Sharing a home filled with gay-rights history

Newlyweds Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, and Jason Villemez (left) on the rooftop deck, with its Center City view, at their home in Society Hill.
Newlyweds Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, and Jason Villemez (left) on the rooftop deck, with its Center City view, at their home in Society Hill. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2014

On the day Mark Segal saw the house in Society Hill, he knew instantly that he would buy it - and did, that very day.

Few real estate deals happen that way, but this was back in 1994, and Segal, founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and a national leader in the gay rights/LGBT movement, had a life filled with drama and constant challenge. Segal admittedly needed a sanctuary, and he instantly found it in the 1970s, three-story house with a contemporary look and feel.

"Every time I walk into the den, I feel myself decompressing," said Segal, who shares the house with his husband, Jason Villemez. "I look around, and so many parts of my life are right here, on the walls, on the shelves."

Indeed they are. On view in that room are photos from Segal's early days in the thick of the movement, including his involvement in the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village. Weary of the harassment and raids on gay establishments, a group of customers at the Stonewall Inn, including Segal, rioted - in what is widely considered the start of the national gay-rights movement.

"I am so proud that I was there," says Segal, 63, who had migrated from his South Philadelphia roots to New York City to help organize and lead gay-rights demonstrations. He supported himself as a taxi driver - his original license is proudly displayed on a shelf.

Segal returned to Philadelphia ("I'm definitely a Philly chauvinist!") in 1976 when he launched PGN.

His triumphs since have been measurable, including spearheading the January opening of the LGBT-friendly, 56-unit John Anderson Apartments for low-income seniors near 12th and Locust Streets. The commemorative shovel from the Oct. 29, 2012, groundbreaking has a place of honor high on the wall.

Segal met Villemez through a mutual friend 10 years ago. Then a producer for the PBS NewsHour, Villemez started commuting from Washington to Philadelphia to be with Segal on weekends. Then last year, Villemez, now 30, became an associate producer at Comcast.

Segal and Villemez now share the house full time, and the two got married in July - a private ceremony that became public when Segal announced it in his newspaper. The account included the fact that the decision was so spontaneous that they forgot their wallets in their rush to get their license from City Hall.

"So, City Councilman Jim Kenney and Register of Wills Ron Donatucci paid $40 each so that we could get our license," said Segal. "Without that loan," he adds impishly, "who knows?"

Both agree that everything - including their home - has taken on more meaning since their wedding.

"We feel more rooted, even more committed, and this house is where we feel it most," says Villemez, who concedes that while their temperaments may be different, they've found that the dynamic works.

"Most of what you see in this home was done by Mark, but I do try to keep him a bit more practical," says Villemez, who recently has been working on a Comcast series about the U.S. civil-rights movement. "He's the visionary; I'm the one who may roll my eyes at some of his visions."

One of Segal's philosophies is happily shared by Villemez - a home should be fun.

That explains why there are visual surprises throughout. For example, hanging prominently on a stairway wall between the home's first and second levels is a glittery Mummers costume, both a conversation piece and a decor element.

There are playful touches, like a Statue of Liberty replica perched on a shelf with drag queen statuettes nearby, and the message is clear: Liberty means being truly who you are.

There are the sybaritic spaces, like the master bathroom, a collaborative effort to create from two smaller bathrooms one large, spa-like retreat with Italianate trappings.

They enlisted the guidance of Bill Whiting, a muralist and painter, who has done work at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. At the couple's home, Whiting's lush landscape murals are set off by expanses of marble and tile accented with elaborate columns.

The home's public areas include a dining room with contemporary art and accessories, and a living room with a balcony overhang and a grand piano.

Every year, Villemez and Segal host a holiday party that includes not just family and friends, but also civic and political leaders, all singing around that piano. Even during one of the region's snowstorms last winter, the party went on. "We were flattered," says Segal. "It wasn't easy to get here, but people made the effort."

Yet these homeowners also wanted a more informal entertaining space that would serve as a perfect kickback place for themselves.

So they looked skyward, transforming their roof into a large deck that delivers a spectacular view of the cityscape. Equipped with furniture impervious to weather, the deck features a center gazebo with canvas draping to block strong sun and rain.

Villemez, a fiction writer by avocation, uses the expansive deck as a favorite creative spot.

"I come up here and start writing, and if I get stuck, I just look out at the city, and somehow, something inspires me."

The couple's next project will be modernizing the home's kitchen with an eye, perhaps, toward more home cooking and less outside catering.

Even that greater sense of domesticity is related to the recent marriage.

"As a gay man, I just never thought marriage would happen to me," says Villemez. "It's a wonderful surprise."

Segal shared his changed perspective in early August in his "Mark My Words" column. After suffering a broken arm from a motor scooter accident shortly after their wedding, Segal needed surgery. For the first time, in filling out the forms involved, Segal could check the "married" option.

"But it was Jason's care and love for me back at home that really reminded me that marriage is more than a piece of paper," he said, "and home is more than just a building."


pinegander@aol.com

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