Decades before Stonewall, the two men helped shape the local community
RICHMOND-Decades before the Stonewall Uprising kickstarted the Gay Pride movement, Tony Segura and Marsh Haris were already advocating for gay rights and visibility.
Tony Segura was among the earliest leaders of the East Coast gay rights movement in the 1950s. His partner Marsh Haris was a revolutionary queer pulp fiction author. Together, they helped establish the Richmond queer community and gave unprecedented visibility to gay rights movement and community.
Segura, a queer Cuban immigrant living in the U.S. spent his life advocating for both gay and civil rights. Haris was among the first authors to publish books with happy endings for gay couples.
In very different ways, their impact on the gay rights movement in Richmond and across the country is still felt and celebrated today.
Bringing Visibility and Community to Richmond
Segura and Haris moved to Richmond in 1961. Both were already well-established figures in the national queer community when they moved to the South.
Being gay, or even being suspected of being gay, was a crime in Virginia at the time. Because of this, Richmond’s queer community in the ’50s was mostly underground.
Laws that made consensual sodomy illegal remained on the books in Virginia until 2014. Anti-sodomy laws and other legislation banning consensual sex acts have historically been used to persecute the LGBTQ community. However, they technically applied to everyone.
During the 1950s and early part of the 1960s, the out Richmond gay community was very small. In the 1970s, Segura and Haris helped expand that community through their activism and craft. Part of what they added to the movement was a sense of belonging, according to Marshak.
Segura became a founding member of the Richmond Gay Rights Association in 1977. Through his involvement with various queer rights organizations, Segura increased the publics’ awareness and understanding of sexual orientation minorities.
By helping organize public demonstrations for gay rights, he was instrumental in developing of the gay community in Richmond. He also wrote for the Richmond Pride, a local Richmond LGBT newspaper published by the Virginia Gay Rights Association.
Haris contributed to the advancement of Richmond’s gay rights community, but less openly than his partner Segura. According to Richmond Diversity President Bill Harrison, Haris was very shy.
“Marsh was such an introvert,” said Harrison.
Haris rarely participated in rallies and organizations with his partner Segura, according to Richmond activist, historian, and author Beth Marshak. Instead, Haris contributed with financial donations to support the gay rights community and the work of his partner.
Segura’s Early Life
Segura was born in Cuba in 1919. He rarely went by his birth name Gonzalo Segura Jr and instead went by Tony. Segura grew up in pre-revolution Cuba. At the time, the country had strict laws that made homosexuality illegal and targeted gay men for harassment.
Consensual same-sex relationships were illegal in Cuba until 1979.
Segura immigrated to the U.S., where he thought living openly as a gay man would be easier, when he was 15. However, he found that the stigma around being gay was no less prevelant in America. As a result, until his early 20s, Segura kept his sexual orientation a secret.
Segura attended college at Emory University. After graduating, he relocated to New York City to work as a research chemist. In addition to his advocacy, Segura continued that career path throughout his life.
After reading Donald Webster Cory’s 1951 book “The Homosexual in America,” Segura became more open about his sexual orientation.
The Mattachine Society
He became involved with various groups that consisted mostly of gay men trying to combat discrimination. Soon he became a member of The League, a gay rights group that met in the lower east side. By 1955, he took on a leadership role, advocating for gay liberation on behalf of The League.
Harry Hay also founded The Mattachine Society around this time.
The society was one of the earliest gay rights groups to demonstrate publically in the U.S. Therefore it had a profound impact on the movement in the 1960s and 70s. Though they referred to themselves as homophiles, not gay men, the society advocated for the rights of sexual orientation minorities. They also educated the public on queer culture to combat dangerous misinformation that framed queer people as dangerous.
Mattachine founders organized many of the first gay rights rallies in the U.S. These demonstrations differ wildly from the colorful parades celebrating the queer community that we observe today. Composed of somber businessmen dressed in suits, protests by the Mattachine Society were usually very small and serious. This style of ‘respectable protesting’ was a strategy to make gay people more palatable to straight onlookers. These protests attempted to demonstrate that gay people are ‘normal’ by showing that they can look like productive members of society.
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Speaking About Gay Rights
When Segura learned of the group, he aimed to start a chapter on the East Coast. Eventually, he became a co-founder of The Mattachine Society’s New York chapter. He went on to travel the region as a spokesperson for the society, sometimes even venturing into the South.
Speaking to various Mattachine Society events along the East Coast, Segura engaged the public in discussions of the issues facing the queer community. These issues included laws regulating sexual orientation, internal battles over personal sexual orientation, and the struggle queer people faced in finding partners.
As an activist, Segura encountered his fair share of violent critics who attacked the movement and him personally. Many would attend his meetings in order to disrupt them and demonstrate against gay rights.
In 1958, Segura appeared on WABD, a New York talk show, to discuss the realities of being gay in America. Because same-sex orientation was a felony at the time, Segura wore a hood and did not use his real name.
The program attempted to dismantle stereotypes surrounding the gay community. However, the public never saw it or the second episode filmed. The network abruptly canceled the show without releasing any footage.
Advocating for Civil Rights
As a Cuban-born American immigrant, Segura not only fought for gay rights but also civil rights through his advocacy.
In the spring and summer of 1955, Segura encouraged ONE, Inc. to publish a Spanish-language edition in Mexico City. This magazine was the first pro-gay news publication in the U.S. Segura worked to make it more accessible by regularly translating several of their articles into Spanish.
In 1959, Segura traveled to Mexico City to meet with publishers about increasing ONE’s circulation there.
He also reviewed other Spanish-language publications and helped to recruit a community of Latinx readers to the gay rights movement.
“He was a true pioneer,” Harrison stated.
Once in Richmond, Segura became involved in advocating for the rights of Cuban immigrants in the U.S. like himself.
In 1890, about 125,000 people immigrated from Cuba to the United States when Fidel Castro’s regime experienced a stagnant economy.
For six months, Castro temporarily opened the country’s port closest to the United States, the Port of Mariel. In response to demonstrations against his government, he said citizens eager to leave should get out of the country.
That year, Tony Segura worked with the nonprofit group Dignity Integrity to ‘adopt’ two Cuban immigrants and helped them gain citizenship. Harrison was part of that group, and said they couldn’t have done it without Segura’s leadership.
“He (Segura) was instrumental in helping us,” said Harrison.
Haris Revolutionizes Queer Literature
Haris’s impact on the LGBTQ community was far more subtle but no less influential than his partners’.
Haris was born in India to English parents in 1936. Growing up in the U.S., he quickly developed his love for writing.
Though the genre of pulp fiction Haris wrote was unprecedented, it was also well-received. According to Marshak, Haris was one of the first authors to have success in the category of gay pulp fiction.
“He was one of the first to really write a different kind of story, to get it published, and have good sales,” Mashak said.
Until the 1950s, gay pulp fiction was practically unheard of. Publishers refused to accept manuscripts featuring non-heterosexual romances and relationships, fearing the backlash they may face from the public.
“Publishers perceived gay or lesbian relationships as being sinful or wrong,” said Marshak.
Before his work, publishers would require the gay protagonist to ‘turn straight’ or otherwise succumb to tragic events, such as suicide, in order to justify publishing queer love stories.
“In the end, the person always had to suffer,” Marshak said.
Gay pulp fiction during this time was intended to teach readers about the dangers of succumbing to non-heterosexual urges.
These novels told readers there was no such thing as a health queer relationship. They also sent the message that and that only death and heartbreak awaited queer couples.
Happy Endings for Gay Couples
Instead of framing them as doomed and sinful lovers, Haris created queer romances with happy endings.
In 1964, Haris published The Escape, a post-apocalyptic novel in which five people set off to a new planet. In the novel, the planet turns out to be a utopia inhabited entirely by gay men. Haris’ other works include Eternal Summer, Blackpool, Prometheus Possessed, and Beloved Electra.
“His work was really groundbreaking,” said Marshak. “People could see that a book written that way could also sell.”
Haris’ work signaled to queer readers that healthy gay relationships were possible by writing happy endings for queer couples. At a time when discussions of homosexuality were almost exclusively in the context of mockery or violence, his books were probably the first representation of a happy queer lifestyle that many young gay people growing up in that era had ever seen.
Haris also published art sketches of queer subjects during this time, when depictions of gay men was considered morally corrupt.
As was the same in his stories, Haris would also draw depictions of two men in love. Often these drawing would feature a young man with a brawny physique and dark hair. Many of Haris’ fictional love interests also matched this description.
Although Haris’ path in advocating for the gay community was much different than Segura’s, it was still effective. His work opened the door to a new style of gay pulp fiction when the genre was in its infancy.
Remembering Segura and Haris
Segura died in 1991. Haris died a few years later.
Segura and Haris were leaders of a community that progressed from being hidden in the shadows to being celebrated in the streets during their lifetimes. That progress is due in no small part to their efforts to create rights and visibility for the queer community.
The couple passed away before gay marriage was legalized in 2017. When Segura died they had been together for 30 years.
Brandon Carwile is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.