Obama came to know that. But it goes further. It’s not only speaking to the LGBT community, it’s keeping the promises of equality.

PGN’s mission has not changed, and we hope, along with our community, that we have helped society change. In 1976 — 35 years ago — I really didn’t understand what I was signing up for. Today I look back, and tears well up. There are too many memories, some good, some bad. If history is any lesson to us, the history lesson to our community through the last 35 years is: This paper proves this community is on the move and, after reading many of those papers over the last few weeks, late into the night, I predict our community has a bright future.

Mark Segal is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Trans-gendered) media, having recently received the 2010 Columnist of the Year Award from the 2,000-member Suburban Newspapers of America. He was one of the founders and president of both The National Gay Press Association and the National Gay Newspaper Guild He can be reached at mark@epgn.com.

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