by Mark Segal
Mark Segal, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown High School, is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. He is the most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media in the nation.
Let me introduce you to Irene Benedetti: a short, slim, soft-spoken Italian woman who hails from South Philly but could be from any Italian neighborhood in any major city. At a recent dinner party, someone asked her what it was like growing up as an “out” lesbian in the early 1960s.
You see, Irene is now a senior citizen, and most LGBT activists of today only know a little of our elders’ stories, since it is their heritage and what they claim to be fighting for. But in our community, LGBT seniors are largely invisible. Our activists talk about or mention Stonewall and all it symbolizes, but that symbolism is rarely personalized.
Irene always knew who she was, and from an early age she wanted to be true to herself. When she was old enough, she attempted to fit in; she even became a regular on the national TV show “Bandstand.” She was one of those teenagers who danced in the audience to Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker. Finally, one day she came out to her parents, only to be greeted with the “all you need is a good man” line. She snapped back, “Do you want me screwing men to prove a point? Or can I please be myself and happy?” That ended that conversation, and Irene was OUT. At that point, the best word to describe her relations with her family might be “distant.”
She began doing what LGBT people did in those days. They found what we called the wild side of town, where they’d find a bar, which usually was controlled by the Mafia, or cruised with their friends (translation: riding around in cars where they thought they would be safe or just hanging out with friends).
This in the 1960s was dangerous. For Irene, it meant being picked up by police. She was riding in a car that police stopped outside one of those clubs. The police claimed the driver didn’t use a turn signal. Once the officer shined a flashlight in the car, he asked Irene, “What are you doing in the back seat with that other woman?” She replied, “Nothing,” but she and the other three women were arrested, taken into the police station and spent the next six hours facing intimidation. She was released after proving she was a woman by having to demonstrate, despite the humiliation, that she was wearing three pieces of traditionally female clothing.
Irene, like many others, found shelter in those bars. On occasion, they were raided, mostly during election time when those car stops and other forms of harassment were a regular occurrence for LGBT people so politicians could say “We’re cleaning up this town,” no matter if it was Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia or New York City. This was a regular pattern of oppression nationally.
Regardless of having no family support, with fears of arrest, seeing the occasional friend being gay-bashed or reading about the murdered “faggot,” Irene continued to hold her head high. She lost many jobs in her quest to be who she was.
By the 1970s, as she put it, she was a “bad person.” She was drinking a lot at those clubs and taking the party favors of the time, psychedelic drugs. She, like others, was attempting to escape what she was going through. On one of those nights, she was bashed on the street and remained in a coma for three days.
Still, her resilient spirit climbed. Irene recovered and joined a young movement for gay rights. She began to work for LGBT businesses and, finally after all those years, late in her life she was chosen to become the LGBT liaison for a City Councilman.
Irene was, and is, a pioneer. She never hid, and she suffered continually until society caught up to her sense of pride in who she was. Arrest, humiliation, gaybashing and shame never pinned her down. There are many like Irene, and it’s important to know their stories since it is our history.
From a grateful community, thank you Irene.
* This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Philadelphia Gay News. Mark Segal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.