Family Portraits: Michael LoFurno

Philadelphia is a city of firsts: We established the first public school in the American colonies, erected the first brick house in America, wrote the first published treatise against slavery, held the first World’s Fair and printed the first successful women’s magazine.

Longtime community activist Michael LoFurno is a man of firsts as well. He was a founding member of the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the Humboldt Society and the Spartan Wrestling Club of Philadelphia. Of the Spartans, he was also the first member. Philadelphia also established America’s first botanical gardens, which is right up LoFurno’s alley; he’s also an award-winning landscape architect.

PGN: So, what are your roots so to speak? ML: I grew up in Delaware County, the Drexel Hill area. I have one brother; he’s a little bit younger than me. My parents were schoolteachers, but my mother became a full-time mother once I was born. She taught elementary school and my father was a high-school math teacher.

PGN: Did any of his math prowess rub off on you? ML:

PGN: What was your favorite class or teacher? ML: I guess it was art class, though the teacher was mostly absent. [Laughs.] Which I think ultimately was a good thing. It gave us a chance to do our own thing. It was great to have all of the supplies and be able to create what you wanted to without imposed boundaries.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? ML: When I wasn’t drawing, I was outside. I was very involved in the Boy Scouts. I was a Scout until I was about 21. Camping every weekend really got me interested in plants and animals and all that good stuff. I loved nature and the arts and architecture, so when the time came to pick a career, landscape architecture was the perfect fit. I got a degree in the field at Penn State.

PGN: So the Scouts really had an influence on your life? ML: Yeah, they really did. As a kid, I had no idea of the gay issues they had. Actually, I don’t think they surfaced until much later on. Near the end, I was involved in leadership positions and traveling around doing some high-level leadership training when things started getting heated. I had some friends persuade me to take my organizational skills and transfer them to working with the LGBT community.

PGN: What was your favorite merit badge that you earned? ML: Well, the worst was Life Saving. It was the most challenging and it took me two tries, but at some point I just became comfortable in the water and, after that, they couldn’t keep me out. I went on to earn every water-sport badge there was — sail-boating, swimming, diving, all of it!

PGN: It must have been hurtful when the Supreme Court handed down the decision that the Scouts could legally expel someone just for being gay. ML: Well, that was after I’d left. When I was there, you didn’t talk about it, but there was no explicit mandate saying that you couldn’t be gay, or atheist for that matter. In fact, I had a lot of memorable experiences in the Scouts. I knew a lot of guys in top-paid Scout positions who were gay; it just generally was not talked about.

PGN: Kind of like the church. ML: Yes. Fortunately, the Girl Scouts seem to be much more tolerant.

PGN: What was your favorite toy as a kid? ML: I really liked Matchbox cars. I also loved to build forts out of scrap wood and things we found in the woods. I also had a sandbox for a very long time — probably longer than most kids — and I used to build these elaborate landscapes in it.

PGN: Tell me about coming out. ML: I had both a girlfriend and a boyfriend at the same time when I was at Penn State. When I was 19, I had my first sexual experiences in the same month with each. I was a late bloomer and it was all new to me. I didn’t consider myself bisexual: I was just sexual. By the time I got out of school, I got involved with the LGBT community and knew that I was gay.

PGN: So that was in the heyday of the gay movement? ML: Yes, a lot of the stuff was happening in the background for me. I knew who Harvey Milk was, but didn’t know much about it until I moved downtown.

PGN: So were you a party boy? ML: Well, I like to think I was well-rounded. Yes, I did the party thing: We used to go to Equus every weekend and watch movies there on Tuesday nights. But I also participated in a lot of things outside the clubs.

PGN: What were some of the organizations you were involved with? ML: I helped found the Humboldt Society, which is now the oldest gay and lesbian natural-history society in the U.S. I’m still involved with them. We also started REASON, a gay atheists’ group — the name was a play off of Dignity and Integrity — and I did some work for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I helped them with graphic design and things. Then I got involved with Bill Way, who was trying to get a community center started. I had a degree in design and planning so the community center was a natural fit. I was involved with that for 10 years. I really liked the idea of building a place where people my age, who were just coming out, could have a safe place to go to. It was a great experience. I don’t want to be dramatic, but as a young guy, I got to meet a whole bunch of — what to me at the time were — elders: Walter Lear and Marge McCann, Ada Bello. They were not the kind of people I would have encountered hanging around the bar at Equus. It was a whole intergenerational thing that happened there that was really important. There were a lot of women on the board at the time too; in fact, more women than men. You got a whole different perspective on things from people who were older and many times wiser. Bill Way worked very hard trying to establish what the center would be about and Walter Lear and I worked hard on finding the location. We used to meet in Bill’s apartment, but fortunately, we found a spot on Quince Street. When we opened as the Penguin Place, I threw myself into the place, volunteering 20-25 hours a week. I pretty much got to run the place. In fact, I was there so often, people would tease me about being the penguin!

PGN: So William Way is a continuation of Penguin Place? ML: Well, it technically has always been the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Philadelphia Inc., but that was cumbersome to say, so we just called it Penguin Place, which was more user-friendly. What is now called William Way is still GLCCP Inc.

PGN: I remember going to the Penguin Place when it was on Camac Street when I first came out. ML: Our idea was always to have a welcoming place for people in a prominent, accessible location. Unfortunately, back then, many people were used to being in places that were very clandestine, dark with no markings and boarded-up windows, so no one could see who was inside. One of the things I insisted on when we moved to Camac was having glass doors with the big penguin logo painted on them. I didn’t want it to look like some secret spot. We also started a lot of programs that continue to this day, like the art gallery.

PGN: How was coming out to the family? ML: It wasn’t easy and it’s still not. My brother was fine with it, but my parents were/are very religious and it played a factor. Although, once my brother got married and had a kid, it took the pressure off a bit. The family name would continue.

PGN: Tell me about landscaping. ML: As I said, it was my major. A company that I’d interned with invited me to work with them after I graduated and I worked with them for 17 years. I’m nothing if not persistent. At one point, the company had almost 50 employees and I like to think that I had something to do with making the company a place that did quality work and was good to the employees. [Laughs.] A lot of the experience I had working with mostly lesbians on the board at Penguin Place turned me into a hybrid with a half-lesbian, half-Quaker mentality that helped me create a work environment that was very democratic.

PGN: Lots of processing? ML: Exactly! I also have a license in professional planning and processing is a big part of that, but the women helped me take it to a new level. We went to great lengths to make sure everyone’s opinion was included and that we all felt good about the decisions that were being made. A lot of the landscape work I did was planning for public spaces, so we had to have a lot of meetings with community input, which is important and makes the group stronger. But there comes a time as an executive where you have to, as Walter used to say, “You have to fish or cut bait.” So my work at Penguin Place strengthened my professional work and helped strike a nice balance. Later, I started my own company, Composite Inc., which I’m still running.

PGN: I’m also an atheist, and I find the fact that religion seems to be infiltrating politics unnerving. Even the most liberal of politicians feel they have to bless everyone at the end of a speech. ML: I’m a card-carrying atheist and it’s true that religion is starting to permeate every part of our society. A lot of people are afraid to use the A-word. When Obama mentioned non-believers in his inauguration address, that was pretty big because most people don’t even want to acknowledge us. Most people want to feel comfortable to have something to hang their hat on whether they really believe or not, which I feel is dishonest. I think for my parents, coming out was one thing, but I think me rejecting all the things I’d been raised with was as distressing as me coming out. One of the reasons that we started REASON was because at the start of the AIDS crisis, there were so many people who wanted to lend a religious bent to it. Whether it was the folks saying it was a punishment from God, or the people holding candlelight vigils saying prayers for people and professing that we were all God’s children. We were standing there saying, “You know, this has nothing to do with religion. It’s about viruses and nutrition and science and microbes. It has nothing to do with God.” It seemed that people were clinging to the same religions that shunned them, so we started our group for people who had different perspectives to be able to speak out. I think it’s important for people who don’t believe God exists to be able to say it aloud. It’s odd; I still open the paper and there are pages of religious organizations listed in the PGN. It’s illogical to me. I think the whole gay-marriage thing is crazy as well. I remember during the ’70s houses of three or four people who would live together and be committed to each other, especially groups of women who lived and loved together in West Philly and Mt. Airy. They didn’t need someone to come in and say, “You must choose this person and forsake all others.” I understand the rights thing, but personally I don’t think married people should get any special benefits, straight or gay. We should be counted as individuals. I write paychecks every week and have to make certain deductions depending on whether someone is married or not. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a bunch of Judeo/Christian stuff that we’ve inherited. I think it’s crazy when there are far more important things that we should be worried about, like the holes in the ozone layer and the destruction of our lands.

PGN: Changing direction, tell me about the Spartans. ML: When we were starting Penguin Place, we spoke with a lot of different organizations to get them involved. I met with Rick Van Tassel, Dennis Spillman and John Necci and we spoke about creating an umbrella group for Philadelphia sports teams that went on to become Team Philadelphia. We met at Penguin Place and I attended the first meeting. I’d never done any wrestling or any organized sports, but they seemed like great guys and I was the first to join the Spartans at the meeting. I’m member No. 1 and the longest continuous member! I’ve been wrestling ever since. I got to compete in the Gay Games in 1994 with them. It was a fantastic experience.

PGN: Something memorable from a match? ML: When I was at the Gay Games, I got a really bad shot to the eye and had to go to the hospital. I had a big black eye as a souvenir.

PGN: I understand you’ve had some personal physical challenges. ML: I had a stroke a few years ago. It was life altering, but so was turning 50! There’s a compassion you develop for other people as you get older. It’s one of the reasons it’s so important that we get younger people to interact with seniors. Not that I’m that old, but I’m at the point where I do have knowledge to impart. When I was in my 20s, we all hung around people the same age. We were clones. You’d meet someone older and be like, “Oh my God, is he still alive? He’s 40!” I was lucky in that getting involved in Penguin Place allowed me to interact with people who were twice my age or three times my age. I met people from a whole cross-section of society. It’s the way communities should be. Hopefully we can get more young people involved in the future.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].