When Mimi Demissew joined the then-named GLCCB in 2017 and saw a fractured organization with lagging attendance at its marquee Baltimore Pride Festival and a lack of ethnic and gender diversity, she knew that increasing representation was key.
Two years later, the organization has a surplus, more members of the LGBTQ community are receiving services, and attendance has increased at the annual festival, which will be held Father’s Day Weekend in Druid Hill Park.
Demissew attributes part of the success that the center has achieved to the increased role of women in leadership.
“I think it’s important to have women’s representation in the entire movement,” Demissew, 40, said. “If you are speaking specifically about Pride, the cultural celebration is supposed to represent the entire community. And that entire community is made up of so many different diverse voices with so many different nuances within larger clusters of cultures that are represented in there.”
This year’s Baltimore Pride will have more robust offerings from an array of entertainers to events such as live short storytelling at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum at 6:30 p.m. Friday and having an official women’s after party, “Shero,” at Flavor, a restaurant in Mount Vernon, which leaders say will attract a more diverse crowd. Those associated with the planning of the events point to a common denominator: the voice of women in the planning process.
“Prior years it had all been men planning Baltimore Pride. Maybe there was one woman on board,” Demissew explained, adding that now 10 of the 15 members of the pride committee are either women or people of color. “When I came on board, I was the pride chair. But I had a lot more women on board—for the chairs of the committees. What we ended up seeing were these diverse, underrepresented ideas because we literally had more women at the table.”
Despite the fact that Gay Pride celebrations are offshoots from the Stonewall Riots of 1969 where mostly trans women of color faced off with police outside of the Greenwich Village club, many Pride celebrations have skewed toward white men.
That was the case in Baltimore until Demissew took over at the Pride Center of Maryland.
“There was a trend that it wasn’t accessible to the entire community. It wasn’t accessible to the community who started this,” Demissew said. “Our mission was really to get back to pride being a celebration for the entire community. That meant everyone had to be seen.”
Increasing visibility — especially among women — was important to Charisse Nichols when organizing a Baltimore Pride kickoff party at the upscale Argentine steakhouse, Bar Vasquez in Harbor East where she is the general manager.
Nichols was instrumental in booking three drag queen performers and DJ Ultra Nate, a Baltimore-native house and R&B singer known for her ’90s hits “Free” and "If You Could Read My Mind."
The party, House of Vasquez, will have a ballroom theme. And a portion of sales during the night will go to The Pride Center Of Maryland.
“Gay Pride almost feels empty in the city,” Nichols said. “This was also a chance for something fun and new.”
Whitney Gucci Goo, a trans drag performer known for her flips, tricks, and tendency to take the stage as Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, will be performing at the party at Bar Vasquez.
“I think it’s important to have a very diverse community organizing Pride just because...the LGBTQ community is a very diverse community in and of itself,” said the 25-year-old Catonsville resident who attended her first Baltimore Pride 10 years ago. “I think that having mainly a women’s council it’s going to open up to a different perspective for Pride—especially with women’s rights being pushed back into the forefront. ”
Nationally, representation remains a hot topic among the LGBTQ community—particularly when it comes to gender and ethnicity, according to Bonnie J. Morris, a professor, and historian at UC Berkley specializing in women’s studies.
“There are a lot of lesbians who are very anxious about the focus on Stonewall’s 50th Anniversary leaving out the role of women and trans women,” said Morris, who has written 17 books about women’s and LGBTQ issues.
Like other oppressed groups, gay Victorians used coded phrases to share in-jokes and communicate privately with one another while flying under the radar of mainstream society. Oscar Wilde’s famous “The Importance of Being Earnest,” (at Everyman Theatre for a month-long run) is full of examples.
“My entire 40 years in lesbian activism, there has always been an emphasis on diversity and given the opportunity when women lead, they have definitely fostered anti-racist planks,” she said.
Morris points to a splinter within the LGBTQ movement in the 70s when women separated—“to a degree”—from men in the early days of the movement.
“There was a lot of tension over the failure of the mostly gay men’s movement to address women’s issues or to give women opportunities to speak,” said Morris, who added that the women’s feminist movement was another cause for the separation.
Women tended to focus more on issues of child custody, child care, safety and the lack of decent salaries, according to Morris.
“There was a lot of emphasis on diversity in ways that people don’t look at historically,” she said. For example, sign language became involved in women’s events.
By the 80s, women were running most of the LGBTQ organizations in the United States.
“Women gained leadership through tragedy,” she said, explaining that the AIDS crisis decimated the number of gay men, which resulted in women taking leadership roles in LGBTQ organizations. As people started living longer with the disease, the numbers of men in leadership roles within these groups increased. “Unfortunately a lot of people felt uncomfortable with women in power because men were gone.”
In 2019, Demissew is one of the few women of color to head a major LGBTQ group in the country. She’s surrounded herself with diverse people—both from an ethnic and gender perspective. And she says the approach is working.
“There is a different style,” she explained of her approach to leadership and what she has observed having women committee heads. “What I saw, it wasn’t about ego. It was a collaboration. When I took over, it wasn’t just a bunch of older white guys running pride anymore. There were a lot more ideas and streamlined meetings too.”
Under Demissew’s leadership, now a majority of Pride committee leaders are either women, people of color or members of the trans community.
Attendance has increased from 10,000 in 2016 to 30,000 people last year. Events during Pride Week have gone from 10 in 2016 to 77 in 2018. One of the week’s largest fundraiser’s, Twilight on the Terrace, a mixer at Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has increased from raising $10,000 and bringing around 100 guests to now raising $25,000 and attracting close to 300 people.
And it’s not just during Pride Week. Corporate sponsors for Baltimore Pride now participate in the center’s Pride Sexual and Gender Minority Job Fair, which happened in May. Demissew also touts that the Pride Center provides services to 800 people a month compared to 40 a month under previous leadership. The organization is now in financial compliance with the state, city and federal government. Jabari Lyles, the past head of the organization and currently the LGBTQ Affairs Liaison in the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office, could not immediately be reached for comment.
“We now have a cash reserve in the couple hundred thousand dollars. Our employees are getting paid on time and receiving benefits. We have structure,” she said.
Monte Ephraim, who heads up Elder Pride, programming that is geared toward senior members of the LGBTQ community, said, “I’ve seen the evolution for the past three years. These women are very strong, decisive and compassionate. That’s not to say that men on the committee are not. But it’s refreshing to see that we are at the table.”
Lakesha Davis has been a part of the new structure instituted by Demissew. Davis heads up the week’s offerings as the pride coordinator.
“Women’s leadership is very important,” said Davis, who points to increased entertainment offerings throughout the weekend from a country trans performer to a Latina singer. “We’re moving from something that was predominately white men to something that is more inclusive of women.”
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She added: “Women seem to take it by the horns and just go. I don’t have to do so much to get them to move. They get their assignments and they are going.”
She adds that she is working with the organizers of Capital Pride in Washington, D.C. and she joined a regional and international Pride board. Members of the D.C. board—including its executive director—will volunteer at Baltimore Pride and will give her feedback based on what they observe, according to Davis.
“You may not see a difference in this year’s festival, but I’ll have their perspective next year,” she said. “They will give us a true an honest assessment.”
Davis eventually wants to grow Baltimore Pride to epic proportions.
“There is no reason why we aren’t in M&T Bank Stadium and those other venues,” she said.
If You Go
An 11-block Pride parade starting at N. Charles and 33rd St. will take place Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The annual high heel race will take place at 12:30 p.m. at 25th St. and N. Charles. A Block Party will take place Saturday at 4 p.m. in Station North. Sunday, from noon to 6 p.m. a festival will take place in Druid Hill Park featuring drag performances, musical acts and other entertainment.