On a recent rainy Friday night in Columbia, Steve Charing and his husband Bob Ford sat in the lobby of the county’s nonprofit center, a rainbow centerpiece at the table and plates of pasta in front of them, ready to talk about life.
They were attending the county’s first SAGE table, an intergenerational event meant to unite lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals, who exchanged stories on everything from coming out and parenting to fears about aging.
“The young people are in a different environment and world than we grew up in and it’s helpful if the older folks share their experiences to give the younger generation some perspective and understanding of how far we’ve had to go to get to this point,” said Charing, who’s been with Ford for 38 years. They wed in 2009.
“I thought it would be a terrific opportunity to educate young people about how our history brought us to where we are,” he said.
The dinner was patterned after a national event run by the older adult advocacy group SAGE, which previously stood for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. The dinner was part of a wider push in Howard County to bring more visibility and engagement to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Advocates, led by the county’s chapter of the LGBT group PFLAG, short for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, hope to see that work culminate on the Columbia lakefront next June in the county’s first pride festival.
Set to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, often viewed as a catalyst in the movement for LGBT rights, the festival is scheduled for June 28 with the theme “Remember, Resist and Rejoice.”
“Howard County [is] such a population center for the state but we don’t have an event to highlight the diversity we supposedly treasure here,” said Jumel Howard, vice president of Howard County’s PFLAG chapter who is leading plans for the festival. “This is a great way to not just show how much we care for the LGBT community [but] to educate the community on some of the issues that affect the LGBT community.”
Planning for the first pride festival has already been a year in the making and will pick up steam next Thursday, when PFLAG plans to hold a launch event at the Carroll Baldwin Community Hall in Savage, one year to the day before the festival.
Howard County’s pride fest joins a growing number of festivals in the area. Washington, D.C., Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Frederick County all have or will hold pride events during the year.
The region’s uptick in pride events is on par with a national trend to spread pride festivals beyond large metropolian areas to smaller communities, said Jonathan Katz, an expert on queer history at the University of Buffalo.
“What’s happened in the last five years is an explosion in smaller communities [and] what that suggests is that in some sense, finally the dragon has been slain in these smaller communities, that individuals now feel comfortable being out in communities where they’re not anonymous,” Katz said.
While Jumel Howard applauded the festivals in D.C. and Baltimore, he said it’s time for the county to hold its own events, which will have a “closer to home” feel. Planners are working on the layout for the festival, with an estimated budget of $19,000, according to Howard. Howard estimates the festival will attract less than 3,000 people in its first year.
“I envision it not dissimilar from a lot of other lakefront festivals [and] I kind of think it’s not a bad thing to be just another lakefront fest, because I think that really speaks to how the community fits within Howard County,” said Alex Kent, a volunteer coordinator. “We’re already here and most of us [are] pretty comfortable living our lives here, but having a place to gather and celebrate and have a visible presence will be really wonderful.”
In the months leading up to the festival, Howard said he wants to have other LGBT events in the county.
“One of PFLAG’s main issues that we feel there isn’t a real sense of community among LGBT residents in the county [and] we want to build up that sense of community,” Howard said. “There’s things like drag queen bingo in Baltimore, where people can go out and mingle with others in the LGBT community and that’s not something we have going on here, so we want people to see that the community is visible here in Howard County.”
Howard County festival planners are hoping to appeal to a wider audience by making the festival friendly to families and older adults, two groups that Kent said are often forgotten in pride festivals. This could include anything from offering more places to sit and music tailored to older tastes to designated tents for older LGBTQ adults or children.
The LGBT population over 65 is expected to double to 3 million people by 2030. In Maryland, approximately 3.7 percent of the state’s 6 million residents identify as LGBT, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.
“The baby boomers are getting older and a lot of baby boomers are out and they’re going to stay stay out, said Tim Johnston, director of national projects for SAGE. “They’re looking for places that are welcoming for them. A lot of places are beginning to think about even if they’re residents aren’t LGBT the family members of residents might be.”
Assisted-living facilities and 50+ centers are places that lag behind in inclusion. To some older adults, many of whom grew up in generations before sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws existed, much of gay life is considered taboo, Johnston said.
This is especially problematic for older LGBT adults, who are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be single and report higher levels of isolation, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the University of California Los Angeles. Older LGBTQ adults are also more likely to be estranged from their families, making them often more reliant on outside services for care later in life.
Howard County is often in lauded as a place of acceptance and tolerance. Columbia, one of the flagship areas of the county, was founded by Jim Rouse with the intent to be a suburban hub of diversity and acceptance. There were three hate-crime cases related to sexual orientation in 2017 in Howard County, according to an Office of Human Rights 2017 report. There were seven reported LGBT hate crime incidents, according to the report.
For Charing, he said while the county, like anywhere else, isn’t perfect in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, he’s found those values to hold true. He moved to the county in 1994 from Anne Arundel County for that acceptance, he called Howard County a “beacon” for social improvements.
When he thinks of the work that needs to be done on acceptance, Charing said he wants to see more education and outreach about transgender issues, it’s a topic that he said still lacks enough understanding in the county.
“Ignorance breeds prejudice,” he said.
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To help with this, two years ago SAGE launched its SAGECare program to train institutions and staff in how to respectfully work with and serve LGBT older adults, including proper terminology and best practices. So far SAGE has trained more than 32,000 people and there are 297 credentialed organizations across the country.
Training includes a review of the correct LGBT terminology for sexual orientation and identity and differences in terminology across generations, Johnston said. They also review the history of the LGBT movement, to help give people perspective on the journey of older LGBT adults and why some of them may be more hesitant to come out. SAGE also provides more specific in-depth training for issues such as serving transgender individuals, working with older LGBT people of color and bullying prevention.
Last month, Howard County’s Department of Community Resources and Services, which houses the Office on Aging and Independence, trained its staff of more than 100 employees, according to Ofelia Ross, a manager in the Office on Aging.
The training is a good step forward, Kent said, for a sector of the LGBT population that may not be as open with their sexual identity as the general community.
“Our culture is more open and accepting now than it was 30 years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily undue the lifetime of experience that folks who are older adults lived through,” Kent said, “Most LGBT older adults spent a lot of their lifetime in an environment where they couldn’t be out, so even though the climate has changed there’s still of a lot well founded fear about sexual orientation and identity.”
The annual Baltimore Pride parade event brought thousands to the streets to celebrate the city’s LGBT community. (Jay Reed / Baltimore Sun video)