Black and gay in Baltimore

High concentration of black LGBT couples reside in city

  • Larry Harris, 35, right, is pictured with his fiance Leonard Martin, 31, in their Baltimore home.
Larry Harris, 35, right, is pictured with his fiance Leonard… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
June 10, 2014|By Kevin Rector

Larry Harris and Leonard Martin grew up around the block from each other but never knew it at the time, caught up as they were in regular childhood concerns and in keeping their heads down in the men-are-macho environment of West Baltimore.

By the time they met as adults — Harris a few years out of the Army, Martin jumping through jobs and still looking for his spot in the world — they were surprised at how much they had in common.

"It's kind of crazy we lived down the street …" Harris said.

"… and never knew it," Martin finished.

Looking at each other on a recent evening on the couch in their tidy home in the down-on-its-luck Oliver neighborhood of East Baltimore, they laugh easily. It's been years since Martin worried about Harris wearing clear nail polish in public, or Harris having to push Martin to worry less about what other people had to say. (Martin got over that at his own pace.)

"We came a long way," he said.

"Didn't we, though?" said Harris, putting his hand on his fiance's forearm.

These days, nearly 10 years into their relationship and just a few weeks before their wedding, Harris and Martin said they are finished finding themselves and each other. Now they're too busy plotting out the rest of their lives together and avoiding those people from around the way who are suddenly "coming out of the woodwork," asking for invitations to their ceremony.

"People keep saying, 'I can't wait to come. I've never been to a gay wedding,' " Harris said. "And I'm like, 'I've never been to a gay wedding!' "

Today, in a city that is nearly 65 percent black and known for its native residents sticking around, Harris, 35, and Martin, 31, said they feel just like any other hometown couple.

In a city that, according to one study, has more African-American-led same-sex households, per capita, than any other city in the United States, they are just like many.

At Baltimore's annual Pride celebrations this weekend, it will be easy for visitors to get a distorted impression of what being gay in Charm City means, they and others say. Thousands fill the city from all around the region, and cameras capture rainbow-fringed images of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in revelry.

Truth be told, everyday life for gay people in Baltimore is far less flashy. Nights out on the town are balanced with work and kids, with responsibilities to financially struggling families, with quiet nights in or date nights at the movies, with wedding planning.

According to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law dedicated to research and analysis of LGBT communities across the country, more than four out of every 1,000 households in Baltimore are led by African-American same-sex couples — the most per capita anywhere in the country.

Of those couples, 38 percent are raising children, according to the study.

Maryland as a whole also ranks above all other states for same-sex black couples per capita, lagging only behind the District of Columbia, the study also found. Of all census-identified African-American same-sex couples in the country, a full one-fourth live in one of just four states: Georgia, New York, North Carolina and Maryland.

The reasons, say demographers, are varied. One is that, across the board, African-Americans in same-sex relationships tend to live in areas with higher proportions of African-Americans in general — like Baltimore — and not in areas with higher proportions of gays and lesbians.

"And that may not be entirely by choice," said Gary Gates, a Williams Institute scholar and one of the authors of the study. "There are socioeconomic constraints, and LGBT neighborhoods tend to be expensive."

Kalima Young and her wife, Francine Housier, who live in the Loch Raven neighborhood of North Baltimore, say there are other reasons, too — from lots of black LGBT people coming to the city for its universities and colleges and then deciding to stay, to Baltimore attracting people who want to live in a place where gay and lesbian black couples are less rare than in other parts of the country and more a part of the fabric.

The lives of LGBT people in Baltimore don't end at the edges of Mount Vernon, they say, but extend into neighborhoods all across the city — in tony high-rises downtown, on family-friendly tree-lined streets near the county and on rougher, half-abandoned blocks where violence is rampant.

Still, that picture isn't always portrayed. Well-heeled attendees of downtown LGBT events get noticed; so too, and for good reason, do victims of crime, like the transgender woman who was killed last week in Northeast. But there's more to gay Baltimore.

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