Hate speech at Harborplace

I had just finished work downtown the other night and was headed back to my midtown apartment on my 10-speed when I spied a group of sidewalk evangelists up ahead at Calvert and Pratt streets. There were about seven of them, all dressed in white robes with ornate red and gold trim. As I got closer, I heard one of them with a microphone spouting off about the evils of "fornication."

"Jeez," I thought to myself, "do people still preach like this about sex?" It seemed like a throwback to another era. I kept pedaling.

Then, just as I passed them, the preacher went into a diatribe against homosexuality. At first, I wasn't fazed. Homophobia from a religious extremist is hardly surprising. But I slowly became angry. Really, really angry. I was dog-tired after a tough shift and I could not believe I was being forced to hear homophobic hate speech, loudly amplified no less, at Harborplace.

Could this really be happening in 2018? Does Baltimore City permit this? Can anyone set up shop on a busy intersection and badmouth minorities? Mayor Catherine Pugh, do you know about this?

The hubris of these self-appointed saviors of Baltimore's "sinful" got under my skin. So I turned around and rode back to confront them.

"Shut up! Just shut up!" I yelled as I passed close by them on my bike. The preacher talked over me on his mike. My outburst was hardly original or even effective. But it was heartfelt. As a gay person, I never wanted "tolerance" — I found that insulting. And I thought acceptance was too unrealistic to expect. (It was not all that long ago, remember, that gays were openly despised in this country.) No, all I wanted was for people to shut up. All that "fag" stuff all the time — I wanted it to end. That was my 15-year-old self demanding silence from this loudmouthed, old-school, fire-and-brimstone preacher.

I did not get it. He kept going. The more he rambled on about homosexuality and sin, the more determined I was to counter him.

I'm a balding, slightly built, bespectacled 58-year-old man without a clue about how to defend myself should a fight break out. But I continued anyway, both terrified and emboldened.

"You don't know a thing about Jesus and what he thinks," I screamed in a voice growing raspy from strain. "Do you know how many gay people have died and suffered because of your words? Shame on you! Shame on you!"

The preacher kept preaching. And so did I. I lobbed my verbal attacks from my moving bike, then circled back for more. "You better get out of here," one of the group advised. I ignored him. The guy with the microphone was obviously winning the battle to be heard, but I didn't care. I was finally, finally telling off the whole Christian right from Jerry Falwell to Anita Bryant to Marco Rubio and every other gay-bashing idiot I'd ever had to put up with over the decades. And it felt good.

I had apparently attracted a bit of an audience, which included a heckler who told me I was wrong as I rolled past him. "No, YOU'RE wrong," I snapped back, not even caring if he was dangerous. Then a young woman approached me to express disbelief at the preacher and his anachronistic tirade. I was thankful for her courage and kindness.

Suddenly, the group started closing down their make-shift corner church. Had I won the battle and forced them off the street? I doubt it. They were probably just tired after a long night of offending people.

But I was not through yet. I rode over and met them on the other side of Pratt as they crossed. We eyed each other, silently. Then I spoke. "Why don't you preach against the evils of firearms?" I asked angrily. "Someone is shot dead almost every day in this town!"

My suggestion to do something constructive and important with their pulpit was apparently not welcomed. They just kept on walking, wordlessly. I guess they would rather spew hate than save lives. Fellas, that is not what Jesus would do.

When I got up to Mt. Royal, I found myself surrounded by concert patrons slowly pouring out of the Lyric after a show. Among the many couples holding hands, I noticed several that were same-gendered.

I was happy to be home.

Louis Balsamo writes from Baltimore; he can be reached at louisbalsamo@gmail.com.

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