It seemed like a typical summertime festival in Baltimore: the aroma of grilled burgers filled the air while people sat on blankets in the shade and danced to music in the sun.
Only this was a little bit different.
Here was an event in which gays and lesbians said they could be themselves without fear of harassment or rejection.
Several thousand men and women gathered in the grassy Wyman Park yesterday to affirm their sexuality and commemorate their struggle for civil rights at the annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Day festival.
Men in skimpy leather shorts and chains, big-haired drag queens and the decidedly undainty Lesborados (a women's S&M club) milled about without provoking a sideways glance. Homosexual teachers and veterans, gay churches and social clubs, booksellers and AIDS coalitions staffed some of the 132 booths.
A total of 10,000 to 12,000 people were expected by day's end, although no one was keeping count, said Gilbert L. Morrisette of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore, which sponsored the event.
Yesterday's event culminated two weeks of activities pegged to the themes of gay pride and family.
For Jo Mitchell, a 47-year-old nursing instructor from Owings Mills, the day was one in which to celebrate her long journey from repression and isolation to acceptance.
"This is a day I can say I am a lesbian and there's no shame to that," she said, clad in a black T-shirt depicting two nude women embracing. "It's a day to recognize who we are without fear."
Born into a church-going family, she grew up believing that homosexuality was a sin. She dated men when she was younger and became engaged at one point ("He broke it off.") But she never felt comfortable with men and eventually lived a solitary life.
In her mid-thirties she began to accept her life-long "bent toward women." She met Linda Morgan, and in 1987 they "married" in a double-ring ceremony at the Metropolitan Community Church.
Her family did not attend. "As far as they're concerned, I'm the lowest form of scum," she said. Ms. Morgan disagreed with her, and Ms. Mitchell corrected herself: "They don't accept the relationship, but they are cordial and kind to Linda."
Ms. Mitchell doesn't flaunt her sexuality, but she does wish she could be more open about her relationship. "I'm not necessarily a butch, but I'm not the most graceful thing on earth. And I'd like to be able to walk down the street and hold Linda's hand without fear."
Although Ms. Mitchell provided her name without hesitation, many others at the festival declined to be interviewed or identified. Some said they feared they would be hassled at work or would alienate their parents if they were "found out."
Kim Kepnes, 25, of Baltimore, was an exception. She said she does not mind having her name linked with a gay pride festival. That is not to say, however, that she goes out of her way to tell people about her sexual orientation, like some members of "the older generation" do.
"I don't have to go to work and say, 'Hey, I'm a lesbian,' or say, 'Hey Mom and Dad, I'm a lesbian,'" said Ms. Kepnes, a manager for an organization she declined to identify. "I don't think my sexual orientation equates to my person."
Others sought to proclaim their orientation loudly -- and visibly.
During an 11 a.m. Gay Pride parade down Maryland Avenue, men dressed in leather shorts danced suggestively and transvestites in slinky gowns and heavy make-up waved. Some tossed condoms, candy and peanuts to a smattering of onlookers.
Some who lived along the parade route sat on their porch steps and watched. Most were fairly accepting of what they saw.
Others, such as Korean War veteran Tom Gilmore, found the parade to be "ridiculous."
"When I was in Korea, I would've shot them. Keep yourself in the closet," he said.
One participant said she feared the news media would focus on the leather and chains, providing the "religious right" with ammunition against homosexuals.
"How come you're always interviewing the guys in leather?" demanded attorney Barbara Samuels, a member of the mayor's gay and lesbian task force. "It's a costume for a parade. It's not the way gay people live."
"The news media focuses on that to the exclusion of the rest of the [gay and lesbian] community. The religious right takes those images that the media portrays, and they splice that footage together in a video and show it to members of Congress and church congregations. And they represent that as being typical of the whole community," she said.