Margaret Athas of Belvedere Florist on Charles Street

Margaret Athas says business from Baltimore-area gays and lesbians has greatly helped the bottom line at Belvedere Florist on Charles Street. 'I'm right in the community.' (Photo by Donna Griffin, Special to Baltimoresun.com / June 21, 2004)

The Baltimore Pride Festival concluded its 29th annual weekend of revelry last night, capping two days of free parties, parades, concerts, drag-queen contests and other events celebrating gay lifestyles.

More than 20,000 people -- many heterosexuals included -- lined Charles Street to watch Saturday's loud-and-proud parade along Charles Street, took in the Sunday activities in Druid Hill Park and listened to such headline artists as pop diva Crystal Waters and singer Ultra Nate.

The region's business community was present, too. Nearly 200 vendors sold their wares during the festival, which was sponsored by Constellation Energy Corp. and City Café. Heineken USA, the national beer distributor, was lead sponsor. Those proceeds benefited the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore.

"We're seeing a lot of companies supporting the [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community over the years, and the festival is one way they're doing that," said Scott Baum, Pride 2004's co-organizer and editor of Gay Life newspaper. "There are not just gay businesses that support the community."

But does this support mark a greater acceptance of GLBTs in the region? Will it develop into broader efforts among area businesses to cultivate a clientèle?

"There are people who look at this as a business deal," Baum said. "The GLBT market is a lucrative market. It is attractive.

"But there are others who look at is as a social statement -- that this is a community they want to support," he continued. "They recognize us as an important part of the population."

That goes without saying for Margaret Athas, owner of Belvedere Florist at 1013 N. Charles St. She readily admits that she had little business when her shop was in Hunt Valley.

Now, at least half her business is from gays and lesbians, primarily from the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

"I'm in it 365 days a year," said Athas, a heterosexual who opened her shop 23 years ago. "I'm right in the community. The parade's right at my front door."

Michael Hodes, whose Towson law firm provides estate-planning services, is another such entrepreneur.

"The [GLBT] community is a huge buying public," said Hodes, managing director of Hodes, Ulman, Pessin & Katz. "It's a huge part of our economy. You need to identify their special needs and cater to those needs."

Feeling accepted

This growing local acceptance of gays and lesbians stems from increase exposure on several fronts, business owners and other observers say. Such television shows as Bravo's blockbuster "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and NBC's "Will and Grace," along with the national debate on same-sex marriages -- which makes its way to U.S. Senate next month -- promote overall gay consciousness.

Though some of these images perpetuate gay stereotypes, they still help heterosexuals become more comfortable with GLBTs. They also encourage younger gays to become more at ease with their sexuality and provide an overall humanity to homosexuals.

"With the exposure, people tend to realize that people close to them are gay or lesbian -- and things change," said Michael Lemmon, manager of Lambda Rising, a bookstore on West Chase Street that specializes in gay and lesbian literature. "There is more awareness -- and because of the awareness, there's more acceptance."

Neal Foore said he's seen more heterosexual men in his Park Avenue salon, Neal's The Hair Studio, in recent months.

"The thing about straight boys is not that they don't want to take care of themselves, but they can't," Foore said. "There has been more eyebrow work and back-waxing."

Dr. David Haltiwanger has noticed greater comfort among heterosexual clients visiting Chase Brexton Health Services Inc. in recent years. The community health center has been serving primarily the region's GLBT community for 25 years and is respected for its care of HIV-infected patients.