In a year when Maryland's same-sex couples can, for the first time, legally marry, the organizers of Baltimore Pride 2013 decided some special celebrating was required. A landmark occasion, they reasoned, called for a landmark commemoration.
So they organized a wedding for Sunday afternoon. Not just any wedding, mind you, but a group wedding, one in which some 20 gay and lesbian couples will join together and say, "I do." And who better to preside over WeDo Baltimore than Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a longtime friend of the LGBT community who already knows the drill, having performed marriages for several gay couples just after midnight Jan. 1, within minutes of same-sex marriages becoming legal in the state?
"The LGBT community has always been extremely supportive of me, personally and professionally," the mayor told The Baltimore Sun this week. "It is a special honor to participate in something that is so solemn, and yet so beautiful."
Agreed Matthew Thorn, interim director of the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and the director of this year's celebration, "It is a beautiful moment. I think I'm going to see a lot of smiles, just for the sake of smiling."
Carrietta Hiers, a local union organizer who will be marrying her long-time partner, Tonya Cook, at WeDo Baltimore, said this day has been a long time coming. The couple had a commitment ceremony in October 2010 and vowed to get married as soon as they could do so legally.
"This validates something that we've always known, that we are free to love," said Hiers, one of the organizers of WeDo Baltimore. "A lot of couples who helped, whose shoulders we had to stand on, they had to hide their love. This will pay homage to them. We don't have to hide anymore. It's liberating."
Indeed, the wedding ceremony, set for 2:30 p.m. during Sunday's all-day Pride Festival at Druid Hill Park, puts a unique, and unusually sober-minded, exclamation point on what has annually been a spirited, weekend-long celebration of LGBT pride. Amid the high-heel races and the block partying and the outrageous costumes, it will be a reminder of the substantive progress gay-rights proponents have made in Maryland over the past several years.
"Baltimore and Maryland have always been LGBT friendly," said Thorn. "It's taken years to fight for marriage equality, but we've had a lot of laws in place that have helped LGBT individuals, including anti-discrimination policies."
The wedding, he promised, would be a solemn, and joyous, occasion. Set to take place on the Pride Festival's main stage, at the base of a small hill, it will feature a full ceremony. In addition to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, four area ministers will be on the stage as well. A small reception will follow.
And if any couples in the audience take the hint, he added, the festival will include an "I Do" pavilion, featuring vendors offering a full range of services for the potential bride-and-groom-to-be.
Meredith Moise, one of the ministers who will be on stage with the mayor Sunday afternoon, called the mass wedding and the high spirits surrounding it "a chance for the community to celebrate the victory that we had on Election Day, when the voters affirmed marriage equality."
And yet, she said, there's a danger in celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage as an end in itself. The victory being celebrated Sunday, she plans to remind her audience Sunday, is just one step in a long journey.
"In the context of Pride, we need to think about what's next," said Moise, a minister in the Christian United Church. "We have a lot of things we still have to deal with as a community. We have to deal with hate crimes, and people being assaulted and killed because of their sexual orientation. We have a lot of work to do. In taking a look at previous human rights and civil rights movements, you see that once one milestone is reached, you don't stop there."
While making no claims that the struggle for equality is over, Thorn nonetheless embraces marriage equality as a milestone well worth marking. And, he suspects, many of those attending Baltimore Pride will agree.
"When you're in this community and you think about everything that's been accomplished, you can't help but smile," he said. "This is an amazing time for us, that we get to celebrate something so momentous, and so applicable to our everyday lives."
Of course, if any couples want to make their wedding a weekend-long celebration, Baltimore Pride will offer plenty of opportunities to get the party started early and keep it going long after the ceremony is over. (See accompanying story.)
For Rawlings-Blake, the weekend offers Baltimore a chance to advertise itself, to show how inclusive it can be. At least, that's one of the messages the mayor hopes people will take away.
"My hope is that the LGBT community understands that Baltimore is a place to be," she said. "We have a vibrant, rich community that is open and welcoming."