City candidates court the gay and lesbian community

August 25, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

An article on Baltimore candidates courting the gay community yesterday incorrectly reported the date of the city's primary election, which will be held Thursday, Sept. 12.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

As president of the Baltimore City Council in 1985, Clarence H. "Du" Burns helped engineer the defeat of a proposed gay rights bill, a controversial measure at the time that was bitterly opposed by the city's churches.

"You see, moralistically, their lifestyle didn't sit well with most people back then," Mr. Burns recalls. "Politicians have lives to lead, too, and so we can't go for the minority and against the majority and expect to win re-election."


But now, as Mr. Burns conducts his uphill campaign for mayor, his stand of six years ago is one he may come to regret.

With the Sept. 14 primary only weeks away, he and other candidates in this year's primary race are courting the gay community like never before.

"They're showing up at meetings. They're answering questionnaires. And they're seeking out gay and lesbian volunteers to work on their campaigns," John Hannay, co-chairman of the Baltimore Justice Campaign, said of this year's crop of candidates. "That has never happened much in the past."

For example, editors at the Gaypaper, the city's most widely read gay newspaper, say that they have sold more campaign advertising this year than ever before. And more candidates than ever have responded to a questionnaire from the Baltimore Justice Campaign -- which asks for candidates' views on issues ranging from city funding for safe-sex education to legal registration of gay couples to the use of undercover police to enforce laws against public displays of sex.

Unlike past years, candidates are campaigning for the gay vote beyond the borders of the center-city 2nd District, which encompasses large gay communities in Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill and Charles Village.

The Gaypaper has sold advertisements to candidates running in the 1st and 3rd Districts, as well as to citywide candidates such as mayoral candidate William A. Swisher and comptroller candidates Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III and Jacqueline F. McLean.

On Sept. 4, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore sponsoring a forum for candidates running in citywide races and for city council seats in the 2nd District. Most of the candidates invited have confirmed they will appear -- among them Mr. Burns.

"They're a voice to be reckoned with," Mr. Burns says. "There are more gay people in the community than others realized, and we've got to think about the issues that they're dealing with."

Although there are no precise figures, it is estimated that about 10 percent of Baltimore's population is gay -- in keeping with estimates of the gay population nationally.

But because many of the issues important to the gay community -- such as equal rights legislation and AIDS research -- are heavily political, gay people closely watch the activities of city government and vote faithfully.

"I see them as a very important voting bloc," said Mr. Swisher, who has advertised in the Gaypaper and was the only mayoral candidate to attend an interview with it's editorial board. "Actually when you look at the gay community it's a very important community. They're bright, artistic, good business people, and they want to help the city become a great place to live."

"I can't really be concerned with people that hate gay people," said Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, who is running for the council in the 2nd District.

"If people are not going to vote for me because I support the gay community then that's just the way it is," she said.

Still, there are some candidates who are not comfortable tailoring a campaign to answer issues important to the gay community.

"I do not support, condone or have any inclination toward homosexuality, nor would I be an advocate of your causes," says mayoral challenger Gene L. Michaels in the questionnaire he sent to the Baltimore Justice Campaign. "My principal thought is this . . . don't bring your private life to work."

Richard Ingrao, a candidate for City Council in the 1st District, wrote on his questionnaire that he would "encourage more gay and lesbian involvement in city community functions. However don't make involvement a grandstand. If you want to get someone's attention, whisper."

Indeed, many gays and lesbians themselves prefer to remain discreet. Earlier this year, an attempt to organize a Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club failed because of a lack of interest.

But gay men and women have sponsored fund-raisers and receptions for their favorite candidates, and have volunteered to work in campaigns in almost every district.

For instance, Mrs. McLean, the 2nd District councilwoman who is running for comptroller, was the featured guest at a reception in a gay bar in Southwest Baltimore's Washington Village. The owners of the bar, Fleet and Ann McKenzie, are attorneys who have represented gay clients since the 1950s.

"The homophobic atmosphere of this city smothered the gay vote for years, until the last election when Mayor [Kurt L.] Schmoke took office," says Mr. McKenzie, a native of Tennessee whose gentle southern drawl softens his gritty language.

"Since that time we've gotten the gay rights bill passed. It took a long time, but the hardest thing in the world is getting a bunch of queens organized."

"Kurt was a teen-ager in the 1960s," adds Mrs. McKenzie. "He grew up in the Age of Aquarius."

Still, Mr. Schmoke is criticized in the gay community because, activists say, it was only this year that he agreed to commit city funds for acquired immune deficiency syndrome treatment and education.

"Another thing he should be doing is mentioning AIDS in every speech in the city because it affects everyone," said John Stuban, a member of the AIDS advocacy group, ACT-UP. "He never mentions AIDS, but he'll mention it when he comes" to the Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

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