Baltimore Pride: Members of city's LGBT community on Orlando's impact, what 'pride' means to them

Members of Baltimore's LGBT community share what "pride" means to them.

In the 41 years since the first iteration of Baltimore Pride, the LGBT community has made progress for equality nationwide. But some 41 days before this year's annual festival, a tragedy was a stark reminder of the struggles that still remain.

After a gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 and injured dozens more at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, Jabari Lyles wondered what was next.

"Does this now give us a platform? asked Lyles, board president of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore, which organizes Baltimore Pride. "Will this be the time people listen?"

In the immediate aftermath, the LGBT community was united in sorrow. Now, many see this weekend's Baltimore Pride festival as an important tool to bring people together for a celebration of who they are.

"Pride this year and years to come are just reminders that the fight is not over," said Bethany Henderson, program manager of the LGBT Health Resource Center at Chase Brexton Health Care. "We are still fighting against racism, sexism, transphobia and queerphobia. And we need to continue to support one another in that fight."

Pride organizers have taken extra steps to tighten security at the weekend events, including meeting with Baltimore police Commissioner Kevin Davis and the FBI, Lyles said.

"I gave them my absolute commitment to doing everything we can that Pride is as safe as possible," he said.

Pride events will also include a tribute to Orlando, with a performance from the Baltimore King of Pride on the main state at 4:40 p.m. during Saturday's block party.

In light of the Orlando shooting and ahead of this weekend's celebration, we asked members of Baltimore's LGBT community to share their stories, and tell us what Pride means to them.

Bryanna Jenkins, 27, executive director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance

What does Pride mean to you: "RESILIENCE"

For Jenkins, her sophomore year at Morgan State University was transformative. She discovered the language that would help her understand her identity, and in 2008, she transitioned. Since then, Jenkins has committed her life to sharing the narrative of trans women and the issues they face — whether it's their vulnerability to violence or the rampant employment discrimination that forces some to engage in sex work for income.

"Every day that I move around I know that I'm at risk of violence," she said. "I'm very aware that I'm living in my authentic truth but I'm aware that I live in a world that punishes that, and a world that doesn't understand that and a world that seeks to extinguish that."

Jenkins said she saddened by the fact that it took a shooting to remind people of what Pride is really supposed to be — "an act of resilience," she said.

Jenkins remains tenacious in her message that trans women are not disposable or there to make up quotas. She encourages those with influence to "check your privilege and see how you can use your privilege to elevate these narratives, to create opportunities and to really center it around the most marginalized and the most at-risk in the community."

Vanna and Julia Belton, owners of Flavor in Mount Vernon

What does Pride mean to you: Julia: "FAMILY"; Vanna: "ACCEPTANCE"

When Vanna and Julia Belton created Flavor, a Mount Vernon restaurant, they wanted it to be a space welcome to everyone in Baltimore — especially the LGBT community.

So when they woke up to the news about Orlando, the Hunt Valley couple said it was a sobering moment — they knew it could have easily been them.

The couple, who recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary, say they've felt welcomed in Baltimore, but recognize that it may not be as easy to live as an interracial lesbian couple in other cities.

"I think Pride is an opportunity for us to celebrate community and celebrate the progress that we have made within the community, but not forget the struggle." said Julia. "Orlando is definitely a reminder of still how much work needs to be done."

For Vanna, Baltimore Pride is an especially meaningful experience. The 2005 festival, featuring famed drag queen RuPaul, was the first Pride event she attended.

"I remember that Pride, because it was like my Hail Mary," she said. "I was like 'I'm normal, there's people like me, they're out in the open.' Being able to stand in the street, hold hands, kiss, see people do that, it was like — 'I'm home.'"

Jabari Lyles, 25, board president of the GLCCB

What does Pride mean to you: "COURAGE"

As an organizer, leader and gay man, Lyles felt the impact of Orlando not just personally, but as part of a group that can help frame what happens next. He says the shooting felt like a death in the family. In the moments after the news hit he felt vulnerable, but now he sees the beauty in it — particularly how people across the country are beginning to mobilize.

Being an organizer also means Lyles must be mindful of the diversity of the LGBT community. For example, a safer Pride for some means a more visible and increased police presence; for others, the idea of more police isn't comforting.

"It's understanding how do you assuage the concerns of the community that feel protected by the police, while also empowering and creating a safe space for the community that does not," Lyles said.

Life as an activist can be difficult, but Lyles knows it's important to keep on going.

"As someone who's not only gay and black, these days you're caught at an intersection of liberation movements, and there are some days that you wake up and you think that you're not making a difference and things are still horrible" he said. "And there are some days when you're like, 'You know what? This is what the work is. This is what we do.'"

Gabe Cazares, 24, government affairs specialist with the National Federation of the Blind

What does Pride mean to you: "LIBERATION"

Cazares, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Texas in an evangelical Pentecostal household. He is still in the process of coming out to people in his family. Cazares, who is blind, also has to deal with obstacles most members of the LGBT community don't encounter.

"A lot of the time gay bars and gay clubs are a space for kind of LGBQT liberation, but there hasn't been much work done to reach out to our LGBQT brothers and sisters who are not able-bodied," he said.

His cultural heritage meant that the Orlando shooting, which happened on Latin Night at the Pulse nightclub, felt even more personal.

"It struck a chord, not only as a gay man but as Latinx," he said. "One of the parts that has been lost [in media coverage] — this person specifically chose the Latinx community."

He says the LGBT Latino community faces discrimination on multiple levels, whether it's because of their immigration status, socio-economic background or who they choose to love. He hopes for greater intersectional awareness, and that people will recognize some suffer from oppression more than others.

"I'm not just a gay man, I'm not just a blind man. I'm a blind man that happens to be gay with immigrant parents," Cazares said. "And recognizing that those different pieces of who we are shape the overall mosaic of the LGBT community needs to happen."

Bethany Henderson, 31, program manager of the LGBT Health Resource Center at Chase Brexton Health Care

What does Pride mean to you? "NEVERENDING"

Henderson feels indebted to her LGBT elders — that without their advocacy and courage, she couldn't live out in the open today. That sense of duty drives her work at Chase Brexton, where she helps elderly members of the LGBT community navigate old age.

Aging is challenging generally, but Henderson says this particular community has unique issues to confront. Not only are they more likely to live alone and suffer from isolation, but some are long-term survivors of HIV who now have to live with the side effects of the medication. Then there are those who go back into the closet, as some living facilities for the elderly aren't LGBT friendly.

Henderson sees Pride this year as an opportunity for reflection.

"We need to look in on ourselves, on our own implicit biases, but also come together as a community to fight a lot of the violence and discrimination that's happening to LGBQT community," she said.

Louis Hughes, 72, co-founder of the GLCCB

What does Pride mean to you? "EMPOWERMENT"

"Everyone expected I was [gay] — except me," said Hughes on coming out over 40 years ago. "It was like a great release [from] the game I was playing with myself."

He recalls attending his first drag show, at the Hippo, a venue that was a sanctuary for Baltimore's LGBT community for decades before closing in 2015.

When Hughes began coming out, it was a very different time, he said. For a while he was only out to family and friends, then in 1988 he testified for gay rights in City Hall and recordings of his testimony were played on local radio. After that there was no more hiding.

Hughes says he's felt welcome and embraced in his journey. This is why, to him, Pride means empowerment.

"It kind of reminds me of the civil rights movement. I'm black and I'm proud. I think Pride has that kind of effect on a group and strengthens them in their resolve."

Steve McMahon, 60, singer with the Baltimore Men's Chorus

What does Pride mean to you? "COMMUNITY"

Since he came out in 1980, McMahon has seen a big change in the public's acceptance of gay people.

"People now I think they're much more comfortable with gay people. It's not a shock, it's not unusual for people to be out and gay," he said.

But though the LGBT community is more out in the open, he still sees tremendous value in an event like Pride.

"It's a time for us to come together as a community, with like-minded souls," he said. "Most of us are out in the real world, and in the workplace, home, in the neighborhoods and out there, especially here in Baltimore, you don't have a dense concentration of gay people."

John Shields, 65, chef, television host and writer

What does Pride mean to you? "GRATITUDE"

Shields came out at a time when bars could be raided if it was suspected they were frequented by homosexuals, he said. This is why the ability to celebrate Pride openly and watch the younger generation enjoy it fills him with gratitude.

"I don't take it for granted, I didn't grow up in a time when it was really nice. It was very difficult. There was a lot of discrimination, a lot of fear — it was a rough time," said Shields, the chef at Gertrude's.

He's happy that a lot of younger people don't have to suffer the overt discrimination that he did. Still, Orlando was a wake-up call that, despite the victories in the gay rights movement, there's still danger.

"Orlando drove that home, that we can't be complacent because there's still so much hatred and homophobia," he said. "We make laws and we've made great strides, but my God it's still a difficult time."

Rebecca Blaqueout, 27, drag performer and Miss Gay Maryland 2016

What does Pride mean to you? "SHAMELESS"

In the aftermath of the events in Orlando, Blaqueout, the current Miss Gay Maryland, felt afraid — "I was almost scared to walk down the street holding my boyfriend's hand," he said. "What if somebody here saw us holding hands, didn't like it, and started shooting at us?"

Blaqueout — who goes by his given name, Daniel Spivey, when he's not in drag — moved to Baltimore when he was 21 and, following the encouragement of friends, started doing drag in 2012. His dad is a deacon, mom a Sunday school teacher — and, initially, coming out was rough. Today, things are different. Blaqueout jokes that his parents love his boyfriend more than they love him.

Although what happened in Orlando was a tragedy, Blaqueout says, it also created a moment in which people can come together and create change. "We need to step in some way and try to figure out how we can prevent things like that from happening in the future."

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If you go

Baltimore Pride runs through Sunday. Festivities include a High Heel Race at 1:30 p.m. Saturday starting at Cathedral and Read streets; a parade at 2 p.m. Saturday along Charles Street, from Madison to Chase streets; a block party from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday in the area bounded by Cathedral, Read, Eager and Charles streets; and the Pride Festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday in Druid Hill Park, 2600 Madison Ave. Free. More information: baltimorepride.org.

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