A kid from South Philly remembers fact and fiction at the Stonewall riots

Tim McLaughlin
June 17, 2019 - 10:05 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Growing up in a housing project in 1960s South Philadelphia, Mark Segal didn't see anyone like him.

"There was nothing on TV, because we were invisible," Segal says. "No TV personalities, no mentions of us on TV. Radio talk shows were not allowed to talk about us."

So, he thought there was only one place he could go.

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"The only place there would be people like me would be in that place in New York where all the hippies and beatniks were," he said. "In that strange place called Greenwich Village."

He moved right after high school graduation in May of 1969. He's now the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, but at that time he was 18 — a fresh face in Greenwich Village.

He spent a little over a month making friends and going to one of the few gay bars that would let him in: the Stonewall Inn.

"You would go into Stonewall, because it was the only place that you could hold hands, maybe kiss the person you loved and — more importantly to us — dance."

But the early morning of June 28, 1969, was no normal time at Stonewall.

"That night the lights flickered on and off and then they came on full force," Segal remembers. "And I looked over at a friend and said, 'What's going on'? And he said, nonchalantly, 'Uh, we're being raided.'"

Raids on gay bars were pretty common. And the mafia-owned Stonewall had been an easy target.

"Anybody, men and women who were stereotypical, they pushed around, and to people who look like they might've been establishment-oriented, uh, they would go up to them and literally tell them to take their wallets out and extort money from them," Segal said.

The cops arrested some, but told most people, like Segal, to go home.

"Instead of dispersing, we formed sort of a semi-circle around the door across the street."

Mark Segal
Holli Stephens/KYW Newsradio

Exactly what happened next is unclear. But we know a group of people — maybe a dozen —  were being led out in handcuffs. Some of them started resisting.

Some accounts say a lesbian started screaming at the onlooking crowd. Others say it was a transgender woman who first fought back.

Either way, the crowd got hostile.

The cops tried to get them to go away.

However, Segal says, "We stood our ground. And then the second or third time when they did that, we just started throwing things at the door. Every time they tried to open it, we would throw whatever we could find — beer cans, soda cans, little stones, whatever."

The police went back inside.

At some point a fire started inside the bar. Some say it was burning trash, others say it was a Molotov cocktail.

At the end of the night, the windows of the Stonewall Inn were broken, part of the inside charred. Out in the street, there was the beginning of a movement.

And for Segal, "it was the most joyous night of my life."

Fact from fiction, 'a mountain of mythology'

The Stonewall riots happened decades before everyone had cell phone cameras in their pockets. And very few media outlets covered them. Reconstructions of what happened depend almost entirely on memory and word of mouth. That's where it gets tricky.

"People have made a mountain of mythology out of Stonewall," says Segal.

Segal says this is because "it was a pivotol point in gay history, and they enlarge it and enlarge it and enlarge it. Doesn't matter how big it was. It's a fact that it was and it changed the world."

One example is a story the author Edmund White tells about someone who ripped up a parking meter out of the ground and used it as a battering ram to break down the door of the bar.

Segal says that didn't happen. "If you look at [the pictures from> that second night when we spoke on the steps, the doors were there and they were old."

Another example involves Judy Garland, whose funeral happened just hours before the Stonewall riots.

Here's how the drag queen RuPaul tells it: "The patrons of the Stonewall used their grief over Judy's death to rise up and fight back. And they liberation movement was born."

That, Segal says, had nothing to do with it. Garland was from their parents' generation. Besides, he says, that story probably came from a homophobic column in the Village Voice.

There is one legend that everyone seems to agree on — that in the middle of the fighting there were kick lines of drag queens.

They were singing, to the tune of the "Howdy Doody" theme song, "We are the Stonewall girls/ we wear our hair in curls/ we wear no underwear/ we show our pubic hair/ we are the village queens/ we always wear blue jeans/ we wear our hair in curls/ because we think we're girls."

It was reenacted in the 1995 film "Stonewall," directed by Nigel Finch.

Historian Marc Stein knows the struggle of sorting fact from fiction. For his new book "The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History," he collected more than 200 documents related to Stonewall.

"After Stonewall, the movement just took off," he said. "The thousands and thousands of people became involved. More and more groups were formed. The level of militancy and radicalization really exploded. So, that's why I think many people date the mass mobilization of the movement to Stonewall."

Segal was one of the people who helped form an activist group — the Gay Liberation Front — after Stonewall. "We were gonna be out loud and proud and in your face," he says.

Mark Segal disrupts a 1972 Republican City Committee dinner at the Philadelphia Civic Center.
John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

For Segal, it's hard to place Stonewall in history. "Those of us who were there — it's very difficult for us to understand the historical significance. I'm still trying to come to terms with that historical aspect."

One moment when it hit him was President Obama's second inauguration when, speaking about equality, he cited Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. "That made me cry," says Segal, holding back tears even now, "and realize that we as a community have finally got there. We're no longer invisible."​

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Fifty years after the uprising at Stonewall that marked a turning point in the fight for equality, KYW Newsradio examines the past, present, and future of the LGBTQ rights movement through voices from the Philadelphia region in the series "Stonewall Uprising 50th Anniversary."