by Mark Segal -
Philadelphia Gay News
As a participant in the Stonewall uprising and other major Gay rights struggles, I receive many interview requests from students wishing to write about the early days of Gay activism. But one such request I got recently was so special I have to tell you about it.
The phone rings and the earpiece is at my ear when I hear a young girl's voice say, 'My father suggested that I call you regarding a report on Gay rights I'm doing for my school term paper.' After I asked her a few routine questions from me regarding her school and her particular interest in the topic, she continued, 'I'm not calling you about your activism - I'm calling you since I understand that my grandfather was involved with the Gay rights movement, and my father told me you worked with him.' She then said, 'My father's name is Richard Shapp.' And hearing that brought chills.
Her grandfather was the late Milton Shapp, Pennsylvania's governor from 1971 to 1979. Richard is his son, and now his granddaughter, Rachel, was asking what he did. She had no idea, and unfortunately most Americans don't. And believe me, he's one of the most important figures in the early Gay rights movement.
A TRUE PIONEER
At a time when no one higher in government than a mayor would meet with Gay activists, Shapp, in 1973, became the first governor in the nation to do so. That meeting led to the launch of the first official governmental body to look into the problems faced by the Gay community, and the governor ordered all state departments to participate in that effort. This was the first such official body of its type - not just in Pennsylvania, not just in the nation, but in the world. Never before had a government at any level created an official panel to look into ways to better serve its LGBT citizens. It was called the Governor's Commission on Sexual Minorities. And it became the model for the entire globe.
In 1975, Gov. Shapp issued the first state executive order to end anti-Gay discrimination in state government - again, something no governor had ever done before. The following year, he issued the state's first official Gay Pride resolution. And when he embarked on his Don Quixote mission of running for president in 1976, he had the first official Gay campaign outreach, Gays for Shapp. While he won only one precinct in Florida's Democratic primary (Coconut Grove, Miami's Gay ghetto at the time), he did inspire another, more successful candidate to look into Gay rights - a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. After his election, Jimmy Carter appointed the first presidential liaison to the Gay community.
WHY HE DID IT
Shapp was also my political mentor. We became close friends. My memories of him are many, and some outrageous. Once, when the head of the state police tried to buck the nondiscrimination executive order, Shapp called and ordered me to set up a press conference and apply to become a state trooper myself! True story. The colonel gave in. After one particularly long day of fighting, I asked Shapp why he was taking this issue on, and he replied, 'Mark, I'm in the closet as well.' When I looked at him in shock, he laughed and followed up with, 'My real name is Shapiro - I had to change it to Shapp. So I understand discrimination.'
Each time I do one of these interviews, I ask the student to send me a copy of their finished paper. They rarely do. Likewise, I haven't seen this one. So, Rachel, if you see this column and you still have that paper, I'd love to read it. Milt, you'd be proud of your granddaughter. She has your thirst for truth and justice.
Mark Segal is publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and a contributor to Philly.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook or Twitter.
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