The Past is Prologue for Baltimore Heritage
There is queer history contained in the city buildings we drive, bike, or walk past on a daily basis, but most of us don’t know it. Now, a local historic and architectural preservation organization is delving into the stories of Baltimore’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community members, and featuring noteworthy locations through a walking tour.
“At Baltimore Heritage, we believe in preserving Baltimore buildings that tell the history of the city,” said Phillip Lovett, who joined the 52 year-old nonprofit organization as a Baltimore City Neighborhood Fellow. Lovett, a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, was attracted to the mission of Baltimore Heritage and eager to examine Baltimore’s LGBT past.
Baltimore Heritage had previously focused on civil rights based projects, such as the city’s historical connection to its Irish immigrants and the African-American history of segregation and civil rights. With Lovett, a “same-gender loving male and African-American” on staff, Baltimore Heritage decided to “explore that component of our history,” he said.
The group started a historical exploratory study that researched the rich LGBT history for both African-Americans and community members of other races in Baltimore. Lovett spoke to local community members with decades of knowledge about Charm City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender happenings. Interview subjects included an activist, a transgender business owner, a journalist, a religious leader and an attorney, and ages ranged from 40-85 years old.
Among those who contributed to the initial exploratory study, Lovett names Paulette Young, Louis Hughes, Richard Olozia, Jeffrey Grabelle, Monica Stevens, Anne Gordon, Jim Becker, Evelyn Eldredge, Carlton Smith, Andre Powell, and Michael Slatkin as being particularly helpful in telling their stories and creating a timeline of LGBT history in the city.
Louis Hughes calls himself an “activist emeritus.” At age 67, he’s shaped much of the early history of the African-American LGBT community in Baltimore. Hughes helped to start a local chapter of the National Coalition of Black Gays in the city in 1978. Meetings occurred at the original public site of the GLCCB, at 2133 Maryland Avenue. Before that, Dana Rathmayer was hosting meetings of the GLCCB in his apartment at 930 N. Charles St.
“I really felt moved to start an African-American LGBT group,” said Hughes. “We needed our own space and our own voice.” He was involved with the National Coalition’s March on Washington, D.C. in 1979, as well as the Third World Conference, which discussed issues of integration and organization for LGBT people of color.
“I’m not the only voice. There are many more voices,” said Hughes. He likes this latest venture of Baltimore Heritage because “it involves all segments of the community, interviewing people who were there. Those who will give this tour lived this.”
“We found that not only is Baltimore a rich place in its people, but it is also very rich in the fact that LGBT people made a home here,” said Lovett. “The first LGBT meeting (part of the Gay Liberation Front from 1969-1975) to take place here was in a Little Italy apartment, and from there it branched out to Charles Village and then to Mt. Vernon. There were no gay organizations and no government funding, but they still found ways to connect and organize.”
He noted that there were several places in Baltimore where African-American LGBT members congregated. The Portal, a now defunct African-American LGBT center at 302 Park Avenue, and Club Bunns, a popular hangout for LGBT African-Americans at 608 W. Lexington Street, were highlighted as spaces significant for LGBT people of color in Baltimore.
And although Hughes found early black leadership at the Center “like assimilation to me,” with mainly white, gay men in control and no resources for African-Americans listed in any guide, he does consider it historically significant.
“It was an incubator for many gay and lesbian events. The first forum for LGBT African-Americans was at the Center, with Billy Jones coming to Baltimore to speak.”
Hughes also notes the importance of churches in early black LGBT gatherings. “The Gay Health Clinic [now Chase Brexton Health Services] started at the Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore, at 23rd and St. Paul streets, where people of color were ministers or assistant ministers. Many of them were African-American women,” said Hughes.
Baltimore Heritage and Lovett are in the midst of creating an LGBT history walking tour that will focus on areas of interest in Charles Village, and will later highlight buildings in Mt. Vernon. The tour is scheduled to begin in April 2012 at Normals Books in Waverly; participants would walk down to North Avenue and stop at significant buildings along the way. There is currently a planning group, composed of LGBT community members and allies, but Lovett needs more community input to make this venture a success.
“Because people are working hand in hand with creating this tour through Baltimore Heritage, they are very excited to share information, give advice and offer support,” said Lovett. “It’s a very open environment and there has been a positive response.”
Back to the Basics with Black Pride 2012
It’s been ten years since the first Black Pride in Baltimore, and while much has changed in our city and our world, many issues affecting the LGBT African-American community remain the same. Kevin Clemons, the newly nominated chair of Baltimore Black Pride, is also one of the original founders of the weeklong celebration.
“Back then, the intention was to have more social things, and we worked on workshops for health, finance and self-esteem,” said Clemons. “Over the years, the challenge has been that people use all the new technology available to get information instead of coming to workshops.”
Along with the challenges of a digital age, Baltimore Black Pride has faced the same stereotypes people associate with over-the-top Pride celebrations—excessive drinking and dancing the night away at the expense of educating a younger generation, working on political issues or giving back to the community.
“There is a perception that Pride is all about party, but I know with us there has been a push to get back to workshops. We are finding that it goes beyond a party, and issues are there long after the party is over,” Clemons said. “There is still no escaping diabetes and heart disease for African-Americans, and STIs and HIV in the gay community.”
To address many of these daily struggles, the organizers of Baltimore Black Pride 2012 plan to sponsor a community activity in every month leading up to Pride, focused on health, social and economic issues affecting the African-American LGBT community. “Then there is a reason to celebrate in October,” said Clemons.
And let’s not forget the contributions of the next generation! Last year’s Black Pride featured a Youth Town Hall meeting, a summit, and a mixer and fundraiser for youth. Clemons, who describes himself as “being young a thousand years ago,” sees African-American elders giving young LGBT individuals more responsibility and opportunity to play an active role in Pride planning.
“Part of our mission is equipping our young people to become leaders, so that there will be an infusion of new blood. We have two youth on our board, and because they are active, we let them come up with workshops and activities for young people,” he said. “Youth know their agenda better than we do, and they are starting to get some ownership because we are giving them that role. It’s theirs anyway.”
This year’s Baltimore Black Pride will feature youth gatherings, workshops, an annual fundraiser, and a variety of fun and educational events. Community members who want to become involved in planning should call 443.691.9669, or go to BaltimoreBlackPride.org, where you can follow a link to their Facebook page.
“Once the fanfare is over and the dust settles, you need to keep the message and the movement going. Part of our goal for this year is to address the needs of the community and to be focused on the political component,” said Clemons. “You have more voice than you think you have.”