Mayor meets with gays

O'Malley apologizes for his response to housing chief's slurs

`Issue is a springboard'

Quarterly talks to begin with leaders of gay community

January 06, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley met privately with gay community leaders yesterday in his latest attempt at damage control a week after he chose not to fire the city's new housing commissioner for making anti-gay remarks while drunk.

The mayor and the commissioner, Paul T. Graziano, also wrote conciliatory letters to the gay community, published yesterday in Baltimore-based Gay Life magazine, in the wake of Graziano's use of the word "fags" and disparaging, sexually graphic remarks about gays at a Fells Point bar Dec. 29.

And City Council President Sheila Dixon issued a statement yesterday criticizing O'Malley's handling of the matter, but not calling for Graziano's dismissal.

In yesterday's closed-door meeting at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore, O'Malley set the tone by apologizing for not condemning Graziano's behavior more forcefully and publicly. In doing so, the mayor appeared to begin patching up his relationship with some leaders in the gay community, which strongly supported him in his 1999 mayoral campaign.

Some gay-rights activists said they realize O'Malley won't dismiss Graziano, so they've chosen to use the incident to further their interests before City Hall.

"The Graziano issue is a springboard for how we can proceed positively with the mayor so that he can further his understanding of our community, and we can play a more active role in his administration," said Shannon E. Avery, who heads the legislative and political action committee for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore. "We were very pleased with the meeting."

Avery helped moderate the 90-minute afternoon meeting at the community center's office at 241 W. Chase St.

O'Malley did not respond to The Sun 's requests for comment yesterday, but participants said he promised a packed room of about 30 people that he would begin quarterly meetings with gay and lesbian leaders. In response to participants' suggestions, he also said he would consider hiring a City Hall liaison to the gay community and might seek out openly gay officials for his administration, and he expressed interest in instituting sensitivity training for his top staff and all city employees.

He also talked about working to educate his administration and the public about Baltimore's civil rights protections for gays and lesbians and about his commitment to enforcing those protections. Since 1989, the city has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Participants said the mayor's session, though emotional, lacked much of the bitter outrage and tensions on public display in the past week.

O'Malley had angered gay-rights activists when he called alcohol "a mitigating factor" in Graziano's remarks and said the commissioner needed only an alcohol assessment. On Thursday, O'Malley granted Graziano a 30-day leave for inpatient alcohol treatment counseling.

Graziano said he "blacked out" and does not remember the Fells Point incident, or a similar alleged encounter at a Mount Vernon bar hours before. He has repeatedly apologized for his behavior.

In attendance at yesterday's meeting were about two dozen activists, including housing advocates. Northeast Baltimore Councilman Robert W. Curran and Baltimore Democratic Dels. Salima Siler Marriott, Samuel I. Rosenberg and Maggie L. McIntosh also attended.

Though some attendees expressed disappointment with the mayor for not firing Graziano, they did so with restraint, participants said.

"Nobody pushed the issue," said Carlton R. Smith, the community center's vice president.

"There are some of us who still are [very angry], and there are others of us who are satisfied with what the mayor said he was going to do."

Dixon's press secretary, Jason Young, who is gay, said there was a "loss of sight on the real issue, which was Graziano's actual statements, actual behavior."

"It looked like there were some people applying for jobs in the administration," Young said. "And I will personally tell you that increasing one's personal profile in the light of this incident seems to have cost the community the chance to take a moral stand."

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