Baltimore's LGBT hub expands beyond Mount Vernon amid discussions of inclusion, competition

Sitting at the Baltimore Eagle, the newly reopened Station North leather bar, on a recent evening, Chris Sturm and J. Brian discussed the shifting dynamics of Mount Vernon over glasses of red wine.

"It's all changed," said Brian, of Hamilton. "I think everything is spreading out. … The gayborhood is basically everywhere now."

For decades, Mount Vernon was widely considered Baltimore's most prominent and safest area for the LGBT community to live, work and socialize. It has been home to the city's most well-known gay bars, LGBT-friendly services and, for years, the festivities of the annual Baltimore Pride celebration.

But a new generation is making its presence known in a wider range of neighborhoods. With the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore's decision to relocate both its office and Pride to Old Goucher, many believe the boundaries have shifted. Some of the issues at play are growing acceptance in the wider community; local LGBT leadership expanding beyond gay white men to women, people of color and the transgender community; and an up-front effort by Old Goucher to become identified as the "gayborhood."

"It's not about [a specific] neighborhood. It's about the community," said Ian Parrish, one of the owners of the Eagle. "And the community is expanding."

The declining need for a centralized "gayborhood" reflects a larger national trend, said Jim Downs, associate professor of history at Connecticut College and author of "Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation."

Living in these neighborhoods in the 1970s and '80s was a political statement — to be out of the closet freely — but the younger generation no longer views it that way, he said.

"They don't feel the same political pressures. They've come out in a completely different political landscape that doesn't necessitate having a community of their own," Downs said.

Baltimore's LGBT history

In the late '60s and '70s, that was far from the case. Baltimore's LGBT population felt the need to mobilize through new organizations. In 1972, the Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore, which openly accepted the LGBT community, first began meeting at a YWCA in Seton Hill. Three years later, the first Baltimore Pride rally occurred downtown and the Baltimore Gay Alliance — forerunner of the GLCCBwas established.

Over the years, Mount Vernon emerged as the city's most LGBT-friendly area as Chase Brexton Health Services and bars like the now-closed Club Hippo, Grand Central, the Drinkery, Leon's and other gay-owned businesses opened and thrived.

Other sections of the city — including Waverly, Abell and Charles Village — were known as gay-friendly neighborhoods, but Mount Vernon "was the epicenter," said Jim Becker, a co-founder of GLCCB.

To him, Mount Vernon is still the "gayborhood," but he acknowledges that generational changes have lessened its impact.

"There's no question that younger people can go out to clubs that are not exclusively gay and be completely open," he said. "I do think there's still a need for predominately gay establishments. I would hate to see that vanish."

Moving north

Even as some newer LGBT-oriented businesses make Mount Vernon home, others argue the city's LGBT epicenter has spread to other areas.

"Mount Vernon isn't the 'gayborhood' of Baltimore anymore," said Jabari Lyles, board president of GLCCB. The organization moved to Old Goucher, a neighborhood bound by 20th and 27th streets between Charles Village and Charles North, last year.

"There's not spaces for us, and where we're hanging out is more north," said Lyles. "It makes sense for us to follow the people and follow the culture."

Lyles pointed to inclusive hangouts in Station North like the bar/music venue the Crown; café-bookstore Red Emma's; and the Baltimore Eagle, which has been drawing consistent crowds since it reopened in January.

When the idea of relocating Pride was brought up to Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association, Lyles said the response was "very welcoming." The GLCCB announced last month it was relocating the festival.

"It seemed like Mount Vernon was not as queer as Pride was," Lyles said.

Michele Richter, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said she believes Mount Vernon is an inclusive community, and is still Baltimore's "gayborhood." She was disappointed to learn Pride's festivities had moved.

"It was quite surprising. … It's always been a big event here," Richter said. "I'd like to see it come back, that's for certain."

Eric Costello, the councilman who represents Mount Vernon, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

While Lyles avoids declaring any section the "new gayborhood," Cross has been openly courting the distinction since becoming president of the Old Goucher neighborhood association in 2013. Since then, he's noticed LGBT people moving into the area, "particularly people who have migrated here from D.C."

"We've just seen this kind of burgeoning of gay culture," Cross said.

Cross hopes to build on the momentum by attracting more LGBT-owned businesses to Old Goucher. Armed with a "vision plan" — a sleek 112-page report on how to grow the neighborhood — Cross said he has regularly pitched LGBT businesspeople in the city and along the East Coast on opening new businesses in Old Goucher. It's a work in progress, but he's optimistic.

"We probably need a few more gay bars," he said. "Some bookstores and restaurants. All the things we're working on."

Better reflection of diversity

Some LGBT community members of color say Mount Vernon has mostly represented a particular segment of the population — namely white gay men.

"The GLCCB was started primarily by white gay men, so … early on that's who drove the narrative," said Monica Stevens Yorkman, a black transgender woman who runs Sistas of the T, a transgender support group. "A lot of the members of the queer community weren't necessarily a part of Mount Vernon."

Yorkman said some women and non-white men of the LGBT community headed to less-known establishments in neighborhoods like Abell, Waverly and Lauraville.

The Center for Black Equity in Baltimore created Baltimore Black Pride, which takes place in Seton Hill, 16 years ago because the original Pride didn't feel inclusive enough, said Carlton Smith, co-founder of the organization and former vice president of the GLCCB.

"Baltimore Black Pride is the extension of what has happened when the white gay community has shut us out," said Smith, a Mount Vernon resident for more than 25 years.

Lyles echoed those sentiments. While he said there were multiple factors that led to GLCCB's relocation to Old Goucher — lower rent, the growing LGBT population there and the sense Mount Vernon no longer felt like home — the GLCCB recognized the area as the "epicenter" for the community's most vulnerable people: black, low-income transgender sex workers.

"We want to be where we can do the most work," Lyles said. "If we're able to fix the needs of that community, then the ripple effects will inevitably touch everyone else outside of that circle of vulnerability."

Old Goucher has been associated with transgender prostitution for years and that remains the case today, according to Baltimore police.

"The transwoman at the corner of 21st and Calvert [streets] isn't worried about her marriage rights," Lyles said. "Her fight is: How does she get an apartment? How does she get a job?

"I need white LGBT people to take that on as their problem, and say, 'We won't be able to move forward as a community if we don't step up for our most vulnerable.'" 

Need (or not?) for 'gayborhood'

As society's acceptance has grown and LGBT people are more comfortable socializing where they choose, "the idea of a 'gayborhood' may be a little bit backwards in thinking," said Parrish, of the Baltimore Eagle.

"I don't think that people need to have a safe space — a home away from home — like they used to."

Not everyone agrees, including members of the LGBT community in Mount Vernon.

There, Vanna Belton and her partner, Julia Belton, opened their restaurant Flavor in 2015 after being frustrated by the lack of women-owned queer spaces. The second floor is known as the Attic, a self-described lesbian lounge.

To Vanna Belton, "gayborhoods" are still important aspects of cities, and in Baltimore, it will always be Mount Vernon.

"I say you can't change something that's historic," Belton said. "Because one nonprofit [GLCCB] – mind you, one of the best nonprofits — shifts a few blocks over, that's not going to change [Mount Vernon] being the staple and first-accepting neighborhood."

Others, like Joshua Persing, argue Mount Vernon's relevance would benefit from fresh ideas. This month, he and his partner, Robert Gay, will open the G.A.Y. Lounge in Mount Vernon, which they envision as a Los Angeles-inspired lounge with an "electronic music vibe."

"I don't think the gay community is gone from Mount Vernon," said Persing, of Hanover. "There needs to be some new approaches to attract some new attention to the community. We're trying to do just that."

Don Davis, owner of Grand Central, said non-city LGBT residents still see Mount Vernon as a destination. The majority of his business comes from Baltimore and Howard counties, he said.

To Lyles, though, just the fact this question — is Mount Vernon still the "gayborhood"? — is being asked is a positive sign.

"It proves that the LGBT community in Baltimore is not monolithic," Lyles said. "It's not one story. It's multiple stories, and those pieces are going to morph and change as they see fit."

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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