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It's Nice to Have President Obama as a Friend

mark-segal-and-then-i-danced-obama

Our community was in full preparation mode as we headed into the presidential primary year of 2008. By the time the Democrat wagon reached Pennsylvania in March of 2008 the field of nominees in the Democratic party had been narrowed down to Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama.

Throughout the primaries, in each state Senator Obama campaigned, his staff would often promise the local LGBT media an interview, then pull out at the last moment. As far as we at Philadelphia Gay News were concerned, that was not going to happen on our watch. We requested interviews with both Clinton and Obama. Due to Clinton’s relationship with my friend Governor Rendell, she quickly agreed. Obama agreed too, but kept putting it off. Finally, with only two weeks to go before the primary, we decided to wait no longer and to act.

On April 4, 2008, the front page of the Philadelphia Gay News was filled, on the right side, with the interview with Senator Hillary Clinton. The entire left half of the front page was a blank space, with the exception of a box in the middle that read, “It’s been 1,522 days since Sen. Barack Obama has spoken with local gay press. See editorial, Page 11.” The reaction was immediate. Every network took notice and newspapers around the nation wrote it up. It was a united and bold decision made by our entire staff. In her interview, Clinton had urged state legislative Democrats to vote no on the anti–gay marriage legislation, so we decided to continue our campaign to get an answer to this question from Senator Obama. The following day we put out a press release asking, “Day 2: What is Senator Obama’s position on the antigay legislation in Pennsylvania?” The day after that: “Day 3: What is Senator Obama’s position on . . .” This went on each day until a week before the primary, and almost every reporter in the state now wanted the answer. I finally received the following e-mail from Chris May at the local CBS affiliate:

Subject: Obama finally answers, thanks to our friends at Capitol Wire

Hi Mark, 
Not sure if you saw it on Sunday, but we put the question about the gay marriage amendment to Barack Obama. In an interview after his town hall meeting in Reading he told us this: “I have said before and continue to believe that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is unnecessary, it’s divisive, and it’s something I would oppose. I think that it is important for us to recognize that same-sex couples should be able to engage in civil unions, that their rights to transfer property or visit each other in the hospital—all those things are matters of law. Even those of us who may not believe in gay marriage should still be able to confer those benefits. And the problem with a constitutional amendment is—I’m not in favor of gay marriage but I certainly don’t want to see a court suggesting that somehow we can’t pass laws to make sure gays and lesbians aren’t being discriminated against. So I think this is a distraction from a lot of issues we need to be tackling, and if I were in the state legislature I would oppose it.”

Thought you would be interested.

A few days before the primary, the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee held its annual Jefferson Jackson Day dinner, where both Clinton and Obama would address a crowd of over a thousand party workers. My friend Congressman Bob Brady, who also served as the committee’s chairman, erected a VIP tent outside the union hall for a few of the elite and somehow he managed to include me. Bob’s wife Debbie and I watched the scene unfolding together. We were teasing the Secret Service agents; one looked at me and said, “I’m from San Francisco.” We laughed, assuming that the guy had just come out to us. There was an air of excitement when Senator Obama entered the tent. He said a few words then went around the tent shaking hands.

City Council President Anna Verna wanted a picture of herself with the senator and shoved a camera in my hands as Obama made his way toward us. “Take our picture,” she said. So I did. Then, in a polite gesture, Senator Obama reached out to shake my hand. I’d feared this introduction.

As my hand met his in that VIP tent while a thousand Democratic Party workers waited to hear his campaign speech, I said, “Senator, I’m Mark Segal.”

His eyes opened wide. He stood even more upright and pulled me toward him, a serious look on his face. “So you’re Mark Segal,” he said. Then, with hurt in his eyes and sincerity in his voice, he added, “I really am good on LGBT issues. We have to talk further on this, but I have to go in the other room and speak.” He then made a fist and wanted to fist bump. There is just something in me that must win every debate, or at least have the final word. Somehow, he recognized this and said, with that great broad smile of his, “Come on, Mark, give me a fist bump.” I did. The man is charming.

That would have been enough drama for me in one evening, but a half hour before, Hillary Clinton had been in that same VIP room. After she spoke to our small group of elected officials, union leaders, and major contributors, Governor Rendell, a major force in her campaign, spotted me and brought her over to say hello. She gave me a warm hug and said, “You’re more tenacious than me!” Coming from her, it was the ultimate compliment.

The following day, Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy national campaign manager, called me to follow up for the senator. During that call, Steve told me he was gay and I quickly realized that this in itself was a story. I asked if we could get an interview with him about being an openly gay deputy campaign manager in a presidential race, and Steve said he had to run it by David Axelrod and Obama first. Luckily, they approved. Then in August, in the middle of the race between Barack Obama and John McCain, I finally got that interview with the future president, and to make it sweeter, it was shared with all my fellow LGBT local publications as part of our National LGBT History Project.

Here’s an excerpt:

Mark Segal: You are the most GLBT-friendly candidate in history running for president. Are you concerned John Mc- Cain and the Republicans might use this as a divisive issue as they did in 2004?
Barack Obama: No. I think they can try but I don’t think it will work for a couple of reasons. Number one, I think that the American peoples’ attitudes with respect to LGBT issues are continuing to evolve. I think people are becoming more and more aware of the need to treat all people equally regardless of sexual orientation. There are some people who disagree with that, but frankly those folks—many of them— probably have already made their minds up about this election earlier.
MS: You’ve talked about your many gay friends. Would you and Michelle be comfortable attending their commitment ceremony?
BO: We would. But I’ll be honest with you that, these days, I can’t go anywhere.
MS: The current President Bush has used signing orders to change military rules and regulations. If White House counsel advised you that you could end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by attaching a signing order to a military appropriations bill, would you?
BO: I would not do it that way. The reason is because I want to make sure that when we revert “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s gone through a process and we’ve built a consensus or at least a clarity of that, of what my expectations are, so that it works. My first obligation as the president is to make sure that I keep the American people safe and that our military is functioning effectively. Although I have consistently said I would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I believe that the way to do it is make sure that we are working through a process, getting the Joint Chiefs of Staff clear in terms of what our priorities are going to be. That’s how we were able to integrate the armed services to get women more actively involved . . . At some point, you’ve got to make a decision that that’s the right thing to do, but you always want to make sure that you are doing it in a way that maintains our core mission in our military.
MS: Many lawyers contend that the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress is unconstitutional. It takes away more than 1,100 rights, including IRS joint filings. If a suit is filed in federal court, would you expect or instruct your attorney general to join in that suit with an amicus brief questioning its legality?
BO: I would want to review carefully any lawsuit that was filed. This is probably my carryover from being a constitutional lawyer. Here’s where I can tell you [what] my principle is: DOMA was an unnecessary encroachment by the federal government in an area traditionally reserved for the state. I think that it was primarily sent as a message to score political points instead of work through these difficult issues. I recognize why it was done. I’m sympathetic to the political pressures involved, but I think that we need to bring it to a close and my preference would be to work through a legislative solution. I would also point out that if it’s going before this court, I’m not sure what chances it would have to be overturned. I think we’re going to have to take a different approach, but I am absolutely committed to the concept it is not necessary.
MS: In the wake of the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, Senator McCain voted against adding sexual orientation to the definition of hate crimes and says he’ll vote against it again. Isn’t this inconsistent for a man who knows torture?
BO: You’ll have to ask Senator McCain that. Here’s what I can say: There is no doubt that hate crimes based on sexual orientation are all too prevalent. It is something that we have to hit back hard against and identify these vicious crimes for what they are: hate crimes. This is something that I believe in and will continue to believe in when I am president.
MS: President Reagan, President Bush, and President Clinton, when meeting world leaders, have raised human rights questions. Amnesty International has documented countries that imprison, torture, and kill gay men, some of which are very close US allies. Would you be willing to raise that question when meeting with those leaders?
BO: I think that the treatment of gays, lesbians, and trans- gender persons is part of this broader human rights discus- sion. I think it is not acceptable that we would in any way carve out exceptions for our broader human rights advocacy to exclude violations of human rights based on sexual orientation. I think that has to be part and parcel of any conversations we have about human rights.

At this point I personally had no doubts about how Obama would evolve on the issue of marriage equality. As he promised me, he has indeed been great on LGBT issues. Before he was even sworn in, he had appointed a host of LGBT people to high positions in his administration, including Shin Inouye, who had LGBT media in his portfolio as a deputy press secretary.

Once President Obama took office, he quickly stated that he would work to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and his attorney general filed a brief before the Supreme Court opposing the Defense of Marriage Act. Any time a state introduced anti-LGBT legislation he publicly opposed it. But what he should get special credit for is that when Maryland was about to vote on marriage equality, he got personally involved and urged the citizens of Maryland to vote yes, and he urged the pillar of the African American community—the churches—to do likewise. This one act created a sea of change in the black community, not just in Maryland but across the nation. While African American leaders have supported LGBT rights in the past, this was the first black president asking them to stand with LGBT Americans in the struggle for equality.

After that April 2008 primary I’d often find myself on the phone with Obama Campaign Staffers discussing various issues or LGBT media issues with Steve, or my old friend Brian Bond, now a top Obama Staffer.  So it wasn’t unusual On August 28, 2008, when my partner Jason and I, along with our friend Nia Meeks, were sitting in Invesco Field listening to will.i.am and waiting for Senator Barack Obama to make his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president when my cell phone rang. I tried to answer, but due to security measures in the stadium it was hard to keep a signal. It took several callbacks for me to get the message. Just before accepting the nomination, the Obama people got a tip that the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, was about to announce his VP choice in order to mute the publicity Obama would receive from his acceptance speech. One of the prospective candidates was former Pennsylvania governor and secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. If that happened, the Democrats wanted me to be prepared to speak on the subject.

Political pundits and columnists were falling all over themselves trying to guess who McCain would pick and when. Several weeks earlier I’d made a few guesses and offered a detailed analysis on two leading candidates in my weekly column. At the top on my list was Ridge, who as governor was a zero on LGBT rights. Just before becoming governor, I had met with him in Washington. He was serving out his final days as a congressman. In that meeting, he made it clear to me that he was not a friend to the LGBT community. My question to him at the time was simple—was it political or personal? His answer was both. I thanked him: “Congressman, you’ve saved me a lot of time.”

That night, McCain didn’t pick Ridge. It wasn’t until the next day that we heard his decision. In hindsight, Ridge might have been a better choice than Sarah Palin. I’m not sure how the Obama team would have used me, but it’s a testament to how well structured, organized, and disciplined the Obama campaign was in 2008. They had contingency plans for any is- sue. Ridge, to his credit, went on to support marriage equality in a brief before the US Supreme Court, and of course Barack Obama was elected president.

I wasn’t surprised when in 2012 Vice President Biden made a very public gaffe preempting the president in support of marriage equality. Why did he do this then? I’d suspected his position for four years already. The morning after Joe Biden was nominated as Obama’s vice president in 2008, his first speaking engagement was with the Pennsylvania delegation. It was fitting since he grew up in Scranton and spent his formative years in Pennsylvania.

After making a triumphant entrance at the 2008 convention, VP nominee Biden made his way to the platform to deliver a few remarks to an excited crowd. Jill Biden was standing on the side near us, and we spoke for a while. She knew I was from Philadelphia Gay News and I asked her a few questions, including one about gay marriage. She thought for a moment and then said, “Of course I support it.”

Jill Biden is a delightful, personable, and brilliant woman, but I didn’t do my job as a journalist and instead dispensed some advice: “Since Joe is the nominee, the two of you might want to mirror  Obama’s position.” It was her first day on the job and I didn’t want to taint it. I didn’t ask the vice presidential nominee the same question. Was this a missed opportunity? I’m happy to say I have no regrets. 

And when the Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that marriage equality was now the law of the land, President Obama made an impromptu emotional statement from the Rose Garden, and that night the White House was lit up in rainbow colors.

*   *   *

In 2010, President Obama made his first official trip back to Philadelphia and I was asked by Senator Bob Casey to be one of the official hosts. After the president delivered his speech that day, we were ushered into a small room with no windows. Obviously it was chosen for security. A group of us all gathered, chatting away until the president walked in the room and said, “Hi, everyone.”

Silence fell and we all seemed overcome with stage fright, even the seasoned political folks. Since everyone else was standing still, I walked over and said, “Welcome to Philadelphia, Mr. President.”

He smiled and said, “How you doing, Mark?”

Now I’m sure he didn’t recognize me and someone had whispered my name in his ear, but hey, I have no complaints.

He asked, “What’s on your mind?” to which I smiled and said, “Mr. President, I appreciate all the great points you’ve been making about LGBT equality, but what about LGBT funding?”

He asked if there was something in particular I was referring to, so I told him about our plans to build an affordable-living facility for LGBT seniors. He said, “Send me the plans.”
My reply was: “Yeah, like you have the time to look at them.” A big smile appeared on his face and he said to Reggie Love, his personal aide, “Give Mark your card,” and to me he said, “I’ll look them over and if they seem possible, I’ll pass them on.”

Then we did the photo op and others stepped forward for their moment. That night the plans, everything I had on the project, were e-mailed. The only hint I had about whether the president actually looked at the plans came at the 2012 Democrat National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was at a Human Rights Campaign/Victory Fund lunch with my friend Klayton Fennell where the first lady was speaking. At the end of the speech I went over to the rope line to shake her hand. Giving her my name and my affiliation with the Philadelphia Gay News, she said, “The senior project.” Then she leaned over to hug me. When the Secret Service got alarmed, she added with a delightful smile, “I forgot, the first lady is not supposed to hug.”

This period of time was a whirlwind of activity. Publishing the paper, pushing full speed ahead with the senior building, the Philadelphia Gay News winning awards, and more.

Then, in late 2011, my life and history punched me right in the face. My friend David L. Cohen, now at Comcast, called to ask if I’d serve on something called the Joint Diversity Council. My initial thought was that this would just be a rubber-stamp group or show horse for the company. David assured me other- wise, then added what should have been obvious: “Mark, you of all people in the LGBT community should appreciate this opportunity to create change in the media.”

On August 19, 2013, at 30 Rock, the NBC News world headquarters in New York City, presidents and producers from NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Today show were packed into a conference room. I was there in my role as an LGBT advisor and a member of NBC parent company Comcast’s Joint Diversity Council. The Latino, Native American, and African American representatives of the council had spoken. When I was introduced all eyes fell on me. Looking over the assembled crowd of executives I knew what I had to say and it was unrelated to the bullet points on the paper in front of me. I smiled at the NBC news brass and simply uttered: “The last time I was in this build- ing was forty years ago, and you had me arrested and taken out in handcuffs.” Silence swept over the room, but soon they all began to laugh, and then they actually applauded. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, was laughing the loudest. I had met him at an earlier Comcast event so he’d had a taste of my humor.

At another Comcast Joint Diversity Council meeting, David asked me to talk about my appearances on the Phil Donahue Show in the 1970s. I explained that the 1973 taping with my parents was one of the first depictions of a gay family on television. I also said that when I ran across Phil Donahue years ago, he told me that many of his tapes from that time were lost in a fire. Since then I had searched television museums and private collections, but a recording of that particular show remained elusive. At this point they perked up. Klayton Fennell, who had become my minder at Comcast, asked Beth Colleton at NBCUniversal if, through their connections, they could help track it down. They requested any information that I had on the taping.

At home, I searched through boxes of memorabilia and finally found the official letters from Donahue, and even the TV release forms signed by my mother and father. A new hunt through various television archives began. To see my friends at Comcast and NBC commit the time and resources to search for what would be a treasured piece of memorabilia for me was heart- warming. Ultimately, they confirmed that the fire that Donahue had mentioned had indeed destroyed all copies of that tape.
On a cold day in January 2013 I watched President Barack Obama give his second inauguration speech.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.”

My congressman had graciously invited me to the inauguration, but I’d decided to stay warm and watch it on television at home. As the president spoke those words, my mind tried to fully grasp the magnitude of what he was saying. Something came over me. I’m not sure how long I cried but I know that in the end the tears washed away a lot of the pain and hate that had been stored up in me for years—the pain of growing up and listening in fright as my relatives spoke in hushed tones about cousin Norman, the shame of looking at those men in the catalogs and worrying that I would forever cause anguish to my parents, and the belief that I would have no future due to who I was. It erased all the battles I’d witnessed and the battles I’d fought within the LGBT community as it grew and changed. In a flash, all of that was gone. I was still and at peace.

It was a moment that had to be shared with someone who had been there during the Stonewall period with me. I Skyped Jerry Hoose and we just looked at each other with tears running down our cheeks. While the president had compared our work to that of the founders of the nation, and those who fought for civil and women’s rights, only we knew the toll it had taken on us, and the toll that it had taken on everyone involved. We had gone from the lowest class of fighters for human rights to equals.

To me, the kid from the projects, who was always the lower class in every category, it meant the world. I also recalled that first meeting with President Obama where he told me, “I’m good on LGBT issues.” Yes, Mr. President, you are.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development asked us to showcase the project at their first conference on LGBT senior housing. Webcast live from their headquarters in Washington, DC, they and the White House hailed the project. From that meeting with President Obama in 2012 to the day we took in our first resident, only three years and nine months had passed. Yes, that was record timing for a project like this. Since opening, we have been deluged with requests to both tour the building and assist those wishing to replicate our success in other cities.

At the ribbon cutting on February 24, 2014, I took the microphone to welcome the large crowd. I pulled out a letter I had recently received and began to read it:

I send my warm regards on the opening of the John C. Anderson Apartments. For generations, courageous lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans spoke up, came out, and fought injustice, blazing trails for others and push- ing us closer to our founding ideals of equality for all. In the face of impossible odds, these leaders and committed allies demonstrated that change is possible and helped our nation become not only more accepting, but also more loving. And across America today communities are tackling challenges that remain and writing bold new chapters in this story of progress.

By working together as advocates, business leaders, and officials throughout government, we can address the problems of LGBT discrimination in housing. Offering security and affordability for Philadelphia’s LGBT seniors, this apartment community is an example of how we can create a more hopeful world when we better care for one another. My administration stands with all those in the fight to ensure every American has equal access to housing—no matter who they are or whom they love. May this effort inspire us to continue striving for equality for all people in our time.

As the John C. Anderson Apartments opens its doors, I hope it provides warmth and comfort to all who call it home. I wish you all the best for years ahead.
 —Barack Obama

The audience stood and applauded, and for an instant in the emotion of that moment I saw an image of my cousin Norman— Who as a young boy of 16 in the 1950’s was toss out of his home for being gay, and became one of our toss away gay street kids.  He went from city to city and died a poor lonely figure.  He had never gotten the chance to live among people who treated him with decency and respect.   

The other visit that stands out was when I had the opportunity to introduce Jason to the president and Mrs. Obama. We were at one of the president’s holiday parties. As is tradition, the president and first lady pose for pictures with their guests. When it was our turn, the immaculately uniformed Marine introduced us: “Mr. President, may I present Mark Segal and his guest, Jason Villemez.”

The protocol is for the invited guest to stand next to the president and their spouse or guest to stand next to the first lady. Me being Mark Segal, I said, “Mr. President, I have enough pictures of us together, but I have none with the beautiful first lady, so I hope you don’t mind if I stand next to her.”

Laughter came from behind the camera. It was Reggie Love, the president’s personal aide who had helped usher the plans for the Anderson project. He gave a thumbs-up.
That was the only time I’ve ever witnessed Jason in total awe. Nothing, and I mean nothing—with the exception of my driving skills—had ever fazed him before. To see that side of him was a joy.

With all my memorable trips to the White House, I was almost dreading another visit to Washington. But surprises— 
delightful ones at that—seem to always pop up if I simply keep my eye on the target.

At the gay pride reception at the White House in June 2014, Jason and I stood near the back of the East Room with the photographers and journalists, giving others a chance to be close to the president. Midway through the president’s speech, I thought I heard him say, “We must do more with affordable housing for our LGBT seniors.” I did a double take, thinking I might be imagining things. But after the speech, one of the president’s assistants, Gautam Raghavan, came over and said with a big grin, “Did you notice we got your line in?”

Later, Jason and I headed to the portico entrance, where the Marine band was playing, and we danced in the White House. The following Saturday, July 5, we got married in a private ceremony with Jason’s sisters as best women and my nephew Jeffrey as best man, and my friend Judge Dan Anders presiding over the ceremony. Jason’s parents were there too; in our pockets we each had a piece of his mother’s wedding veil which she had given us for the ceremony.

***

Excerpted from And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality by Mark Segal. Akashic Books, 2015.

MARK SEGAL has established a reputation as the dean of American gay journalism over the past five decades. He is one of the founders and former president of both the National Gay Press Association and the National Gay Newspaper Guild. Segal was recently inducted into the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s Hall of Fame and was appointed a member of the Comcast/NBCUniversal Joint Diversity Board, where he advises the entertainment giant on LGBT issues. He is also president of the dmhFund, though which he builds affordable LGBT-friendly housing for seniors. He lives in Philadelphia. 

mark-segal-and-then-i-danced-obama

Excerpted from And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality by Mark Segal. Akashic Books, 2015.

MARK SEGAL has established a reputation as the dean of American gay journalism over the past five decades. He is one of the founders and former president of both the National Gay Press Association and the National Gay Newspaper Guild. Segal was recently inducted into the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s Hall of Fame and was appointed a member of the Comcast/NBCUniversal Joint Diversity Board, where he advises the entertainment giant on LGBT issues. He is also president of the dmhFund, though which he builds affordable LGBT-friendly housing for seniors. He lives in Philadelphia. 

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