The Gayest Feud Ever: Mark Segal vs. Malcolm Lazin

Through three decades of activism, Mark Segal and Malcolm Lazin turned Philadelphia into one of the most gay-friendly cities in America. But when their long-simmering feud—lit by a shocking e-mail sent 12 years ago—bubbled back to the surface this spring, it threatened the legacy they fought so hard to build

Malcolm Lazin hadn’t planned on running for City Council.

But when local Republican committee people asked him to consider it, they didn’t have to ask twice.

Of the two Republicans-at-large on Council, Jack Kelly was retiring, and Frank Rizzo Jr. was politically vulnerable due to his involvement in the controversial early-retirement program known as DROP. Two seats on the body are reserved for the GOP, and Lazin knew he had a decent shot at one of them. So heading into the spring primaries, he addressed a group of local Republicans to ask for their endorsement.

There were about 40 people in the room. Lazin assumed most of them were aware of the most sensitive part of his personal history already, but he figured he’d better say something about it directly. “If some of you don’t know,” he said, “I am an openly gay man.”

This is an urban Republican Party, he was told. That won’t be a problem for us.

It was a life-affirming moment for the 67-year-old Lazin. Just 20 years ago it would have been, as he puts it, “absolutely unimaginable” to be gay and run for a City Council seat. And for a time, the victories kept coming. The city GOP tabbed him as one of its five official ballot picks for the May 2011 primaries, marking him as the first out-and-proud candidate in city history to win either party’s endorsement. The Inquirer recommended him. So did the Daily News. By sheer luck, he even got an advantageous second position on the ballot.

“I thought he was a very good candidate,” remarks Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy. “We had all the candidates in to talk, and he had a great grasp of all the issues.”

Then Malcolm Lazin lost. His margin of defeat: roughly 250 votes, the tiny sort of failure that leaves an inversely proportionate amount of room for second-guessing and finger-pointing. And in his case, Lazin could well be expected to point one finger in particular up and at an old nemesis: Mark Segal.

The founder and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, Segal didn’t give Lazin his paper’s endorsement—a public diss of 21-finger-snap proportions. What he allegedly did behind the scenes was even worse: There were reports that Segal had lurked at the back of a legal challenge to Lazin’s entire candidacy put forward by far-right Republican activists.

On the surface, it made no sense—Segal and Lazin helped pull gay Philly out of the shadows, at a time when just being gay could be life-threatening. Each man holds his own, unique legacy: Lazin is the executive director of the Equality Forum, the organization that hosts Philly’s internationally known annual symposium on sexual orientation and civil rights; Segal is a gay civil rights pioneer, one who buys his ink by the barrel and keeps company with politically powerful friends. So why, with so much at stake, couldn’t these two men, long on the same side of a shared cause, join hands under the Gayborhood’s rainbow flags, celebrate their accomplishments, and plot new scores?

The answer lies in the ashes of a firefight that’s been raging in Philadelphia for a long, long time, a conflagration that includes petty one-upsmanship, epic ego, and one sexually graphic e-mail. “They both want to sit atop Mount Olympus,” opines Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, a close friend of Segal’s, an admirer of Lazin’s, and a longtime wry observer of the body politic in town. “But there is room for only one Apollo.”

And so you have a typical Philadelphia drama: politically ambitious boy meets politically ambitious boy, and deep-seated feelings of mutual distrust bloom. Such hate-fests are common in Philly: Johnny Doc still wants to “git” Vince Fumo, and who can forget Franny Rafferty’s fisticuffs with John Street on the floor of City Council? But this fight is a particularly sad one. This fight is one that should stop. Because the spectacle of two men who ripped the closet door off the city now wrestling each other in a darkened sideshow is a distraction from a story that’s bigger than both of them.

IN 1975, the only housing option “out” gay Philadelphians had was at the corner of 13th and Pine. Today, same-sex couples raise kids in Haverford, open cheese shops in Newtown Square, and spend pleasant summer evenings landscaping in Chestnut Hill. The story of Gay Philadelphia, of Gay America, is growing, well, gayer—as in happier, as in marching toward equal rights, as in New York has legalized gay marriage, as in same-sex couples are not only tolerated but now welcomed in greater and greater swaths across our region. In this sense, this isn’t a story about Mark Segal or Malcolm Lazin. This is a story about an evolutionary process under way in the new Philadelphia we’re all living in—a Philly in which lesbian moms are a common sight in Mount Airy and Germantown, and Bart Blatstein celebrates the influx of lesbian and gay residents into NoLibs. “This is a great place for that,” Blatstein says. “We love everybody.”

How much have things changed in the past 35 years?

In 1975, a gay teen either faked it at the prom or didn’t go at all. This spring, in Collingswood, the kids from the local high school lined up in Knight Park to have their pictures taken before the big dance, and more than a half-dozen same-sex couples walked out to the same chorus of applause as their straight counterparts. Haddonfield threw its first lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT)-themed event this summer. East Passyunk Avenue runs a monthly “Queers on the Avenue” night, right under the noses of all those Italian grandmas. The East Passyunk area, in fact, proudly proclaims itself the “new Gayborhood.” But it’s more accurate to say Philly now boasts Gaybor-hoods. According to a recent study commissioned by the William Way Center, significant concentrations of same-sex couples now reside in nine different Philadelphia neighborhoods, including Bella Vista and Graduate Hospital. This great migration poses an interesting conundrum: Is the Gayborhood—that few-block stretch around 13th from Chestnut to Pine—even necessary anymore?