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Black and gay in Baltimore

Larry Harris and Leonard Martin grew up around the block from each other but never knew it at the time, caught up as they were in regular childhood concerns and in keeping their heads down in the men-are-macho environment of West Baltimore.

By the time they met as adults — Harris a few years out of the Army, Martin jumping through jobs and still looking for his spot in the world — they were surprised at how much they had in common.

"It's kind of crazy we lived down the street …" Harris said.

"… and never knew it," Martin finished.

Looking at each other on a recent evening on the couch in their tidy home in the down-on-its-luck Oliver neighborhood of East Baltimore, they laugh easily. It's been years since Martin worried about Harris wearing clear nail polish in public, or Harris having to push Martin to worry less about what other people had to say. (Martin got over that at his own pace.)

"We came a long way," he said.

"Didn't we, though?" said Harris, putting his hand on his fiance's forearm.

These days, nearly 10 years into their relationship and just a few weeks before their wedding, Harris and Martin said they are finished finding themselves and each other. Now they're too busy plotting out the rest of their lives together and avoiding those people from around the way who are suddenly "coming out of the woodwork," asking for invitations to their ceremony.

"People keep saying, 'I can't wait to come. I've never been to a gay wedding,' " Harris said. "And I'm like, 'I've never been to a gay wedding!' "

Today, in a city that is nearly 65 percent black and known for its native residents sticking around, Harris, 35, and Martin, 31, said they feel just like any other hometown couple.

In a city that, according to one study, has more African-American-led same-sex households, per capita, than any other city in the United States, they are just like many.

At Baltimore's annual Pride celebrations this weekend, it will be easy for visitors to get a distorted impression of what being gay in Charm City means, they and others say. Thousands fill the city from all around the region, and cameras capture rainbow-fringed images of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in revelry.

Truth be told, everyday life for gay people in Baltimore is far less flashy. Nights out on the town are balanced with work and kids, with responsibilities to financially struggling families, with quiet nights in or date nights at the movies, with wedding planning.

According to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law dedicated to research and analysis of LGBT communities across the country, more than four out of every 1,000 households in Baltimore are led by African-American same-sex couples — the most per capita anywhere in the country.

Of those couples, 38 percent are raising children, according to the study.

Maryland as a whole also ranks above all other states for same-sex black couples per capita, lagging only behind the District of Columbia, the study also found. Of all census-identified African-American same-sex couples in the country, a full one-fourth live in one of just four states: Georgia, New York, North Carolina and Maryland.

The reasons, say demographers, are varied. One is that, across the board, African-Americans in same-sex relationships tend to live in areas with higher proportions of African-Americans in general — like Baltimore — and not in areas with higher proportions of gays and lesbians.

"And that may not be entirely by choice," said Gary Gates, a Williams Institute scholar and one of the authors of the study. "There are socioeconomic constraints, and LGBT neighborhoods tend to be expensive."

Kalima Young and her wife, Francine Housier, who live in the Loch Raven neighborhood of North Baltimore, say there are other reasons, too — from lots of black LGBT people coming to the city for its universities and colleges and then deciding to stay, to Baltimore attracting people who want to live in a place where gay and lesbian black couples are less rare than in other parts of the country and more a part of the fabric.

The lives of LGBT people in Baltimore don't end at the edges of Mount Vernon, they say, but extend into neighborhoods all across the city — in tony high-rises downtown, on family-friendly tree-lined streets near the county and on rougher, half-abandoned blocks where violence is rampant.

Still, that picture isn't always portrayed. Well-heeled attendees of downtown LGBT events get noticed; so too, and for good reason, do victims of crime, like the transgender woman who was killed last week in Northeast. But there's more to gay Baltimore.

"That's what the larger community should see," said Young, 39, coordinator of the Baltimore Art+Justice Project at Maryland Institute College of Art, which maps intersections of art and social justice across the city as part of an online community dialogue. "It's not just about Pride or the story of someone queer getting beat down."

Housier, an Army brat who moved around the world and landed in Virginia after college, met Young, a West Baltimore native, in 2005 through an online dating service. They spent four years going back and forth between Baltimore and Arlington before they decided to move in together.

The decision was easy, they said: Housier would move north. "It was something I was looking forward to," said Housier, who would not disclose her age. She'd felt isolated as a black woman in Arlington, and loved Baltimore's "quirky arts and culture" scene.

The couple now belong to an all-women gym. They host a book club and go to the farmers' market and have parties at their house with friends.

"There's both a community outside of here that we can plunge into and a community we can create here," said Housier, a human resources consultant for local universities, from the couple's home.

Young remembers growing up and coming out in Baltimore years ago. At the time, there were four lesbian bars, a lesbian coffee shop and the LGBT bookstore Lambda Rising, none of which are still around, she said.

She still misses those things, she said, but also sees value in LGBT people in Baltimore today creating their own pop-up spaces as broader cultural acceptance narrows the need — and limits the success — of gay-only commercial ventures.

As Pride again rolls through Baltimore, many niche groups of local gay black culture will be on display, Young said — living out their lives through the "intersections" of their own identities. Butch dom lesbians. Young hipster club boys. And, of course, the ballroom houses — those make-your-own families of voguers, dancers and identity-performers that define Baltimore's LGBT scene for many young people.

Of course, the couples — many of whom belong to one or more of the above groups — will be there too, everyone interacting but also carving out space to do their own thing.

"People are creating DIY queer spaces because they're being crowded out [as] the existing spaces are becoming very male, mainstream queer-centric," Young said. The fact that mainstream queer culture doesn't always reflect the diversity of the community is a shame, she said.

Harris, a credit analyst, and Martin, a real estate analyst, said they sometimes wish they knew more gay couples in the city — black or otherwise — though they're starting to meet more. They also don't know, for a few reasons, whether Baltimore will be it forever.

"Atlanta," Harris said, a smile peaking out of the side of his mouth. (He and Martin once produced a YouTube reality show called "The Queens of Baltimore," and Harris wants to try it again in Atlanta, which he considers the mecca of black reality television. But that's a different story.)

"Houses in Baltimore are too expensive," said Martin, of another factor that might push them out. The couple wants to own a home one day, have room to raise a child. They might try foster care first.

"I always wanted six kids, but I'm too old for that now," Harris said.

For now, the couple is just excited about their wedding, they said, which they have pushed off for close to eight years so they could have it — legally — in Maryland.

"It is home for me," Harris said.

"All my family is here," said Martin.

Young, who knows and adores Harris from years ago when they both worked with HIV-positive and affected youth — it's a Smaltimore world, after all — said she loves Baltimore for many reasons, and has no plans to leave. Still, she wishes people across the city had a better understanding of minority LGBT populations that are thriving here. She wishes misconceptions would drop away.

"There has been a very strong black queer culture in this country and in the world for a very long time," she said.

She wishes more LGBT organizations and people in the city would recognize that, would talk about poverty and class and racism, would branch out more. There is a lot of work being done to overcome challenges for the LGBT community in Baltimore, she said, but the focus is too narrow — too geographically restricted to the city center.

More groups need to "go outside of the gayborhood," she said. "There will be gay people who come."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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