Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.
The personal is political. Mark Segal’s memoir And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality tells his story in an easily accessible and entertaining way. It charts his youth growing up in a working-class Jewish family in Philadelphia, enduring anti-Semitic taunts from classmates and enduring the government-mandated Protestant Christian school prayer. At the start the memoir is overburdened with Segal’s humblebragging and name-dropping. “My refusal to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was my first political action, my first defiance of conformity and the status quo.” He establishes early on his credentials as a political crusader. But after the initial off-putting nature, the memoir becomes more engaging.
As a young gay man, he travels to New York City to become a gay rights activist. After a productive period, Segal becomes disillusioned by the internal factions and ideological disagreements among different gay rights groups. The counter-productive factionalism makes him return home to Philadelphia. On a personal level, this is a fascinating story, but it also reveals a relevant lesson to aspiring political revolutionaries and wannabe activists. If things get bogged down at the national level, it can be productive to focus on the local level. As Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill quipped, “All politics is local.” (Or a more contemporary axiom might be: “All politics is money.” or “All politics is Twitter.”)
Through various twists and turns, Segal transitions from an activist involved in direct action to an establishment figure in Philadelphia. At the end of the memoir, Segal is the Establishment figure within Philly’s gay community. Another lesson, not fully stated in the text, is the conflict and interplay of direct action and legislative redress. The simple knee-jerk response is to see these two activities as binary opposites. But both should work together to achieve a goal. How does one advocate for change when the mainstream community rather not recognize you even exist? Gays were yet another group mainstream America would feel more comfortable brushing under the carpet or simply not acknowledge. The political center has always been uncomfortable with change and welcoming new groups into the fold. They would much rather stamp their monotonous blandess on to any group that dares differ in appearance, religion, political, cultural, and sexual orientation. Why enter the community of Heaven when Heaven is a boring, oppressive, narcotized herd? Maybe we don’t want to go to your version of Heaven.
In the Sixties and Seventies, when Segal was active in direct action, the gay community had yet to coalesce and become a relevant political force. Segal’s trouble-making and rabble-rousing – most famously interrupting a CBS broadcast – put a voice to the community that had once hid in the shadows. The Stonewall Riots – and later Stonewall Uprising – made this invisible community visible. It is no accident the oppressors – religion, police, psychology – used the term “love that dare not speak its name” to homosexuality. Stonewall changed all that. Prior to Stonewall, the gay community had the gradualist, accommodationalist strategy of the Mattachine Society. Put another way, the Mattachine Society was Booker T. Washington compared to the Gay Raider’s more Black Panther-like agitprop.
Segal ends his memoir as a community organizer and go-to fundraiser for giant projects. He tells about his efforts to raise funds for an LGBT elder care facility in Philadelphia and organizing an appearance by Elton John for a July 4th celebration. His final triumph is personal, when he dances with his husband in the White House. Published in 2015, And Then I Danced reflects the optimism and empathy of the political left in a nation making good on its promise of equality for all. Like any struggle, it wasn’t easy or achieved overnight. It began on the streets with riots and shouting and continued with a community advocating legislative redress. To make real change in America involves reforming the laws, but first you have kick up a shitstorm. The most threatening thing to a corrupt, ossified system, hobbled by antiquated laws and procedures (see: The Electoral College), ruled by the unfit and inept is to say, no, to shout: “I EXIST!”