With a faltering voice, Jennifer Roberts told how her 13-year-old son's classmates ridiculed and harassed him -- because of her.
"The kids threw him against lockers and made fun of him. They said his mother was 'lezzie, lezzie, lezzie,' " she said.
Worse, the Baltimore mother of two continued, a lawyer she consulted about the harassment advised her to acquiesce. Because her four-year domestic partnership with another woman not recognized legally, the attorney feared that her suitability as a parent would be challenged in court.
"We were told we could lose our son," Ms. Roberts said. So she dropped the issue.
As the tale ended, her audience of four men and three women sat in troubled silence. Ms. Roberts and the others were participants in an informal discussion The Sun convened last week about living and working -- and being gay -- in Baltimore in 1993. Numerous area gays and lesbians are in the midst of two weeks of activities pegged to the theme of gay pride -- culminating today in an annual parade on Maryland Avenue from 21st Street north to the Wyman Park Dell and an afternoon festival there.
During a 2 1/2 -hour conversation, the eight traded stories and insights. Seven spoke openly; one requested that his name not be used and participated little.
They spoke of deep sorrow that their long-term partnerships aren't recognized by law, or even by heterosexual friends. They expressed dismay about the debate over the military ban on gays, and anger that society has been so slow to react to the AIDS epidemic. They talked about sexism -- including that between gay men and lesbians.
New reason for hope
But group members also spoke of great joys. Some told of beloved longtime partners. Others described the freedom they experienced upon affirming their sexuality. All eight said recent changes in attitudes toward lesbians and gays give them hope.
They didn't always agree. Voices rose and fell as opinions as diverse as occupations and backgrounds were shared. Occasionally, the conversation was flecked with hilarity.
All live in the Baltimore area for the same reasons other people do: jobs, schools, relatives who drew them or keep them here. At least one moved here because he knew no one in the area -- and could be openly gay without repercussions.
No state law prevents gays from being fired from jobs because of sexual orientation. However, a Baltimore statute prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Howard County, too, progressive in its attitude toward gays, they said. But on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland, acceptance comes harder.
Many Baltimoreans seem slower to accept gays than do residents of other metropolitan areas, said four out of the five who had moved here from places such as Berkeley, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y. And, they said, the number of gays here who remain afraid to be open about their sexual orientation is striking.
"A lot of people are leading a revolving-door life here, where they are active in one life professionally and another hidden life personally," said Margaret Fine, an attorney at the Health Education and Resource Organization, a nonprofit organization
that helps people with AIDS. "In my profession, there are many openly gay attorneys in major law firms in other cities. Here, they are hidden."
But Greg Satorie, a church music director, said that in Baltimore he could "be out and open because this is where I moved to."
"My parents are 1,500 miles away," he continued. "I'm basically in exile because they said, 'We love you and we want you to be happy, but we don't want you to do it in our neighborhood.' "
Still, to Timothy Hartlove, who grew up in Dundalk, attitudes seem to be changing for the better.
"I came out to a family who was not accepting and didn't know anything about gays or rights," said the insurance agent. "I said, 'I am going to be with somebody of my own sex, and if you want to deal with me, you have to deal with that.' "
They have begun to deal with it, he said. Then he added that, to him, coming out was a matter of principle.
"I don't think it's just fear [that is discouraging gays from coming out of the closet]. I think it's people who don't want to rock the boat," he said.
Ms. Fine disagreed: "I have an 'ex' who was a vice president of marketing, and she stood to lose her job and possibly her career by coming out. There is a valid element of fear."
Again and again, isolation was mentioned.
Several members said gays can feel alone because -- for professional or familial reasons -- they occasionally hide their sexual orientation. Or they feel alone because there are few gay role models.
"Imagine the world if everything -- all the books, the plays, the movies -- were written as though we were all gay, not straight. Imagine!" said Paul Garcia, who is bisexual.
In the city, there are gay bars and gay newspapers; elsewhere, news about gay issues and events is hard to come by, they said.
But the bar scene doesn't appeal to everyone, said two group members.
And worse, the stereotypical images of gays either leather-clad or in drag may be frightening to some gays.
"We have to make our community welcoming enough so that people will want to come out of the closet," said Elizabeth Sanders, a graphic designer.
"If all they see is a bunch of people in leather and drag queens, and they're afraid that's not the kind of life they want to live, and they don't want to go to bars, they won't come out."
Besides, said Ms. Fine, emphasizing bars as places to meet sets up a social structure that devalues long-term relationships.
"In our own community, we don't acknowledge relationships," she said.
"For one thing, bars are where our social environment has been primarily, and we have encouraged certain behaviors around bars . . . instead of a community centered around encouraging [long-term] relationships."
But heterosexual society doesn't recognize existing long-term relationships between gays, anyway, Ms. Sanders pointed out.
"There's so much expectation that [a relationship] is not going to last. People always say, 'Oh, are you still with. . .?' " she continued. "If I was married, no one would say that to me.
"That's the reason [gays] are having marriage ceremonies -- to say to everyone 'this is serious.' "
Indeed, photographer Andrea Ross-Greene and her partner have gone to great lengths to prove they are very serious.
"I've been in a relationship for 9 1/2 years," she said. "We could be legally married. We could be beneficiaries of each other's insurance policies. My lover's out of work right now, but she can't be on my insurance policy. She has to pay her own medical and life insurance.
"We also have power-of-attorney papers and wills drawn up because her parents don't see this relationship as positive, so we have to protect ourselves."
Mainstream media make the problem worse, Mr. Hartlove said.
"Somebody interviews the CEO of any company, or the writer of a play, or anybody who's accomplished something, and the article says, 'He lives happily in Towson with his wife of 18 years and two teen-age daughters,' or whatever.
"For a gay, the article doesn't say anything personal."
Or, Ms. Roberts added: "It says: 'Their apartment was tastefully decorated.' " She laughed.
One of the things that most bothered the group was stereotypical thinking about gays, such as:
* "That we're out to get children!" said Mr. Hartlove.
* That all gays are alike, said Mr. Satorie.
* "That all lesbians are butch," said Ms. Fine.
"Straight people think they can tell who's gay and who's not, but they can't," said Ms. Sanders, pausing. "We can't."
The conversation became pensive as it turned to the national debate over lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.
Discussion about gays in the military diverts attention from other issues, such as funding for AIDS research, Mr. Satorie said.
"Health is more important than the military issue."
When President Clinton focused on the military, Ms. Sanders said, he chose one of the few careers in which people have to live and shower together.
"I think [Clinton] was trying to help, but he didn't think," she said. "Why did he pick the one place where we'd have to talk about gays in showers?"
"Some people will tolerate discrimination in the showers because it is a threatening environment," said Ms. Fine, "but if you said to them, 'Shall we discriminate in the offices?' they would say, 'No.' "
Names and labels
The group members agreed that they'd be happy to see an end to the name-calling: gay, dyke, homosexual, faggot, lesbian. But they disagreed on a preferred term.
"I would prefer being called 'gay' or 'queer,' '" Mr. Satorie said. "Queer" is considered a more militant description, while many gays see the word "homosexual" as being clinical and derogatory, he said.
"I heard at the Gay March [in Washington, D.C., in April] a counter-protester saying, 'Attention all homos and homo-ettes,' said Mr. Garcia to groans from the other seven. "I'd rather be called 'gay.' "
"Labels are the offensive thing," said Ms. Roberts.
Labeling leads to corralling individuals into groups using only the measure of sexuality -- something that society does often, she said.
For example, she asked, "How many times have you been asked to come into a group meeting and asked things like 'when did you realize that you were heterosexual?' "
Women in the group raised the issue of sexism.
"One thing that has struck me is the invisibility of women in this whole military discussion," said Ms. Sanders.
"They have been completely ignored and for a long time a large percentage of the women running things in the military have been lesbians."
But lesbians face other sexism as well. Straight men don't believe that lesbians simply aren't interested in them, the women said.
And, across the board, straight and gay men can't understand what lesbians find attractive about each other, Ms. Sanders said and laughed.
"They say, 'What do women do?' Even gay men ask me that: 'What do you do?'
"I say, 'If you can't figure it out, you have a very poor imagination.' "
Consensus again eluded the group when the issue of whether they would want their children to be gay was brought up.
"It is the last thing I would wish for my child, because it is too hard," Mr. Hartlove said simply.
But others were less adamant: "I am planning to have children. It may be tough to be gay or lesbian, but I would hope that my children would be true to themselves," said Ms. Fine.
And being gay offers much, they agreed.
"We see heterosexuals have such gender roles to fit. We are free to set up our own relationships the way we see fit. We don't assume that one partner takes out the trash and the other washes dishes," said Ms. Sanders. "I wouldn't want my kids to get stuck with that."
Although coming forward and speaking out might be difficult for her to do because her son may face harassment, said Ms. Roberts, "we are basically forging the next generation."
Her 13-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, gay or not, she said, "have the future. They can choose. There will be a mass of voices, not just our few voices speaking up."
Four men and four women gathered at the invitation of a Baltimore Sun reporter for an informal discussion about what it's like to be gay in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
The eight met Monday in the midst of two weeks of activities geared to gay pride in Baltimore. Those activities culminate with an 11 a.m. parade and afternoon gathering at Wyman Park Dell today. Events have ranged from church services and public forums throughout the city to drag-queen balls and roller-skating parties.
Here's who took part in the discussion:
MARGARET FINE: 29, attorney. Born in Berkeley, Calif, now lives in Canterbury section of Baltimore. Democrat.
PAUL GARCIA: 23, computer technician and artist. Born in Baltimore, lives in Randallstown. Republican.
TIMOTHY HARTLOVE: 23, insurance agent. Born in Dundalk, lives in Southwest Baltimore. Democrat.
JENNIFER ROBERTS: 41, insurance representative. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., lives in Northwest Baltimore. Divorced after marriage of 14 years, two children. Involved in legally binding relationship. Democrat.
ANDREA ROSS-GREENE: 39, photographer. Born in Baltimore, lives in Ednor Gardens section of Baltimore. Involved in a legally binding, 9 1/2 -year relationship. Democrat.
ELIZABETH SANDERS: 37, graphic artist. Born in Philadelphia, lives in another part of Ednor Gardens. 'Married' a woman in a Quaker meeting. No stated political affiliation.
GREG SATORIE: 32, church music director. Raised on a farm near North Bend, Neb., lives in Waverly section of Baltimore. Studied to be a Catholic priest. HIV positive. Serving as secretary of the People With AIDS Coalition. Democrat.
JOE: (Not his real name, because he isn't open about his sexual orientation to family members or employer) 23, works in the travel business. Born in a Latin American country, lives in East Baltimore. No stated political affiliation.