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Pursuing the gay dollar

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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.

"The images that people get from 'Will and Grace' make people feel comfortable with GLBTs," said Dr. Haltiwanger, Chase Brexton's director of clinical programs and public policy. "It gets people through the threshold, but it's real-life experiences with real-life gay people that build real-world comfort and real-world understanding."

There is, however, one very real element to this equation: money.

"The almighty dollar rules everything," said Lambda Rising's Lemmon. "If businesses are going to make a lot of money, then they'll keep their support going. Otherwise, they won't."

Advertisers hone in

The total buying power of the gay and lesbian community was estimated at $485 billion in 2003, up from $451 billion the year before, according to data from Witeck-Combs Communications Inc., a Washington marketing firm, and MarketResearch.com in Rockville.

The firms estimated that gays and lesbians number as much as 6 percent of the U.S. population, or about 15 million -- slightly larger that the nation's Asian market. The data also note that one in five same-sex households have children under the age of 18 -- thereby having needs similar to other families.

The data caution, however, that measuring the size and buying power of the gay market can be a challenge, since many GLBTs prefer discretion regarding their sexuality. This was prevalent in trying to obtain official estimates about the size of the population in Baltimore.

Furthermore, buying power does not equal affluence, nor does it imply that same-sex households are wealthier than others, according to the data.

"Because of the growing visibility, advertisers are now asking, 'Who is this community?' -- and not just in the religious or moral sense," said Wesley Combs, president of the decade-old Witeck-Combs firm. "They are also asking, 'What other aspects of this community can we focus on?' -- and one is its spending power. Gays and lesbians are so brand-loyal."

Combs said that his firm has worked on gay-oriented advertising campaigns for such large corporations as American Airlines Inc., Volvo, IBM Corp. and MTV Networks Inc. Volvo, for instance, donates $500 for every automobile sold to a GLBT person to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington advocacy group. The effort includes dealerships in the Baltimore region.

"Some companies are in it to get the best bang for the buck, and you may have some who'll do it one time," said Combs, referring to such big events as Pride 2004. "Some companies may use it to test the market -- and based on their response, they may do more. But for a company that has not thought [an ad campaign] through, it actually could not work in their favor."

Baum, the Baltimore Pride co-organizer and Gay Life editor, said, "With any altruistic effort, you have to look at any economic impact of any deal." He noted that his newspaper has drawn ads from a growing array of businesses.

"We're pretty attuned to who's spending in our community, who's willing to come out and make a statement," he said. "We're willing to support those who are willing to support us."

Forging trust

There are risks to courting the GLBT dollar, said Hodes of the Towson law firm.

"One time, a lady called me and asked if I was gay," said the married father of two. "I told her no, but then I said: "I've done estate planning for athletes and farmers. I'm neither."

"I then asked her: 'Would you rather go to someone who's gay but doesn't understand the sophisticated issues related to estate planning for gay people?" Hodes continued. Shortly thereafter, the caller hung up.

"It was just a natural response," he said of his question. "I want to go the best people I can find who understand my issues."

Hodes said his firm has several gay employees among its 55 lawyers and 17 paralegals. "We have diverse people from diverse backgrounds with diverse interests."

'A taboo subject'

Not all members of the local GLBT community have benefitted from the greater outpouring of local support, however.

"We have been marginalized into the larger community," said Carlton R. Smith, the head of Baltimore Black Gay Pride Inc. for three years. "There's not the push for our dollar as it is in the white gay community.

"As long as your money's green, nobody cares what color you are," added Smith, who also is a deacon at Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore at 114 W. Read St. "Greenback or credit, we don't tend to discriminate -- as long as it spends."

While a range of area businesses cater to the general GLBT community, there are no known firms that target blacks, Smith said.

"We tend to go to places that accept us, but not affirm us," he said. These include black-owned barber shops, beauty parlors, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. "We go to a place where people look African-American, but we get what interests us and move on."

He noted, for instance, that even though a number of black gays and lesbians attended the African-American Heritage Festival this past weekend at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, many took part in Pride events before ending up at gay bars before the weekend was over.

"They had the best of both worlds. They came to the club to be in the mix," he said. "We just don't put our business out there."

That's because the African-American community continues to be divided over gay lifestyles. "It's still a taboo subject, but we know it goes on," Smith said.

Reaching out

The issue of pursuing the black gay dollar is one of visibility, said Walter Schubert, founder of the New York-based Gay Financial Network Inc.

"It's difficult to locate at this time," he said of the black GLBT community. "It has not well-defined itself, and it's difficult for companies to go in and market to it."

That should change as more support groups establish themselves, primarily through the Internet, Schubert said. "There's not a desire to not reach out, but I think it would be done once the market is defined."

Even though issues abound surrounding the GLBT dollar, Athas addresses all of them by running her Belvedere Florist shop one way: catering to the needs of her customers.

"They're people, and you need people to stay in business," she said. "Gay, straight, thieves -- I get everything that comes through the door. All except the thieves, everyone's more than welcome."

Todd Beamon of Baltimoresun.com Staff contributed to this report.


Gay spending power 2003   Population estimate Buying power Gay, lesbian, bisexual l 15 million $485 billion African-American 36 million $688 billion Hispanic 41 million $653 billion Asian-American 12 million $344 billion SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, Selig Center for Economic Growth at University of Georgia, Witeck-Combs Communications Inc., MarketResearch.com

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