In Hispanic Heritage Month, Let’s Remember Gay Rights Pioneer Tony Segura

Tom Segura. Mattachine Interim Dec., 1957.
Tony Segura, fifth from left in white, from the December 1957 Mattachine Interim.

Archives of Sexuality and Gender

In the very earliest years of America’s East Coast–based gay movement, long before Stonewall, a Cuban immigrant was arguably the central organizer for the struggle. His name was Tony Segura, and this National Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s time to give him his due.

Born in Cuba in 1919, Gonzalo Segura Jr. would occasionally use his given name, but more often he went by Tony. He came to the United States at 15 and attended military school, then Emory University, before arriving in New York City to work as a research chemist. Documentation of Segura’s early life remains sparse, but in a 1977 oral history recorded by the pioneering LGBTQ historian Jonathan Ned Katz, which can be found in Katz’s papers at the New York Public Library on two audiocassettes, Segura explained that his homosexuality had dawned on him only gradually. As a teen, he assumed he would eventually be attracted to women and would “marry and procreate.” Was he upset to realize he was gay? “No. Never.” He did, however, learn to “keep it to myself” as a simple survival tactic.

Segura’s political awakening came after he had established himself professionally. In 1954, he noticed Donald Webster Cory’s landmark 1951 publication The Homosexual in America in a Cleveland bookstore. He declared himself “quite entranced” with the book, which was a surprisingly bold affirmation of gay identity at a time of colossal violence and oppression against queer people. Segura immediately began working through its bibliography, devouring the literature he hadn’t previously realized existed. As he marveled decades later, Cory’s book gave him a sense of “homosexuals as a group.”

When he realized the Cory Book Service, which sold The Homosexual in America and other gay-themed works, was located near his workplace on First Street, he visited one lunch hour. “The heavens opened wide for me,” Segura recalled. Almost immediately, he was plugged into an international publication community extending from ONE in Los Angeles to Arcadie in France. He discovered The League, a “most secretive group” that met in a Lower East Side loft for discussions in “very closed meetings.” The League consisted of about 20 members, mostly gay men, who were dedicated to combating the decade’s climate of fear as best they could. Segura “immediately became a very active member,” organizing meetings and even painting the loft to spruce it up.

It was here, in 1955, that Segura assumed a leadership role and helped spur the East Coast homophile movement. Familiar with the Mattachine Society, which had been founded in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1950, he sought to convert the League into a Mattachine chapter. A “great fear of being found out” marked League meetings, he told Katz, one that allowed authorities to intimidate members. Reasoning that “if you have an open organization, you can’t be frightened out of existence by mere discovery,” Segura threw himself into homophile organizing.

In addition to spearheading the formation of the New York Area Council of the Mattachine Society, Segura traveled throughout the region, working with groups in Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., as well as setting up a correspondence network across the South.  A typical trip in December 1957 found him speaking at the second meeting of Mattachine’s Boston chapter on topics ranging from the law to “inner guilt,” to “the search for partners.” That same season, he also visited Denver, not only speaking but also displaying his “culinary virtuosity” by cooking a “delicious dinner” for the attendees, as the Denver-area Mattachine newsletter appreciatively noted. Recalling that his own awakening was prompted by a book, Segura donated dozens of volumes, ranging from Freud to lesbian author Ann Aldrich, to help set up the Colorado group’s lending library.

Segura held various positions in the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society—in 1957, East Coast colleagues described him as the “sparkplug of the whole organization here”—and he served as the public relations director of the national organization. During his years on the editorial board of the Mattachine Review, one of the earliest gay rights periodicals, he led a lengthy, painstaking effort to compile a complete bibliography of homosexuality.

Being a gay rights activist in the 1950s required immense courage, and it could be harrowing. It could also be funny. Segura told Katz about one “wretched” meeting in 1958 where he organized a talk on “The Homosexual and the Law” and unexpectedly drew a few hundred people—mostly “weirdos,” including one woman who explained that homosexuality was the result of a lack of Vitamin C. Nevertheless, the event “spread the word, let people know that we exist.”

Segura didn’t leave a large body of written work, and he didn’t call attention to himself. Perhaps that’s why James Sears is the only LGBTQ historian who has paid substantive attention to him. Sears’ Behind the Mask of the Mattachine is a monumental book, but it follows so many characters that Segura’s story is slightly lost among dozens of others. As of this writing, Segura lacks even a Wikipedia page. And yet his organizational genius built the homophile infrastructure—without which, as he himself recognized, Stonewall “would not have occurred” to activists of the next generation.

Indeed, even if we grant that the often tedious labor of building grass-roots organizations rarely results in historical canonization, Segura should still be remembered for appearing on television in March 1958 as the first openly gay speaker in New York television history, on a panel with radical sexologist Albert Ellis for WABD’s Showcase. Wearing a hood to obscure his face and withholding his real name, out of a well-placed concern for his safety, Segura nonetheless made media history. As Back2Stonewall writer Will Kohler notes, no known footage of the show survives. Still, until last year, the 1961 San Francisco gay-focused TV documentary The Rejected was also thought to be lost, but it has since resurfaced. Denver’s Mattachine newsletter mentioned an audio recording of the Showcase episode; perhaps that or even visual footage will also emerge with further research.

Segura left New York for Richmond, Virginia, at the end of the 1950s. There, he met his partner, pulp novelist Marsh Harris, and attempted to form a Mattachine chapter, though, as he recounted to journalist Bob Swisher in the late 1980s, the relative absence of police harassment provided an ironic disincentive for gays to organize. After Anita Bryant reinvigorated anti-gay social activism in 1977, Segura was a founding member of the Richmond Gay Rights Association. He died in 1991.

Queer Latino/a (or Latinx) scholarship is a bustling, brilliant field; Just survey the work of José Esteban Muñoz, Juana María Rodríguez, Hiram Pérez, and scores of other scholars to read some of the most exciting intellectual work of our time. But as historian Julio Capó Jr., author of the forthcoming queer Miami history Welcome to Fairyland, told me, “We still need to better understand the formative role queer people from or descended from Latin America and the Caribbean played in homophile, gay liberation, and LGBTQ rights movements.” As Capó notes, Sylvia Rivera is famous for her role at Stonewall and her furious transgender defiance in the 1970s, and José Julio Sarria, drag queen at San Francisco’s Black Cat bar, is recognized as the first openly gay political candidate in U.S. history for his run in the city’s 1961 board of supervisors election. Meanwhile, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa shaped the course of feminist and queer thought with their fearless Chicana lesbian writings. For National Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s add Gonzalo “Tony” Segura, central architect of the homophile movement, to our collective memory.