Resource center welcomes gays, lesbians in Carroll

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WESTMINSTER -- When Wade Fannin moved here in 1987 and became visible as Western Maryland College's only openly gay student, he was subjected to sporadic name-calling. Two years ago, he and his lover were beaten up by a "skinhead" in downtown Westminster.

In those days, Carroll's homosexuals had no place to turn for support -- a situation he intends to change with the opening of the new Lesbian and Gay Resource Center of Carroll County, based at the college.

The 27-year-old senior recently won the college's first Griswold-Zepp Award for Volunteerism, an annual $1,000 prize for undergraduate projects in the community. He plans to use the money for the center.

"Its very inception will send out a powerful, affirming message to closeted gay men and lesbians that they are not alone, and support and resources are available in Carroll County," Mr. Fannin wrote in applying for the award.

Last week, he and several other students were setting up the center in the Lesbian and Gay Alliance's clubroom, a basement office in Blanche-Ward Hall provided by the college in January.

There, homosexual students and Carroll County residents will be able to get information, attend workshops and meetings, or telephone the Helpline for information or crisis intervention.

"We are accepted on campus," said a student who asked to be identified only as Mike. "But it's a very protected environment . . . especially in Carroll County. I got involved with it to show . . . that all homosexuals are not monsters and perverts, to raise people's consciousness."

But just days after the Helpline opened, itreceived its first obscene call. Mike and the others laughed as they recalled the unoriginal attempt at insult. Mr. Fannin said they also get hate mail whenever the Alliance receives any publicity.

BThe Helpline will be staffed by trained volunteers from 7 to 10 on weeknights, Mr. Fannin said, and supplemented by an answering machine after hours. It will offer peer counseling, referrals to programs and non-discriminatory services, and information about events.

About 25 people form the core of the Alliance and can be counted on to help at the center. But a celebration of National Coming Out Day Oct. 11 drew 50 to 60 people, about 75 percent of them from off campus.

The turnout helped demonstrate the need for the center and the Helpline.

"We don't really know what's needed yet, but it's probably not going to be specifically crisis-intervention oriented," Mr. Fannin said. "One difference is we have such a big membership from the Carroll County community, where other centers tend to be more campus oriented. We've made an effort to be inclusive."

"This is the first time I've ever become active," Mike commented.

One of their group was beaten recently by a co-worker at a fast-food outlet, they said, but feared being exposed as gay if he reported the attack.

"He is somewhat closeted, so the system doesn't work. It's a Catch-22: If you stand up to fight back, you just set yourself up for more and more and more," Mr. Fannin said.

"And that's why we're here: We have to be advocates for gay people in Carroll County."

A function of the project that Mr. Fannin is "most looking forward to" will be monitoring and reporting hate crimes against homosexuals to the state, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington.

At the center, staff are working to build the beating victim's self-esteem, "showing him that it wasn't his fault, regardless of what society tells him, and that we'll be supportive of any course of action that he chooses. We will also confront his employers and let them know that we're monitoring the situation. Nobody should be subjected to that kind of violence," Mr. Fannin said.

He said he sometimes has to struggle to practice the non-violence he advocates in fighting "not just for gay issues, but all kinds of social injustice."

He's majoring in psychology and religious studies with a minor in women's studies and plans to enter the seminary after graduation next semester to become a minister of the United Church of Christ.

Mr. Fannin recalled arriving at Western Maryland from politically powerful gay community in Houston to find the college's Gay and Lesbian Alliance had disintegrated in the face of the AIDS panic.

But with his help, the Alliance was rejuvenated and has steadily gained power on the campus. It now is represented on boards and advisory panels like any other group, college officials agree.

As a reminder of its rapid progress, Mr. Fannin pointed to an old college poster on the center's wall announcing cheerleader tryouts. The poster reads in part: "GUYS!! No one will think you are fags!! They'll be jealous!"

When this appeared on campus just two years ago, Mr. Fannin said he failed to convey its offensiveness to the college Activities Office, which approved it. He's confident such a poster would never be approved today.

Fannin, the Houston-born son of a fundamentalist preacher, "came out" in 1983, but his plans to bring his lover home for a visit resulted in a five-year estrangement from his father.

When he was younger, his family lived as missionaries in Fiji and Indonesia, returning to Houston when he was 9 or 10. "I wasn't in touch enough with myself to know that I was gay," Mr. Fannin said of his youth. The fundamentalist schools he attended never mentioned sexuality.

He lived in Houston when he came out. "It's easier in a big city than in a place like Carroll County," he said.

After coming out, Mr. Fannin did volunteer work in a now-defunct AIDS hospital but was terrified when a patient with whom he'd become close developed dementia, believing that he had been buried alive and no one knew it.

"It was horrible. After that, I was so out of it I had to get away," he said.

With a few years at a fundamentalist college on his transcript, he began a search of schools that led to Western Maryland.

arrived in Westminster at the age of 24, leaving a community whose politicians sought out the gay and lesbian vote for one with "no organization at all." Commuting to Baltimore was impractical, Mr. Fannin found, so with two other men and a woman, he began rebuilding the Alliance.

"We yelled a lot at the administration," he recalled. "We held meetings off campus." There were worship services, brunches, movies and discussions. They spoke at classes on liberation movements, women and human sexuality.

"There was some resistance," he said, "but they've come around. Maybe with the exception of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, we're probably one of the most powerful and respected groups on campus."

He and the others said they've been helped by gay alumni and faculty members who aren't gay but that gay faculty members who might be most helpful have remain closeted and silent.

But this may change, said Mr. Fannin, recalling, "I was the most homophobic right before I came out."

He disagrees with gay activists who believe in "outing," or revealing people to be lesbian or gay in an attempt to force them to join ranks and confront society. The idea may have merit in the abstract, but it hurts people, he said. He has vowed never to reveal anyone's sexual preference except that of a hate-monger masking his own homosexuality. "I've always been out, and I don't see any point in living otherwise, except to help the straight, ruling-class male," he said. "But we're here to help."

Help line

The Lesbian and Gay Resource Center of Carroll County, based at Western Maryland College, offers a telephone help line from 7 to 10 weeknights. An answering machine is available after hours. The number is 857-8362.

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