A roadside historical marker installed less than a year ago to honor a gay rights pioneer has been removed after a state senator raised concerns with Pennsylvania's state history agency about the man's 30-year-old memories of an early sexual encounter with another boy.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission had the marker in honor of Richard Schlegel taken down June 3 from its location outside his former home, a block from the Capitol in downtown Harrisburg.
The decision came about six months after state Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, wrote to say Schlegel's remarks in a lengthy biographical piece were “reprehensible and would be considered criminal, regardless of sexual orientation.”
The commission's action and DiSanto's letter were first reported by Pennlive.com.
Schlegel, who died in 2006 at age 79, is a former state highway department official who founded the Harrisburg region's first LGBTQ group. His unsuccessful effort to overturn his firing by the federal government based on his sexual identity ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case in 1970.
DiSanto said Tuesday he was alerted by a constituent about Schlegel's comments in a 1993 personal history posted online that Schlegel provided to the Philadelphia LGBT History Project.
“I think it demonstrates a history of him grooming young boys and being involved in pedophilia and sex acts throughout that, including ultimately helping to operate a magazine with young nudes and things like that,” DiSanto said.
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The state Historical and Museum Commission has been seeking more markers about previously underrepresented people and groups, offering financial support for the markers if their subjects concern women, Hispanics, Latinos and Asian Americans, or if they are about Black and LGBTQ history outside Philadelphia.
“He is certainly an important figure in the context of Pennsylvania,” said Barry Loveland, chair of the history project at the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania. He was the driving force behind the application to honor Schlegel. “There were very few leaders, if you will, at that time — people who were willing to stick their neck out and actually have their name known.”
Schlegel was fired in July 1961 from a civilian job with the Army’s transportation office in Hawaii after his sexual activities surfaced during an investigation to qualify for a top secret clearance.
He appealed his firing for “immoral and indecent conduct” to the U.S. Court of Claims, which upheld the dismissal on grounds that his sexual orientation in a government job would inevitably make the agency less efficient.
“Any schoolboy knows that a homosexual act is immoral, indecent, lewd and obscene,” a claims court judge wrote in ruling against him in October 1969. “Adult persons are even more conscious that this is true.”
In the personal history told to scholar Marc Stein, now a history professor at San Francisco State University, Schlegel recalled how he was subsequently hired in 1963 under then-Gov. Bill Scranton to fix a highways department “fiscal and budgetary situation” and give the governor greater control over the department.
He was forced to resign two years later after postal inspectors informed his supervisors about mail he was getting for the Janus Society, an educational, social and advocacy group founded in Philadelphia during the early 1960s by gay and lesbian activists.
The marker called Schlegel a trail-blazing activist whose job discrimination case produced key arguments that were valuable in later decisions.
DiSanto's December letter to the commission described a section of the interview with Stein in which Schlegel recalled a sexual experience he had with a neighbor boy while living on a farm in Milroy, a small town some 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of State College. Schlegel's account suggests he sexually touched the boy when he was 16 and the other boy was 11 or 12.
Schlegel may not have anticipated that his interview with Stein would end up available to anyone over the internet. He described his sexual history in frank terms, recalled controversies regarding gay publications in which he played a role, recounted his interactions with other prominent figures in Philadelphia gay culture in the '60s and ’70s and related other stories from his personal and work life.
Schlegel described how some of his acquaintances would photograph nude underage boys. In some cases, he said, he scolded them but at other times he described them to Stein sympathetically.
When Stein said some of the photos he had seen in Gay International magazine were of “quite young boys,” Schlegel agreed.
“Young, young, young,” he told Stein. “Of course, there wasn't this national or international obsession with molesting kids at that point.”
A close friend of his faced criminal charges for taking photos of an underage boy at a home in rural Perry County in the late 1960s. Schlegel said he tried to intervene through the county prosecutor but it did not help his friend's case.
“The kid didn’t seem to object, but that didn’t make any difference,” Schlegel told Stein. “I mean Bob simply had no defense. He was convicted."
Stein said in an interview this week that he was dismayed by the commission's decision, and expressed doubt that the commission or DiSanto properly understood the legal and historical context in which Schlegel's decisions and actions occurred.
He said DiSanto's charge that Schlegel's actions were criminal was made “without doing sufficient homework to really establish that.”
As for the commission, he expressed doubts that their action in Schlegel's case was following consistent rules.
“So have they investigated every person on a historical marker in Pennsylvania to make sure that they never did something reprehensible for which they never expressed remorse?" Stein said.
Loveland said he and the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania are considering the commission's offer to submit another nomination. But he said they are unsure how to accomplish that while excluding Schlegel, because his legal case provided the national importance to justify a marker.