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Baltimore Pride on shaky ground as organizers, community members point fingers

In the three months leading up to Baltimore Pride this summer, organizers anxiously scrambled to cobble together an event that usually takes them a full year to plan.

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore, the nonprofit host of the annual event, was struggling. Recently displaced from its longtime headquarters following the controversial sale of its building, it had also watched its executive director depart and faced scheduling and location hiccups driven in part by city and police concerns about past drunkenness. The group was also dealing with what its leaders would call a "detached, indifferent, and apathetic" community unwilling to commit the sort of volunteer hours the organization depends on.

In a year when so many gay rights legal victories at the state and federal level had provided ample reason for the LGBT community to celebrate, the state's largest LGBT party -- one started decades ago by a core group of advocates brave enough to face down bigotry in a far more hostile world -- almost didn't happen at all.

"The bottom line is that we need your help as community members to revitalize the organization into a resource that you want and need, or we will cease to exist," wrote Kelly Neel, the group's interim executive director, in an open letter outlining some of the problems to Baltimore's LGBT community earlier this week, more than a month after Pride 2014 received mixed -- and largely harsh -- reviews. "If we cease to exist, Baltimore Pride festivities will come to a screeching halt for the foreseeable future."

The message of the letter, distributed to thousands of people on the group's mailing list, was clear: Too many outside forces are threatening the center, too few people are supporting it, and Pride -- the single largest driver of center funding -- is at stake.

The same message would be reiterated Wednesday night at a "town hall" forum the GLCCB held at its new home in the Waxter Center in Mount Vernon, where Neel and several board members and staff ran through numbers -- Pride 2014 cost about $114,000, and raised about $178,000 -- and rehashed their struggles.

Referring to a slideshow prepared for the event, the GLCCB leaders said this year's new Mount Royal location worked for Saturday's block party and parade, but Sunday's festival would likely need to be moved back to Druid Hill Park. They said a top complaint of attendees this year were the beer gardens, which were crowded and lacked seating. They said among 61 respondents to an online survey on how Pride went this year, 58 percent said they were unsatisfied, compared to 21 percent who said they were satisfied.

"We want to start planning now for 2015, which is why we want to hear from you all," Neel said to the crowd of nearly 50 attendees.

And hear they did, and not only about Pride.

Neel, GLCCB Board President Mike McCarthy and Board Secretary Gilles Stromberg -- all relative newcomers to the organization -- sat on stage with a decidedly tough job: answering to a crowd made up largely of longtime community members with decades of experience in the gay rights movement and an intimate knowledge of the center's early years as a dominant force in the community -- back when it ran a switchboard for troubled and fearful LGBT youth and its meetings drew crowds as a safe space in an otherwise unwelcoming city.

"If you expect the community to reembrace the center, it's time for the center to be about the community again," said Rik Newton-Treadway, 51, who said he has been involved with the center since 1979, watching it lead the community through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

"We don't need lipservice and bull [expletive] any longer," he said.

"There's a profound history of racism and classism on this board, and I know you all just got here, but it would behoove you to understand that," said the Rev. Meredith Moise, who said the center has failed to engage African-American groups and the faith community or give proper attention to the recent murders of two transgender women in Baltimore in the past two months.

Several in the crowd said they were former GLCCB board members who left the organization because of a lack of transparency and after questions about the group's mission, finances and other issues went unanswered. They criticized the group for holding private board meetings in recent years, when such meetings were always public in the past.

Bill Redmond-Palmer called the leadership body he used to sit on "an incestuous board that chooses itself," as opposed to allowing community input as in years past.

John Flannery, another former board member, said the GLCCB "will go away" if it doesn't address the fact that its programs are not serving the needs of the community, are not well attended or are just not held even when they are planned.

"The GLCCB has failed to answer a very fundamental question: What do you do?" Flannery said.

Younger attendees also criticized the center.

Kelly Szpara, a 28-year-old Woodberry resident and co-facilitator of the group Baltimore Trans-Masculine Alliance, criticized the name of the center's publication, Gay Life, as non-inclusive and said the center hasn't done enough to reach out to the transgender community.

Mykell Hatcher-McLarin, 21, of the Harford Road area, said the center's board and staff rely too heavily on emails and website messages to communicate with a city in which many lack access to technology.

"Some people don't have computers," Hatcher-McLarin said. "Some people don't even have homes to have a computer in."

Hatcher-McLarin also said the center's board is not diverse enough and fails to represent the majority African-American city it is supposed to serve, saying it "makes me feel very unsafe when I look at the board and I don't see my face."

The comment received applause from some in the crowd. Others snapped their fingers in approval.

To the barrage of criticism, Neel and the other GLCCB officials repeatedly promised to try harder, to do better. They asked those in the crowd to reach out to them, to stop by the center, to volunteer and make sure they stay in touch.

Being new to the job, Neel said she often is learning on the fly, and would benefit from the insights of those community members who have been a part of the organization in the past.

"I constantly am plagued by [the question], 'Why aren't you doing this?' And I say, 'Oh, that's a good idea. Why aren't we doing that?'" Neel said.

At times during the town hall, in moments between critiques, the GLCCB leaders also got reassurances from those in the crowd.

Alfredo Santiago, 46, of Greektown, said it is "disturbing" that the GLCCB only has five board members and such a small staff -- and promised to help the organization moving forward.

"I commit to doing something," he said. "I don't know what that something is yet."

Stu Goldstone, 41, of Mount Vernon, said he was disappointed with Pride this year, especially as he had talked it up to friends from Washington who came up Sunday only to be let down.

Still, Goldstone thanked the GLCCB members for pulling something together under pressure.

"Thanks for the kind of thankless task," he said. "Even if unsatisfying, Pride is better than no Pride at all."

As the meeting concluded, many attendees -- including some of the harshest critics -- stuck around to chat with the GLCCB leaders. There were quick hand gestures and furrowed brows, but also smiles and promises to stay in touch.

Then they started trickling out into drizzly Mount Vernon, walking past other members of the LGBT community having dinner or enjoying drinks along Eager Street -- seemingly oblivious to the passionate tussle that had just occurred over one of the community's most pressing questions in an ever more accepting and equal world.

Now what?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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