Gays supported in Carroll Center works to help in "very isolated" county.

November 27, 1991|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Evening Sun Staff

The phone call had been typical of many calls that reach the small office at Western Maryland College. The caller, the manager of a Westminster retail store, felt he was being undermined at work because he is openly gay.

"An assistant manager had been cutting him down in front of other employees," said Wade Fannin, a 27-year-old WMC senior who founded the college's Lesbian and Gay Resource Center. "We went to his company and helped to get the problem resolved."

Since the center's help line opened in June, 300 such calls have been logged. In rural Carroll County, that is a surprising number, Fannin acknowledged.

"We face more opposition here in Carroll County than gay people do in Baltimore," Fannin said. "We're very isolated here. We need a support system."

The center has built a network of 100 gay and lesbian WMC students and a community outreach that involves 300 -- despite criticism from some county residents, a WMC trustee and the Ku Klux Klan, Fannin said. Winning the WMC's $1,000 Griswold-Zepp Award for Volunteerism this summer helped to legitimize his efforts on campus.

The organization has a core of 30 volunteer members. It sponsors campus events during "Coming Out Week" including a gala female-impersonator show and gay activist speakers.

In the tiny college-sponsored office in the basement of Blanche-Ward Hall, a makeshift pantry holds spaghetti and canned beans and spinach to feed needy AIDS patients in the county. Brochures and books are available for students who want information on gay relationships, AIDS prevention and other issues.

"We try to use this [the center] as an educational tool," Fannin said. "We've been taught to feel badly about ourselves, so what we try to do here is to empower people."

Fannin and fellow volunteer Christine Pieper, of White Hall, estimated that 10 percent of Carroll County's 130,290 residents are gay. But that doesn't mean their cause is accepted around the small farming towns that populate the county.

A recent newspaper article on the center produced a vicious response. The day after publication, the resource center received a 10-page missive called the "Fag Rag."

The leaflet had Fannin's picture in it and disparaging articles about gays and lesbians, the AIDS virus and obituaries of AIDS victims. The incident was reported to county police and the FBI because of its hate mail status.

Fannin and the center's volunteers persist in their efforts, however.

"We've all been victims of hate and violence in one form or another," Fannin said. "It is much harder being gay here. This is a very conservative place and people are not open to change here. They are very resistant to change."

The experience of opening the center and help line have guided Fannin toward seeking an advanced degree in theology after he graduates next year. The estranged son of a fundamentalist United Church of Christ preacher, Fannin hopes to counsel others as a career.

"I put in 60 hours a week around here," he said. "These are people who have commitments in a lot of other places but have time to put in here. It's neat to see that kind of selfless giving. You don't see it much anymore."

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