Gay people drawn to Baltimore by its reputation for tolerance

April 14, 1991|By Diane Winston

In yesterday's editions of The Sun, the name of John Hannay was misspelled in an article about the gay community in Baltimore and in an accompanying photo caption.

The Sun regrets the error.

When Joaquin Alvarez decided to leave State College, Pa., he drew up a wish list for a new hometown. He wanted an affordable Northeastern city with a strong gay community.

He chose Baltimore.

"Baltimore had passed an ordinance including gays and lesbians as a protected class, which made it very attractive," said Mr. Alvarez, 30, a doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University.


"It also had a well-established gay community, and, after being ,, here 1 1/2 years, I have come to realize it also has a long tradition of gay politics."

San Francisco's status as the epicenter of American gay culture isn't endangered, but a growing number of gays and lesbians are discovering Baltimore.

They describe Baltimore as a tolerant if not accepting place.

Incidents of hate crimes and discrimination are balanced by a live-and-let-live atmosphere, legal protections and a comfortable gay and lesbian community.

Because that community, unlike its counterparts in most urban areas, is largely home-grown, it has special difficulties: particularly in openly proclaiming one's homosexuality in a place many call the nation's largest small town.

Coming to terms with a gay or lesbian identity -- "or being out," which therapists describe as a complex and challenging process -- is made more difficult when not only parents but also one's parish priest, first-grade teacher and high school sweetheart may pass judgment.

"I'm out, but it's still uncomfortable to be totally out," said Cheryl Parham, a Baltimore native and a former president of the city's Gay and Lesbian Community Center. "Because I was bold enough to be on the television news and to fight for civil rights, I sometimes go to places and wonder if people will recognize me and dislike me before they even know me."

The legislation that Ms. Parham fought for, City Ordinance 79, was passed by the Baltimore City Council in 1988 to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. The following year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke established a Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues to recommend ways in which anti-discriminatory policies and procedures could be carried out in city government.

Baltimore shares the legislation and subsequent amendments with about 75 cities and municipalities, 20 counties and two states that have some form of anti-discrimination legislation. Baltimore's ordinance prohibits discrimination in health and welfare services, education, housing, employment and public accommodations.

Members of the gay and lesbian community, estimated at 10 percent of the city's population, say the existence of legal protection makes them feel confident about living in Baltimore.

Elsewhere in the state, only Howard and Montgomery counties have similar statutes, although Baltimore and Prince George's counties currently are debating anti-discrimination laws.

For Mr. Alvarez, a Cuban who grew up in Puerto Rico and was educated in upstate New York, Baltimore's legal protection -- as well as its active gay community -- make it a haven.

"If you compare this to Puerto Rico, it's real open. It will be a cold day in hell before you see a gay community center there," Mr. Alvarez said. "People may not be comfortable to participate in gay community activities here, but that's not exclusive to Baltimore. A lot of people aren't comfortable with their sexual orientation. Period."

Baltimore's gay and lesbian community keeps a relatively low profile, but it does support a community center, two bookstores, two newspapers, several AIDS-related institutions and a variety of social and recreational activities, including a square dance club, volleyball team and numerous self-help groups.

Members of the community -- once clustered in Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill and Charles Village -- live throughout the city.

"We always say we are everywhere, and we are, though we may be more concentrated in hospitable areas such as the 2nd City Council District," which includes Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, said Ann Gordon, chairwoman of the gay and lesbian task force. "When you look to see what the demographics here are, there has been a migration from urban to suburban areas across race and class lines, but gays are staying in the city."

Ms. Gordon is one of a number of stalwart women who have been politically active since the mid-1960s. Several of these women, leaders in the gay and lesbian community, cut their teeth during the civil rights movement and honed their political skills in the Vietnam era.

Mardie Walker, an associate professor and coordinator of paralegal programs at the New Community College of Baltimore, is among this group.

In 1967, she moved to Baltimore as a young bride. Swept up in the civil rights struggle, she enrolled in the University of Maryland Law School.

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