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VIEWS: The backstory LGBT legacy of Arlen Specter
by Mark Segal
2012-10-24

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Let me tell you about how I met Arlen Specter.

Back in the early days of the battle for gay rights, Specter was district attorney of Philadelphia. He had not taken a stand on the gay-rights bill that was before City Council in 1973. Efforts to set up a meeting went unanswered. So, we had to be a little creative.

One crisp Monday morning, a caterer delivered two large coffee makers and dozens of doughnuts to Arlen's office. His staff thought that Arlen had ordered the special treat, and Arlen thought his staff had arranged it.

At the same time in the City Hall courtyard and in the halls of the building, members of the Gay Raiders were handing out flyers that read, "District Attorney Arlen Specter invites you to a reception in honor of gay-rights legislation in City Council. Please join him at 10 a.m. in his office, room 666."

That really was his office number.

At 10 a.m., we, along with hundreds of city workers and a huge collection of newspeople, arrived at his office. We walked in and there was Arlen's staff trying not to look too surprised at a reception held in their office that their boss was having, about legislation he had not endorsed. Arlen remained in his inner office.

At first, the media took pictures of me handing out coffee and doughnuts to City Hall staffers, and we weren't sure if Arlen would even come out of his private office. Finally, the door to his office opened and there he was, all smiles. He walked over, shook my hand, helped me hand out coffee and we then went into his private office. His first comment to me was, "Mark Segal, who else would cater a disruption? Did you think I'd allow you to have all the media attention to yourself?" And then there was that big smile.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the following day (Oct. 10, 1973), had a large picture of the event—or "zap," as we called them in those days. The caption read: "District Attorney Arlen Specter shakes hands with Mark Segal, leader of the Gay Raiders, who parked outside the district attorney's office until he emerged and granted them an interview. The Raiders handed out free donuts and coffee while waiting for Specter."

Arlen eventually went to the National District Attorneys Association and asked them to get on board and support nondiscrimination. Now, here's what you never knew. In Arlen's Republican years in the U.S. Senate, when it was hard to support LGBT rights, he was always behind the curtain ready to vote "yes" on gay rights if it was needed to assure passage. Only HRC (the Human Rights Campaign) and I were aware of that. That was never more so than with the 1996 vote on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, where he broke ranks with the GOP, and the bill failed by only one vote. He later supported the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act.

In 2009, when the secretary of Housing and Urban Development was in town and we were in the beginning stages of the LGBT-friendly senior residences project, we needed to meet with HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, but his schedule was tight. Arlen said, "Don't worry about it. Just meet me at his next to last stop while he's in Philadelphia and I'll arrange it." As Donavan was about to leave, Sen. Specter, with me on one side, grabbed Donovan and took us to his car in the motorcade, where a Secret Service agent had the door open. Arlen allowed the secretary to get in his car and then followed and pushed me in at the same time. "We're going to ride with you to the next stop," he said. The secretary was not about to turn down a senator.

I had Donovan's undivided attention for 20 minutes. In hindsight, Arlen and I kidnapped the secretary of HUD. And soon, we will hold the groundbreaking on the nation's largest capital LGBT-friendly building project.

Thank you, Arlen!

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation's most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at mark@epgn.com .


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