“It’s a valid question,” says Bob Hotes, a preservation architect and 23-year Philadelphia resident. “Because the Gayborhood doesn’t mean what it used to. It used to be the only place to feel safe.” Now, he says, there are other places where gays can feel welcome: “But it’s not like we’re welcome everywhere. And I think for people who are young or having trouble coming out, this place is necessary and will be for a long time. Plus, it’s good for any community or ethnic group to feel like it has a home base. Just like the Italians claim so much of South Philadelphia, this is our place.”
In fact, to a man and woman, more than two dozen people I asked all agreed: The Gayborhood looks different to them now, less like a bulwark against the outside world than a symbol of shared history and community pride. For these reasons, they argue, it should stay. Their views of Malcolm Lazin and Mark Segal, however, are more complicated.
The decentralization of the city’s gay community has broadened its concerns. The lesbian mom in Bryn Mawr is a lot less likely to spend her time knocking on doors for a gay City Council candidate than she is to fight for an advanced curriculum in her child’s school; a gay entrepreneur on Passyunk Avenue is less interested in one of Segal’s name-dropping editorials in the PGN than in an Inquirer story about small-business taxes. In this sense, the Big Men of the Gayborhood seem slightly anachronistic: Much like that storied neighborhood, they’ve lived through the time when their presence was urgent and necessary, yet here they still are. The difference is that the Gayborhood is passive, and speaks with the collective voice of the people who live, work and play there. Lazin and Segal? They speak for themselves.
I HAD SEPARATE lunches with Malcolm Lazin and Mark Segal, but remarkably similar experiences.
Lazin is long and lean, with toned muscles, a youthfully luxe head of brown hair—“I dye it,” he says, laughing—and a gift for oration. During a two-hour lunch at the Palm (his choice), he comes across as outspoken, serious, even stately—to the manor born. Once a star in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he talks about his life in the exclamatory cadences of a prosecutor pressing a case. He won the Distinguished Service award (“the highest honor the Department of Justice has!” he volunteers), and still touts the nearly 40-year-old laurel. He’s run for D.A. and, much like perennial mayoral candidate Sam Katz, lost in a way that earned the city’s hard-won respect. He served as chair of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, an investigative committee that began the end of the city’s Mafia. “I could keep going on and on,” he says. And over the course of our lunch, he does, in a voice that often seems more frustrated than self-satisfied. He built the first marina at Penn’s Landing. (“I can take an idea and turn it into reality!”) He delivered key advice to Dick Thornburgh in his successful run for governor decades ago. (“There’s a lot of stuff like that that’s never been reported!”) He lit the Ben Franklin Bridge. (At this point, he shrugs and rolls his eyes—Need he go on any longer?) And of course he has long served as the executive director of the Equality Forum. (“A symposium of inter-na-tion-al distinction!” he says.)
By the time he’s finished, I’m at once appreciative of all he has done for Philadelphia and ready to call for the check. “No conversation with Malcolm goes unpunished,” submits one longtime acquaintance. “He is an impressive guy. But every conversation has to include a disquisition on The Accomplishments of Malcolm.”
Segal, on the other hand, shorter and rounder, with a pie-shaped face and a flair for theatrics, comes across as funny, passionate, downright brassy—and no less given than Lazin to self-aggrandizement during a two-hour lunch at the Famous 4th Street Deli (his choice). Segal, age 60, started as a gay activist in the late ’60s, once famously storming the set of the Walter Cronkite newscast to demand coverage of gay issues back when the gray-haired broadcaster served as America’s conscience. He did the same on the Today Show. He’s been dragged out of City Council hearings. “Look at Martin Luther King!” he says. “All civil rights leaders take risks on behalf of their community.” In 1976 he started the Philadelphia Gay News, which he labels “the New York Times of gay newspapers.” Through its pages he waged a successful effort to unseat the proudly homophobic Fran Rafferty from City Council, putting the Fear of Gay into a Philly political establishment that quickly offered him a seat at its table. Today he counts Vince Fumo, Bob Brady, Ed Rendell and John Street among his friends, and remains a must-visit for every candidate running for anything of consequence in Southeastern Pennsylvania. “I don’t think I have power,” he says of his influence on the city’s political culture. He says he has “charm.”
He smiles at me, batting his eyes coquettishly.
“I wouldn’t want to have my name attached to this,” one friend of Segal’s later tells me, “but Mark is insecure. He can be very sensitive and lash out emotionally. And his big personality is a part of that. He has what I call these ‘Mark-isms’ he puts on for show.” What became clear after both checks arrived is that as much as both men would hate to admit it, they’ve traveled very different routes to remarkably similar places.
Lazin came out much later in life, and slowly, after the failure of his marriage in the early ’80s. But once he understood and accepted his sexuality, he was in the fight. His coming-out transformed the many lines on his résumé—his success in the hyper-masculine world of the federal prosecutor—into a statement about what a gay man, what gay men, can contribute to the city. “I was shocked,” says former mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. of Lazin’s public openness about his sexuality. “I thought he was taking quite a risk professionally. And he didn’t have to do it. I think it was very brave. And it had a powerful effect.”