20 Years As A Gay Establishment Philadelphia Gay News Publisher Mark Segal Has Made Waves Since 1976. Yet He Can Claim Respectability Today.

Posted: January 22, 1996

Flash back to 1980 and the Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees.

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, gets a tip that one group of refugees - Cuban gays - is being detained by the U.S. government at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. He decides that PGN should investigate.

``I gained entrance with my photographer and a reporter. I was dressed as a priest - Father Segal,'' Segal gleefully recalls. ``And they bought it.''

Entering the barracks, ``Father'' Segal and his entourage encountered ``hundreds of these Cuban drag queens,'' and they set to work interviewing and taking pictures.

``All of a sudden,'' Segal says, ``the entire barracks got surrounded by the military with their rifles, and we were marched out at gunpoint.''

Segal says he later received an apologetic phone call from then-Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie. But there was better news yet: ``The idiots forgot to take the tape and the photos.''

Chalk up another first for PGN, the award-winning - and controversial - weekly newspaper (circulation: 15,000) that celebrated its 20th anniversary this month.

Over the years, PGN has earned kudos for stories such as its 1981 examination of drug and alcohol abuse among gay men - daring because at the time gay bars were its principal advertisers. In the early 1980s, it focused attention on the AIDS epidemic, and it has investigated hate crimes, police abuse, and countless other civil-rights issues.

Still, both PGN, which debuted as a monthly on Jan. 3, 1976, and the outspoken Segal, 45, have their critics - especially within the gay community itself. The paper is perceived as having neglected minority and lesbian voices - an omission Segal and editor Al Patrick say they are trying to remedy. The paper recently hired a lesbian features editor, Patti Tihey, to widen its appeal.

Then there is the little matter of Segal himself. Once a radical gay activist, Segal founded the influential Pride of Philadelphia Election Committee (POPEC) in 1989 and now counts many local politicians - including Mayor Rendell, State Sen. Vince Fumo and City Councilman Jim Kenney - among his friends. In 1993, Philadelphia magazine acknowledged Segal's status as a power broker by bestowing on him its ``Best of Philadelphia'' award for ``clout.''

In some ways, Segal's evolution may reflect the increasing respectability of the gay movement itself. But his critics lament his coziness with the establishment and accuse him of being a relentless self-promoter who uses PGN as his personal platform.

``He gives himself and his dog [Moishe] more coverage than things like the annual Outfest,'' says Scott Mallinger, editor and publisher of the rival Au Courant, another Philadelphia gay weekly. ``He presents himself as a spokesman for the gay and lesbian community, but he is a sellout.''

Larry Gross, professor at the Annenberg School of Communications and cochair of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, applauds PGN for helping to shape gay consciousness in Philadelphia. He is critical of the paper, however, for relying on national wire stories written from a straight perspective and for buying into what Gross calls ``the myth of objective journalism.''

``I think the paper has unfortunately decided to be the lavender New York Times rather than accept its important responsibility as the voice of the community,'' he says.

While Segal excites animosity, his prominence also means that staffers get their calls returned. Among the hundreds of guests at PGN's 20th-anniversary bash at the Theatre of Living Arts earlier this month was Mayor Rendell, who once served as POPEC's pro bono attorney.

``They [Segal and PGN] probably more than anything else are responsible for the sense of community and the sense of pride that exists in Philadelphia's gay community,'' the mayor says in an interview during PGN's celebration.

``Mark's an excellent promoter - of many causes, including himself,'' Rendell adds. He cites Segal's ability to ``marshal political resources'' in local races - at which point Segal suddenly appears at the mayor's elbow, frenetically demanding to know if Rendell remembers just how much POPEC contributed to his first winning mayoral campaign. . . .

* The next day, Segal greets a visitor to PGN's editorial offices near South Street with his customary casualness, dressed up for the meeting in blue sweats and a blue baseball cap. After an introduction, he sends his beloved Moishe, a Boston terrier, back to a corner of the room.

Above Segal's desk hangs a large painting of a Philadelphia street corner featuring one of PGN's purple-colored vending boxes. There are testimonials and plaques adorning the wall along with a poster depicting Segal as a mustachioed young activist on the lecture circuit, and Philadelphia magazine's more recent portrait of Segal, showing a portly swimsuit-clad figure sitting on the beach.

A South Philadelphia native whose father drove a taxicab and whose mother worked in a department store, Segal has done well by doing good. He boasts, in PGN's recent anniversary issue, of his success in real estate and the stock market and calls PGN ``the third-most profitable gay publication in the nation,'' after San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter and The Blade in Washington.

Tony Lombardo, Segal's longtime partner and PGN's associate publisher, attributes Segal's sense of mission to an ``inner anger at discrimination,'' as well as his family's emphasis on community service.

Even Segal's opponents concede that he was on the front lines of the gay-rights movement when those lines were thin indeed. ``I was Act Up before there was Act Up,'' Segal says of the radical gay group.

In the early 1970s, when he was a member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Raiders, ``you always thought of gay men as being limp-wristed, high-voiced, swishy - not very aggressive,'' he says. ``No one ever thought of gay people as disrupting TV broadcasts, going into boardrooms - and we did things of that sort. . . . At that point, I was considered the most radical gay activist in the nation.''

With the help of a fellow activist, Jim Austin, who published gay newspapers in Pittsburgh and Ohio, Segal launched PGN with an issue featuring the coming out of Walter Lear, a state health official. After nine months, Segal took over the business.

``My initial goal for PGN was to be the publication that informed our community. It was very modest. Then as we went on, I began to realize how powerful a communications medium that connected our community together could be,'' Segal says, ``and my goals changed. I wanted to do more.''

Segal says he is particularly proud of stories the paper has published on the gay and lesbian homeless, on the Reagan-era Supreme Court, and on health-insurance companies that redlined gays because of the cost of AIDS treatment.

About his detractors, he says: ``Some critics have definitely helped us be more inclusive. Other people are personally motivated, and those people we would ignore.''

Editor Patrick says he approaches his job not as an activist, but as a journalist. ``People think that we write a police abuse story on every single call we get from gay people,'' he says. ``We do not. I investigate them. I make sure that their claims are legitimate. I ask them hard questions.''

Asked about the effect of Segal's political activism on the paper, he says: ``It presents its problems - I won't lie. Whenever I come across a story where there is a conflict, I state the conflict and move on.''

So far, in Patrick's more than two years as editor, Segal has allowed him ``complete editorial freedom,'' Patrick says. And he adds: ``If he ever pulled a story on me, I'd quit.''

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