Baltimore, Maryland does not often display rainbow flags (unless you happen show up during Baltimore Pride when more than 30,000 attendees strut their rainbow wares) , or post multi-colored signage on streetlamps, like in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley or San Francisco’s Castro, directing visitors to where bars, bathhouses, and bistros cluster boisterously together.
Instead, Baltimore - a city struggling to regain a foothold on the economic prosperity ladder - has an altogether different vibe. It’s at the crossroads of where Southern hospitality meets urban funk. Known as the Charm City, Baltimore’s Old Bay encrusted flavor is evident once you start exploring its homespun neighborhoods.
But make no mistake, with the passing of Maryland’s same-sex marriage law this year, Baltimore’s gentrification is getting an LGBT boost, one neighborhood at a time.
Mark your calendars to visit and celebrate at the 38th annual (with heavy emphasis on raucous) Baltimore Pride set citywide for June 15, and plan on dancing yourself into a stupor at block parties where the socializing spills into the streets, which are closed to traffic especially for the event.
This year there’s lots to caw about (pun intended for Super Bowl champions the Baltimore Ravens). Pride Baltimore is bound to be more boisterous than usual, now the marriage equity signed into law earlier this year has already brought about scores of happily hitched couples; visitors can expect to be showered, not necessarily with rice or confetti, but with friendly, big-hearted receptions.
"There’s more acceptance of gay folks around here now than we’ve ever had before," said Doug Rose, a longtime Baltimore resident and gay community activist. Rose, diagnosed with HIV some years ago, raises awareness - and needed funds - for a host of gay causes.
The passage of the marriage equality law last November 7 - when activists in Maryland, Maine and Washington triumphed when their efforts to legalize same-sex unions succeeded - has contributed to making gay life in Baltimore more positive, Rose said.
"When we found out we’d won marriage equality, it gave way to an overwhelming feeling that it’s good to be gay in Baltimore today," said Rose.
The Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law, a research center that studies sexual orientation, public policy, and gender identity, predicted that once marriage equality became law in Maryland, the state would see significant increases in sales and lodging tax revenue from wedding and wedding related tourism.
Carrie Evans, Executive Director of Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT civil rights group headquartered in Baltimore, agrees with the Williams Institute’s prediction and has noticed signs that it has already begun to happen. But it hasn’t come about without a costly struggle.
"We’ve been lobbying to get this law passed since 2004," Evans said. "A total of 52.4% of voters approved it. While we had outside contributors - Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York was an early supporter - most of the $6 million to finance the campaign was from Marylanders. But it’s brought about a terrific sense of freedom."
Getting Hip with Marriage Equality
LGBT folk populate every neighborhood in Baltimore, but it could be argued that the heart of the community lives and flourishes in Mount Vernon, an urban neighborhood where grandiose homes are fortresses of excess from a former era, tall monuments are awe inspiring, and gay run businesses, bars and shops offer eclectic options for visitors.
To get oriented to gay life in the Charm City, head to 1 W. Eager St. in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, where you will find yourself among friends at Club Hippo. Hippo opened its doors in 1972 with the motto, "Everyone is welcome."
"I head over to the Hippo on Wednesday nights for Gay Bingo," said Jayce Chase, 25, who works in downtown Baltimore and lives on nearby North Calvert St. "All the proceeds from the games go to the Gay Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore ," he said. "It’s an outrageous atmosphere - drag queens decked out in high heels delivering drinks to your table."
Club Hippo used to arrange for prospective newlyweds to drive down Route 95 aboard chartered buses where they’d greet wedding vendors at a venue in Washington, D.C., 35 miles away. Same sex unions became legal in our nation’s capital in 2010.
Not any more: these days, wedding vendors come to Baltimore.
"I went to bridal show at Club Hippo last year," said Sara Stroermer. "My fiancée Kara Petrosky and I had the best experience - the vendors we met were very helpful. There were no icky vibes. Everyone there has been supportive and joined in to wish us happiness. We met our disc jockey there, too, and our florist."
Stoermer, 29, a nuclear medicine technologist at Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital, and Petrosky, also 29, a special sections coordinator at the Baltimore Sun, tied the knot in May. They had their wedding ceremony in the sculpture garden and a reception at Gertrude’s, both located at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"We’d been together three years and we were waiting for the law to pass in Maryland," Stoermer said. "We wanted to be married where we live and work. The week before it went to vote last year, we knew it would make it. There were more and more positive signs. There was this overall good feeling. Having President Obama weigh in with a strong opinion in support of marriage equity made it seem more urgent, and that helped sway the vote in Maryland."
Quaint and Quirky Mt. Vernon
I visited Mount Vernon during FlowerMart, an annual event that celebrates all things blossoming in spring with a strong sense of whimsy as men, women and children don homemade floral hats during the Grand Hat Contest, and pushcart vendors - everything from hot dogs to gewgaws - hawk their wares.
I happened on this gala event on a warm sunny day in early May. I nibbled on a crab stuffed pretzel, wandering through the closed-to-traffic streets, soaking in the historical aspects of the neighborhood. I passed the former Mount Vernon Hotel on West Monument Street, where Oscar Wilde reportedly spent several nights, and glanced over at the Peabody Institute’s Miriam A. Friedberg Hall, where Tchaikovsky conducted an orchestra during his visit to Baltimore.
And while the presence of President George Washington dominates Mount Vernon - his statue atop a tall monument blesses the city - another iconic president, Abraham Lincoln, also slept in Mount Vernon according to the history books, in a private residence on Cathedral Street.
But it’s the surprises one stumbles upon in Baltimore - the quirky, quaint places that appear like an oasis in an urban desert - that make Baltimore remarkable.
A short walk from the Washington Monument is Jay’s on Read Jay’s on REad, a cozy gay bar that reminded me of the brown bars found in Amsterdam, which of course are watering holes but also serve as places to hang out and talk with friends and pass the time while the city bustles. At Jay’s, there’s never any feeling of being hurried, nor in the other places in Mount Vernon, which are designed, it seems, for these convivial gatherings.
Nearby to Jay’s is a bookstore, a tobacco shop, an antique store, but my favorite place is The Bun Shop, housed in what was once a warehouse, where you can lounge on a couch or at a table and sample an array of meat, chicken and vegetarian stuffed buns all affordably priced.
My last day in Baltimore was a Sunday, a quiet day in the city. I walked up North Charles Street from the Sheraton Hotel on Fayette Street, where magnificent office buildings from the 19th and 20th century await developers with deep pockets (many of them are eerily abandoned). I discovered another urban oasis, a small restaurant called Jack and Zach Food, run by two Baltimore guys who met in grade school and share a passion for food. They buy all their food from local farms. I got there early, and the line quickly formed outside the door.
The quiet of the downtown streets was soon shattered by the crowds at the farmer’s market located under the expressway, just a short walk down Pleasant Street from Jack and Zach’s place . Smoke wafted from barbeque pits where enterprising chefs set up carving stations and were serving brisket sandwiches. Vendors were peddling trinkets, fresh baked croissants, beeswax hand crème, you name it. The automobile traffic rumbled above my head, spewing dust from the rickety concrete above.
Baltimore may be worn down, but it is not worn out. Down below in the open air market, the city was pulsing, and its hungry residents in search of bargains and bulk foods were claiming it as their own. When you visit Baltimore, you will, too.
Baltimore is served by several air carriers from Baltimore Washington International (BWI) airport, which connects travelers to the city center via affordable light rail, buses, or taxis.
Amtrak’s Pennsylvania Station is located in the city center, but there is also a stop at the airport. During the week, the affordable Maryland Transit Authority (MTA) runs trains from Pennsylvania Station to Union Station, Washington, D.C., on the hour.
A comprehensive, weekly updated, guide to gay life in Baltimore is available online at www.baltimoregaylife.com.
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