Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Hippo's Last Last Call

When the lights were turned on at 1:40 a.m. on October 4, 2015, there weren’t wails or shrieks or moans or cheers.  It was a rather subdued reaction considering the curtain was finally falling down on the Hippo.  People hugged, finished their drinks and headed for the door just like any other night.  Alas, there will be no returning to the Hippo unlike all those other nights spanning its 43-year history.  This was it.
The last call moment

On this night, the saloon and Karaoke areas were packed with folks who wanted one last good-bye and enjoy one of the largest alcohol clearance sales in memory.  Patrons reminisced with one another; some who had performed drag at the club were teary-eyed; others repeated the mantra “I can’t believe it”; a few were talking about the potential re-emergence of the Baltimore Eagle; and some of the staff were melancholy but carried out their duties professionally as always.  
Yet, the sadness wasn’t as widespread as I anticipated.  True, the Hippo’s closing had been announced five months ago, and people had the opportunity to adjust to this reality.  I broke the story of the Hippo’s closing in the Washington Blade in May, which received a record-breaking number of online views demonstrating that interest in the Hippo went beyond Baltimore but also throughout the U.S. and internationally.

I also wrote about the final large fundraiser at the bar that benefitted AIDS Action Baltimore when it was also announced that the intersection of Eager and Charles Streets was re-named “Chuck Bowers Way”, the scheduled closing dates and, of course, the grand finale spectacle.  As such, I was honored to chronicle this developing story for the “LGBT Paper of Record”.  

Soon to be a CVS Photo: Bob Ford
The final night at the saloon lacked the electric atmosphere that characterized the “Grand Finale Dance Party” the previous Saturday.  Of course, dancing is far more dynamic than simply hanging around at a pub, so naturally it’s not comparable. The dance side was already being dismantled prior to this event in preparation for a spanking new CVS pharmacy poised to occupy this fabled landmark and principal destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood”. 
Therefore, with all the hype and five months to digest the inevitable outcome, people may have developed Hippo closing fatigue.  One person, for instance, griped on Facebook, “The Hippo has been 'closing' now for how long?  Gimme a break and close already!”  Nice.  He may be in the minority, however; everyone I know will definitely miss what has to be described as an LGBT institution in Baltimore.

The Hippo felt as comfortable to me as a pair of old, broken-in shoes.  Other bars do as well, such as Leon’s and Grand Central. Yet, the Hippo had been a special place for Bob and I for so many years. It wasn’t the venue I came out as others did.  It wasn’t the venue where I met Bob (Leon’s).  It didn’t provide a landmark in my life’s journey as was the case for others. 

Photo: Bob Ford
Instead, the Hippo was our Saturday night go-to place to socialize, to meet up with friends old and new and have a blast.  We danced, we hung out, and we enjoyed the staff and especially bartenders Dave, “Josie” and Gary.    
For younger folks, the Hippo was a safe haven and a place to let loose; for us it was a sanctuary in a social setting as the battle for LGBT rights was waging on, and the Hippo was in the center of it with their support for so many worthwhile endeavors. 

The Hippo’s owner, Chuck Bowers, was not there on this night, and it was reported that he was too emotional to make this final curtain.  As people routinely filed out of the bar at closing, I stopped and hugged Jess, the manager, who had been a fixture at the door for years.  We both had tears in our eyes realizing the finality of this occasion. 
It was that kind of night.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Hippo's Grand Finale

This was an important story that was published in the October 2, 2015 issue of  the Washington Blade.  For the record the unedited version is shown below :
An enthusiastic throng was amassing just prior to the 9 p.m. opening of the Club Hippo’s dance side for what was billed as “The Grand Finale Dance” on September 26.  The first dancers hit the floor almost immediately, and a half hour later, the dance floor was crammed to the sound of Rick Astley’s “Together Forever”.  At 12:40 a.m.  Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” mix played to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd with an hour still left to go.
Photo: Bob Ford
DJ Farrell Maddox, who first worked at the Hippo in the mid-1980s and then returned in 1997, explained, “I want the final moment to be energetic and exciting.  That is how I want people to remember the Hippo.” 

Maddox had myriad choices for the final song at closing; he eventually settled on The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” following a brief tribute to Hippo owner Charles E. “Chuck” Bowers.  A video shot by Bob Ford of that number is shown here.
Describing Bowers as a good friend, Maddox was touched and honored when he chose him to deejay the grand finale event.  He saluted the venerable Hippo’s past with eclectic music spanning five decades.  At its conclusion, the patrons cheered and hugged one another.

After 43 years as a focal point of Baltimore’s LGBT community, a series of “last” events that stretched out over the Hippo’s final days—Last Bingo, Last Hip-Hop Night, Last Women’s Night, Last Dance Party and Last Drag Show—lowered the curtain on Baltimore’s largest and most iconic gay bar.  These special occasions on the dance side afforded opportunities for people to bid their final farewells.  The saloon and karaoke areas will close on October 3.  
Chuck Bowers (center) waving after tribute Photo: Bob Ford
To the dismay and disappointment of many in the community, the building is being leased to CVS Health as Bowers, 70, is retiring.  On this night, the multi-generational patrons and the employees reflected the paradoxical mood: celebratory yet somber with many either in denial or the truth hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972 and was founded by Kenny Elbert and Don Endbinder, featured one of the largest dance floors in the state, a saloon and a video/karaoke bar.  During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with packed crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious, sunken, rectangular floor with an overhead disco ball, bathed in glimmering, colorful lights and fog effects. Many of the disco divas performed live throughout the eighties.
As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music and the Hippo’s deejays kept up.  DJ Rosie Hicks, who played the music on Hip Hop Night on Thursdays, said, “As a DJ at Club Hippo for eleven and a half years, I know firsthand that losing this venue is an emotional blow to many of us in the community. So many memories have been made inside those walls, and despite our gratitude to Chuck for sharing it with us for so long, we will all miss it terribly.”

For some, the Hippo was a life changer. Paul Hummel, the karaoke host from 2010 to 2012 as well as a customer, stated, “It was the happiest job I’ve ever had. It’s where I went when I first came out. It’s where I learned to be comfortable and proud to be me.  It’s where I met the love of my life. If any one place sums up my gay experience, it will always be the Hippo. That place changed my life.” 
Photo: Bob Ford
The club’s historic significance is not overlooked.  “The Hippo is the only bar in Baltimore that gave space and support events as varied as lesbian musical theatre, drag pageants, leather contests, fundraisers for LGBT organizations, AIDS service providers, Pride festivals and the Baltimore Justice Campaign’s civil rights triumphs,” said Louise Parker Kelley, author of the recently released pictorial chronicle “LGBT Baltimore”.

Indeed, Bowers, who bought the Hippo in 1978 and the building itself in 2005, had donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, and he allowed other organizations, such as Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, to hold fundraising events at the club.  Early in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first in Baltimore to help raise money to fight the disease.
Operating under the motto, “Where Everyone is Welcome,” the Hippo’s major lure was that of a social and entertainment venue, which had been enjoyed by tens of thousands of people—gay and straight—including fans of drag and leather.  Numerous contests and pageants were held there; its closing elicits profound sadness but fond memories.

Drag performer and comedian Shawnna Alexander, who was Miss Hippo 2014 and had performed on the Hippo’s stage at various times for over 20 years, said, “I’m very sad to see it closing and very happy I wasn’t born yesterday and had missed the chance to experience being part of an era that was great in Baltimore City.”

Sue Nami, Miss Hippo 2008 and Miss Gay Maryland 2009, said, “The Hippo is where I started and growing in my career in this art form of female impersonator. I call this place my home and will always stay in my heart forever.”

'Chuck Bowers Way' Photo: Bob Ford
Paul Liller, a.k.a. Dimitria Blackwell, Miss Hippo 2015, found the Hippo to be an integral part of his life’s journey. “Never would I imagine that I would eventually become not only a Miss Hippo, but the last one ever.  As the doors close, I feel like a part of me will be left inside those walls. Fortunately, I walk away with memories that will last a lifetime and a love for a place I was lucky enough to call home.”

The leather community has been grateful for the many events that took place at the Hippo but noted the benefits were enjoyed beyond that community. “By allowing the leather community to hold events like Mr. Maryland and the 12 Day of Christmas, the Hippo had a hand in helping to raise thousands of dollars for charity,” said Greg King, Mr. Maryland Leather 2015.  “Chuck Bowers has left a legacy.”
Nearby businesses and even competitors recognize the impact the Hippo had as it was the primary destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.” Don Davis, owner of by Grand Central, which is located diagonally across from the Hippo, acknowledges that he and Bowers may have had their differences over the years.  However he emphatically states that “we have always been there with support of each other.”

Davis praised the way Bowers ran the club. “Chuck has always operated a first class business and his heart has always been there for everyone. He has had the most loyal staff and customers; so many who have been there since the beginning.”
To honor Bowers and the Hippo, city officials recently named the intersection of Charles and Eager Streets where the Hippo is located, “Chuck Bowers Way.”

“The closing of the Hippo is like the closing of a spectacular Broadway show,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “The performers take their last bow, the curtain comes down, and the audience departs. Thanks Chuck Bowers, staff members and patrons for making this iconic venue such a vibrant part of Baltimore’s rich history.”
In reflecting on these past decades, Bowers is gripped with much emotion. “For 37 years this has been my home, it’s been my family,” he said.  “Now that the Hippo is closing it has been an extremely emotional time for me because of all the friendships I’ve made here over these many years.  I will miss this place.”

So will many others. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Kinky Boots Sparkle at the Hippodrome

Any pair of boots would have been welcome to deal with the copious rainfall that landed outside the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center on opening night.  But the dazzling musical Kinky Boots, currently playing at the venerable theater, turns out to the best kind of boots.    #hocoarts 
Steven Booth (l.) and Kyle Taylor Parker in
Kinky Boots National Tour Photo: Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein topped the 2013 field by receiving 6 Tony Awards including Best Musical among 13 nominations.  Ms. Lauper, in her composing debut for the stage, was the first woman alone to receive the honor for Best Score.
Based on the 2005 film Kinky Boots, which was inspired by a true story, the musical tells of a near-bankrupt British shoe factory’s owner, Charlie (Steven Booth) who had inherited the business from his father.  He forms an unlikely partnership with a drag queen named Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) to save the business. Charlie develops a plan to produce custom footwear for drag queens to support a man’s weight, rather than the men’s dress shoes that his firm is known for, and in the process, he and Lola bond and discover that they have a lot more in common than originally thought.

Mr. Fierstein, in penning the book, brings to the fore an impressive body of work where he has written about or performed as a drag queen (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray).  And like these others, Kinky Boots excels in its touching, uplifting message with a strong infusion of humanity. Its overarching themes center on parental expectations, battling prejudice and stereotypes, and the need for open-mindedness.  With the setting in an economically struggling British factory town, Kinky Boots is similar to other Broadway musicals like Billy Elliot the Musical and The Full Monty.
Under the impeccable direction by Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell who also masterfully choreographed the production, this touring iteration of Kinky Boots at the Hippodrome is a scintillating, vibrant spectacle that will entertain you and warm your heart.  Mr. Mitchell also choreographed The Full Monty and Hairspray and received Tony nominations for each.  

Profoundly superb staging, costuming, scenic design, sound, lighting, and musical direction were blended with near perfection to augment the talented cast.
Big splashy production numbers with dynamite choreography add tons of energy to the already electric show.  Ms. Lauper’s “Sex is in the Heel” in the first act is a show stopper in its own right; “Everybody Say Yeah,” a stirring song that brings down the act’s curtain, matches it.  The second act’s “In This Corner,” the boxing scene and a pivotal part of the storyline, also shines.

Mr. Booth as Charlie turns in a solid performance in clumsily trying to save the factory, manage his skeptical workers, balancing his desire to save the factory with his romantic life and overcoming his initial resistance to Lola’s world to eventually see the light.  His strong vocals are on display in the snappy song “Step One”—whereby Charlie invites Lola to the factory to design a boot for a “niche market”—and in particular, the moving “Soul of a Man” as he copes with the legacy of his father.
In a tour de force, Kyle Taylor Parker sparkles as the drag queen headliner Lola.  His silky smooth voice does justice to the beautiful score in “Land of Lola” where he performs with his excellent and acrobatic backup troupe of drag dancers, the Angels, and the tender ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart,” which he sings to his wheelchair-bound father, Simon, Sr., who did not approve of his son’s world.

But the most moving of all, “Not My Father’s Son,” in which he ultimately forms a duet with Mr. Booth is my favorite.  Though they tried to be like their fathers, both characters felt the sting from their falling short of their fathers’ expectations. That formed the bonding of the two disparate men.  The stunningly emotional lyrics resonate with all those who felt they let their parents down in some way but were determined to live their lives for themselves:

So I jumped in my dreams and found an escape
maybe I went to extremes of leather and lace,
but the world seems brighter six inches off the ground
and the air seemed lighter
I was profound and I felt so proud
just to live out loud
The entire ensemble is excellent in support of the leads.  Most notable among them include Joe Coots as Don, a boorish, testosterone-oozing antagonist to Lola and Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Lauren, also a factory worker and potential love interest for Charlie.   Ms. Chambers Cyndi Lauper-ish performance in “The History of Wrong Guys” is very well-done.

The technical elements of the production are of the highest caliber.  Musical conductor Adam Souza and his 9-piece orchestra ably supported the performances and did not overwhelm the vocals.  They achieved a perfect balance.
Scenic Designer Tony nominated David Rockwell fills the stage with an extraordinary functional and flexible set.  From a brick exterior depicting the outside of the shoe factory, an office, the floor of the factory, a boxing ring, a cabaret and even a catwalk, the set allows scenes to seamlessly transform throughout the show.  Upper platforms are employed to add dimension to the set and provide a change of eye level.

Another Tony nominee Costume Designer Gregg Barnes fitted Mr. Parker in satiny gowns and the Angels in a variety of bright colorful costumes highlighted by those boots!  He also ably designed the costumes for the blue collar factory workers, adding more reality to the staging.
Lighting effects by Tony winner Kenneth Posner also brings magic to the stage splashing the set in a palette of rich hues and spotlights throughout.

It is no wonder Kinky Boots won so many awards.  This is a compelling, splashy musical with heart and is mounted expertly on the Hippodrome stage.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Kinky Boots runs through October 4 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Impact on Baltimore’s LGBT Community

Like many other citizens of Baltimore and beyond, members of the LGBT community were stunned by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s announcement on September 11 that she would not be seeking re-election next year.  The news follows months of turmoil in the city in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray and a subsequent spike in violent crime. 

With the Mayor during Pride 2013
The Mayor’s handling of the crisis had been criticized by many as was her decision to pay $6.4 million as a settlement to Freddie Gray’s family a month before the trials of the six police officers accused in Gray’s death.  As these developments were unfolding, the field of candidates seeking to defeat her in 2016 was growing.
“It was a very difficult decision but I knew I needed to spend time, the remaining 15 months of my term, focused on the city’s future and not my own,” Rawlings-Blake, 45, said at a City Hall news conference. “The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions I make moving forward at a time when the city needs me the most to be questioned in the context of a political campaign.”

Rawlings-Blake took office as Mayor in 2010 and prior to that as a city councilwoman, she had endeared herself to LGBT folks in and around Baltimore.  From marching in Baltimore’s Pride parade each year, to being the first to host a Transgender Day of Remembrance at City Hall, Rawlings-Blake made her mark in the community.
She was a staunch supporter of marriage equality and spoke openly on its behalf when other elected officials were reticent.  Rawlings-Blake appeared at fundraisers during 2012 to help finance the effort to defeat the ballot initiative that would have overturned the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act signed by Governor O’Malley in March of that year.

When same-sex marriage ultimately became legal on January 1, 2013, Rawlings-Blake officiated the first such ceremony in Maryland at the stroke of midnight at City Hall—in the same room in which she made her announcement not to run—where several other gay and lesbian couples also tied the knot.
"The LGBT community is fortunate to have her as a fierce ally."--Carrie Evans

“Words cannot express my feelings. I was beyond elated to officiate the City’s first official same-sex marriages at midnight on New Year’s Day in City Hall,” said Rawlings-Blake my interview with her in 2013.  “It was beautiful, amazing, loving, and gave me a sense of pride knowing that same-sex couples, including one of my staff members and his significant other, were able to be married legally. It was an historic moment in my career that I will always cherish.”

During the Pride celebration six months later, Rawlings-Blake performed a mass wedding ceremony at Druid Hill Park in which 20 same-sex couples were married in front of hundreds of cheering witnesses.
“The concept of civil rights for all was instilled in me from a very young age,” she said.  “It is an innate part of me and has made me the person who I am today. It was and still is, a part of my family’s belief system. If any person’s rights are being denied based on race, creed, ethnicity, gender identification and expression, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religious beliefs, or national origins, then it affects all of us.”

Advocates of marriage equality appreciated the efforts of Rawlings-Blake during the referendum battle but noted her commitment to the cause was evident even before.  “The Mayor was an early and unequivocal supporter of marriage equality,” Carrie Evans, former Executive Director of Equality Maryland, told me.  “In 2008 as Council President she helped shepherd through a resolution from the City Council in support of the state bill. The LGBT community is fortunate to have her as a fierce ally.”
In addition to her efforts for marriage equality, Rawlings-Blake demonstrated her support for the community in other ways.  She established an LGBT liaison who reports directly to her.  That person also sits on the LGBT Police Advisory Council that was created by former Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.

Rawlings-Blake traditionally celebrated her birthdays by playing bingo at the Club Hippo, Maryland’s largest gay bar.  She recently honored the Hippo’s owner by re-naming the intersection where the bar is located “Chuck Bowers Way.”  The bar is due to close by the end of the year as Bowers will be retiring.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fighting for marriage equality in 2012
The city and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) have worked closely together especially in coordinating the annual Pride celebrations.

“The GLCCB has always enjoyed a great working relationship with Mayor Rawlings-Blake,” Paul Liller, Acting Executive Director of the GLCCB, told me. “She has been not only an LGBT advocate but a friend and member of our extended family. We wish her and her family the best of luck as she moves forward to new and exciting things, and look forward to continuing the work we are already doing during the rest of her term as Mayor.”
Rawlings-Blake said in 2013: “I want to applaud the LGBT community for their perseverance and strength to withstand the challenges they face on a daily basis. The LGBT community inspires and gives me hope that our society can overcome fear and bigotry with love, compassion and understanding. Continue to be the beacon of strength. Together, we are strong. Apart we are weak. I know at the end of the rainbow, there is something more valuable than gold and that is love.”

And now many in the LGBT community offers her encouragement.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Don’t Make Kim Davis a Martyr

While it may give marriage equality supporters a degree satisfaction that the defiant Rowan County (KY) clerk Kim Davis was sent to the hoosegow, this development, though inevitable, may backfire to some extent.  Davis, as we know, refused to follow a ruling by a federal court that required her and her staff of six deputy clerks (including her son) to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on her belief that such marriages don’t follow the word of God.  However, to demonstrate that she is not anti-gay or anti-lesbian, her office refused to grant marriage licenses to all couples—gay or straight.

Kim Davis says no to issuing marriage licenses
“I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will,” said Davis, an Apostolic Christian, in a statement this week. “To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God's word.”
Davis, who is on her fourth marriage, had opportunities to change her mind.  But when she appeared on September 3 before U.S. District Judge David Bunning, a George W. Bush appointee and son of former Senator and star pitcher Jim Bunning, she refused to uphold the law she had sworn to do.  The judge found her in contempt and off she went.  She will remain incarcerated until she changes her mind or allows the other clerks to issue the licenses.  Five have agreed; her son has not

 “God's moral law conflicts with my job duties,” Davis said.
“Her good faith belief is simply not a viable defense,” responded Bunning, who also said it would set a bad precedent.  

Davis is an elected official who cannot be fired for not following the law.  She can be impeached by the legislature but few believe that is possible.  Or, when she defies a court order as in this case, she forfeits her freedom.
Cartoon by Bruce Garrett - Baltimore OUTloud
Here we go again with the debate over religious freedom versus the law.  Many homophobes and/or religious conservatives are still piqued over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.  This episode will serve to drive deeper into the divide, which reflects a 60% - 40% edge for those on the side of love, according to recent polling.

The plaintiffs in the suit—a gay couple—did not want her to go to jail if found in contempt; financial punishment would satisfy them.  They know what this could turn into.
The longer Davis remains in the slammer, the more she will be urged to hold firm and she will be transformed into a martyr for opponents of equality.  Even if she’s released, which is likely, she could still be a poster child for anti-gay marriage.  That could fuel more backlash and anti-gay sentiment and embolden opponents of anti-discrimination measures to dig in their heels.

Nothing good will come of that.

Monday, August 31, 2015

10 Questions for GLCCB President Jabari Lyles

Jabari Lyles is a teacher, the outreach specialist at FreeState legal Project and co-chair and education manager at GLSEN-Baltimore.  Busy as he is, he has recently taken on an additional role: President of the Board of D
Jabari Lyles   Photo: Bob Ford
irectors for the Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB).
In doing so, Lyles becomes the fourth person to hold that position in the last 10 months.  He graciously agreed to be interviewed so that the community would be more acquainted with him and to allow him to address the rate of turnover at the GLCCB, the center’s purpose, its finances as well his vision for the center.

Steve Charing: What motivated you to join the GLCCB board and ultimately agree to be its president?
Jabari Lyles: I joined the GLCCB Board to work towards reifying its potential. After working in the local nonprofit and LGBTQ advocacy scene for some time, I became curious as to why, besides Pride, the GLCCB seemed nonexistent and hidden. It was particularly confusing, as a young, black, gay person in Baltimore, that I didn’t feel a connection to this center. I certainly knew this absence was not for lack of need.

Eventually, I learned about parts of the center’s history, the community concern it generated, and perhaps the reason why the GLCCB seemed to exist in the shadows. Instead of continuing to condemn the organization, I saw an opportunity to make change from within. To me, continuing to neglect the center was continuing to neglect the people it could represent. I decided to apply to join the Board, with a specific focus on the GLCCB’s transparency and inclusion, work with people of color, youth, and the transgender community.
I immediately took an active role on the board and became heavily involved in the center’s operations and direction. I became impassioned with the idea of a community center that is truly community held, community-serving and community-building—supported by an organization that has the trust and buy-in from the people we serve. To me, this is what a community center should always be. I agreed to be Board President because I believe in what the GLCCB can be, I believe in my community, and I believe that I can lead with hope, love, knowledge and courage.

SC: You have been working with several successful non-profits, such as GLSEN and FreeState Legal.  What has been your experience at these organizations that you can bring to the GLCCB?
JL: I have worked with GLSEN Baltimore for nearly 10 years now, and for several years under the tutelage of the late, great Kay Halle, longtime social justice advocate and community servant. There was a bit of love in everything that she did, and though small in stature, she was a force to be reckoned with. Although I am quite large, those who know me would agree that I approach my work with a nice balance of tenderness and intensity.

GLSEN is a fantastic organization that continues to show me the importance and impact of investing in young people, speaking up for the victimized, and refusing to negotiate safety and respect for all people. FreeState expanded my understanding of LGBTQ issues and encouraged a more intersectional approach to my work. From my work with FreeState, I learned how race, gender, class, all come into play as one navigates systems: education, legal, or health care. Both organizations are well run, consistent, and have a high sense of integrity and accountability to the community. All decisions are tied to the mission. Routines and expectations are firmly in place. I will bring all of these things, my approach and experiences to my work at the GLCCB.
SC: What do you see as your number one priority and why?

JL: My number one priority is identifying appropriate, reliable and stable leadership at all levels. Effective leadership will add value and credibility to our organization, has been sorely needed, and will begin the process of mending the GLCCB’s relationship with the community. This includes assembling a dynamic and well-resourced board that reflects the diversity of our community, hiring an Executive Director who has strong executive chops with an authentic understanding of the needs and interests of the entire community, and reviving a Community Advisory Board to look to the people we serve for direction.
SC: Over the course of the past 16 months there have been 4 different executive directors or interim directors serving in that capacity and 4 board presidents since November.  How can you reduce the frequent turnover and create stability and thus, generate more confidence in the GLCCB?

JL: We need to be much better at setting our leaders up for success so they are best poised to lead. That looks like: proper on-boarding and orientation, a reliable directory of resources, and open communication between board and staff leaders.  I feel the first step is stepping back and clarifying and perhaps recalibrating our mission and purpose. It’s time for us to reboot.
The GLCCB is due to ask itself: Why are we here and what do we do? Who do we serve? How do we serve? We will surely find stability in this renewed sense of purpose. What will be most important is how we listen to the community to answer these questions. At this critical junction in the center’s history, we are presented with an opportunity to recreate our organization in the community’s image.

My job will be to unify the right group of people who identify strongly with this mission who will realign and recommit, and who will move forward together with passion and cohesion. As your current President, I don’t intend on going anywhere so long as the people I serve will have me. I have a hands-on, bear-through-the-storm approach to this position; I don’t scare easily, and have advised a similar approach to my fellow board members.
SC: The GLCCB has often been criticized for virtually disappearing once Pride is over.  What can you and the board do to change that reputation?  In other words, please explain how the GLCCB can serve the community year round.

JL:  Honestly, before joining the board, I was probably one of those community members that wondered what the GLCCB did when Pride wasn’t happening. I now know of the many amazing, wonderful services and opportunities that the GLCCB offers year round, that many people take advantage of, but are not well-known by the community.
One of our longest running and most well-attended groups, Sistas of Pride (formerly Women of Color), meets nearly weekly. Mixed Company, another regularly well-attended group for LGBTQ young adults, provides weekly educational and networking opportunities. During this past summer, we hosted 20 Youth Works hires who developed their very own homelessness support program called Helping Hands, which attracts regular patrons. We are hoping to expand our programs and outreach strategies to better support the community’s needs and to keep the community better informed. For more information on current programming, visit www.glccb.org/programs. 

SC: During the past few years board members have assumed more of an oversight role rather than rolling up their sleeves to help in the operations of the center.  Will you encourage a more hands-on role for the board?
JL: Taking into account how much work has yet to be done, we simply cannot have it any other way. Willingness to get hands dirty is a requirement to join this board, and I’ve mentioned this during each interview with every new board member. We are certainly a working board in many respects; however, being a working board certainly does not absolve us of our governing duties.

Strategic delegation of tasks is how we will ensure strong action as a governing body, such as hiring a new executive director, and ways we act as individual working members, such as staffing an event. It is also important to note that I expect the duties and expectations of board members to vary as the needs of the organization change.
SC: Money problems continue to beset the Center.  What do you see as the best strategy to put the GLCCB on a better financial footing?

JL: The money problems that beset the Center are multifaceted, are the result of missteps of many people, and thus require a multifaceted, multi-person solution. We must strengthen our financial oversight. This includes taking a concentrated look at who spends, how much is spent and why, and, how records are kept. We must (re)establish the Finance and Audit committees on our Board, and enlist the help of financial professionals to improve our accounting practices.
We must empower the Board, as chief fundraisers of the organization, to work closely with our development coordinator on a fundraising plan. We must always consider financial decisions ethically, legally, and with the community’s best interests in mind. Most importantly, we must prove ourselves worthy of support from the community if we ever want individual giving to be a thing. 

SC: One of the biggest criticisms of the GLCCB has been its perceived lack of inclusivity of minorities and transgender folks in its governance.  How will you change that perception?
 Lyles addressing crowd at Pride  Photo:Bob Ford
JL: This entire year, I have observed the GLCCB making strides towards becoming an organization that authentically represents people of color mostly in its programming and outreach decisions. We will continue to move in this direction. As an outspoken, strong ally of the transgender community, I will say that the we have a bit more work to do on trans* inclusivity and representation.
As current chair of the Programs and Outreach committee, I plan to work diligently on how the center works with and for these communities. I am specifically interested in transgender representation on our Board and staff and investigating how we can work with existing trans-focused organizations, such as Sistas of the T, Baltimore Trans Alliance, and Black Trans Men, Inc.

SC: As the first African-American in decades to hold the position of GLCCB board president, how will you go about trying to improve race relations within the LGBT community?
JL: I firmly believe that my status as an African-American Board President offers nothing different or extra to improve race relations within the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ racists will not learn or believe anything different by this positioning, I cannot tell them anything that hasn’t already been said, and in the end it will be up to them to work towards changing their damaging mindsets.

Minorities in positions of leadership do not an anti-racist society make. President Obama is ending his second term in office, yet black churches are being targeted by terrorists and unarmed black people are being killed by police. What I will do, as a Board President that condemns racism and approaches all work with a social justice lens, is lead this organization in a direction that visibly recognizes and works against racism in all its forms, intentionally works to uplift those who are most marginalized, encourages and eventually leads conversations about oppression, intersectionality, and authentically serving communities of color.
SC: What would you like the community to know about Jabari Lyles?

JL: I am a passionate public servant who finds true happiness and endless energy in working for positive change. I have over ten years of combined experience as an educator, program manager, outreach specialist, and LGBTQ activist. My interests include STEM education, urban education, queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and educational technology.
I am a proud Maryland native, and I currently live in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore City. When I’m not working, I’m usually cooking, dancing, or spending time with those I love. I am outgoing, extroverted and approachable. I believe in my city, my community, and the great things that come out of working together. I am excited to work and grow with the GLCCB.

Monday, August 24, 2015

'LGBT Baltimore' Chronicles City’s LGBT History

Browsing through the new pictorial history book, LGBT Baltimore, just released on August 17 you will see a float from a 1990 Pride parade.  You will notice a black and white shot of the Names Project Quilt on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1988.  And there is a color photo of Harvey Schwartz, the Community Center’s first executive director and a founder of the Center’s Chase Street building, sitting behind his desk on the phone.  These and 150 other images are contained in this chronicle of LGBT history in Baltimore spanning five decades. 

Long time LGBT activist Louise Parker Kelley authored the soft cover, 96-page book that contains photos and captions depicting the fight for LGBT rights and showcases those who stood on the frontlines.  Arcadia Publishing, which has produced LGBT pictorial histories in such cities as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco, published the Baltimore installment.
The images for LGBT Baltimore were donated by individuals or organizations or were selected from the archives of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) that are currently housed at the University of Baltimore.

For those of us who have lived through part or all of the history of the struggle for LGBT equality in Baltimore during this period will wax nostalgic at these photos and recall some of the local leaders who led the fight. Among the heroes pictured besides Schwartz are Elliott Brager, Lynda Dee, Ann Gordon, Jim Becker, Mardie Walker and Steve Shavitz. 
Scenes of Pride parades and celebrations from yesteryear are dotted throughout.  Photographs from venues like the 31st Street Bookstore, which was a feminist business that became popular with Baltimore’s lesbian community, played a key role in our culture and movement and are exhibited in the book.

Sad recollections of the AIDS epidemic are also represented in various ways, but images portraying the community’s response to the crisis are inspirational.  A poignant shot of marchers carrying a PFLAG-Baltimore banner is a gloomy reminder that such a chapter no longer exists in a city that sorely is in need of one.
There are uplifting photographs that record our long-fought triumphs, such as those images that illustrate the tireless efforts to get a non-discrimination bill through Baltimore’s oft-resistant city council as well as the photograph of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake with the two men whose nuptials she officiated, thus becoming the first same-sex couple to marry legally in Maryland.

LGBT Baltimore may not be a perfect telling of the story, but history, as we know, is imperfect, and the book does have its flaws.  The frenetic three-page Introduction did not start off well as the author uses the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender,” in the first line, which is considered by many in the community as inappropriate terminology.  The error is repeated in several other places in the book. 

That same Introduction is too crammed with text in minuscule print rather than allowing the photos themselves to capture the history.  The Introduction should merely contain a high-level summary of what to expect inside.
While LGBT Baltimore is divided into four sections, there is a lack of flow and bridging from one to the next.  If a chronology of events should form the basis for these sections, then photos from 1992 and 1994 should not be mixed in with more recent shots in the final section, “Gaily Forward.”

Moreover, and this is a quibble with the publisher’s design team, the olive green background for the cover does not scream out “LGBT Baltimore!”  It is more akin to an old Army manual.  Something loud, something gay, something lavender would have been more fitting and more eye-catching.
On the positive side, the author Louise Parker Kelley, perhaps better suited to handle this project than most as she had been a warrior through much of the period covered in the book, worked indefatigably to compile as many representative photos as she could.  A good number of the samples had their origins before digital cameras with high resolutions, yet the quality was surprisingly good. 

LGBT Baltimore provides an excellent means to revisit the highs and lows of the city’s culture and battles through the years.  And if you are a younger person, it’s a good opportunity to explore the last few decades through photographs that shaped the current era.

LGBT Baltimore by Louise Parker Kelley, $22.99, 96 pages/soft cover, Arcadia Publishing.  Available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing and The History Press or call 888-313-2665.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Trump Card: Who Wins the Hand?

Pity those poor clowns in the GOP clown car who think they can be president of the United States.  They run around the country kissing the asses of fat cat donors. They suck up to their bigoted, misogynous, and homophobic gun-toting, Bible-thumping party base.  They raise tons of money through unfettered PACs and super PACS and super-duper PACs.  They attempt to speak to “ordinary” folks at the Iowa State Fair amid the stench of cow dung and the acrid aroma of fried foods encased in even more fried batter.  #hocopolitics

They go through all of this but why aren’t they gaining any traction?  Why are they mired in single digits like they are up to their necks in Iowa hog waste?
The answer my friends is blowing in the wind.  And that wind is Donald Trump.

Homophobe Mike Huckabee, who knows what to do with an Iowa Fair corn dog when he sees one, is flummoxed. Trump, according to the former governor of Arkansas, is receiving “10 times the media attention” so no wonder Trump is leading in the polls.  Huckabee claims if he enjoyed that amount of attention, he’d be winning.  Right.
It is true that Trump is ahead of this sorry pack based on the latest polling and by a wide margin.  Four years ago Herman “9-9-9” Cain was a Republican frontrunner as was Michelle Bachman at one time before they both flamed out as their idiocy caught up with them.  Will it be different in this cycle? 

“Teflon Donald” has been able to insult Mexicans, John McCain’s war service, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and women in general in short order with relative impunity; his polling numbers remain stout.  The GOP pack won’t stand up to him (other than tepid appeals for him to change his tone) lest the Donald reaches from his vast arsenal of insults and fires verbal slingshots at them, which is more than the Democrats are willing to do. 
The Dems are gleefully sitting on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle that is Donald Trump and hoping that Trump-mania will diminish (if that’s possible) the other GOP contenders and deflect attention away from their own flawed frontrunner.

It’s not the correct approach.  Rather than passively avoiding the fray and hoping upon hope that Trump stays in the race to injure the eventual nominee, Democratic strategists should have been seizing on this gift-wrapped opportunity and swing into attack mode—a tactic that’s not natural to them.
With every Trump gaffe, rather than condemning the self-centered showman, Dems need to put out releases that say, “Trump is only saying what the rest of the Republican hopefuls are thinking but don’t have the courage to say for themselves.”  This is not a stretch; few GOP candidates respond to Trump on the substance of his comments, only to the manner in which he states them.

It is a win-win strategy for Democrats.  Either the electorate will tie Trump and his bluster to the GOP field if the Dems keep taunting or his antics will force the other contenders to confront Trump and risk the verbal equivalent of a nuclear war.  On the other hand, his outrageous comments can make the other candidates seem less extreme and more adult by comparison, which is a risk for Democrats.
Of course, as long as Trump stays in the race he will cause trouble for the other candidates.  He has commanded most of the attention without question and attention is like catnip to a guy like Trump.  He’s already proven that he can say just about anything and get away with it.  Though his policy positions have been scant so far, they’re likely to mirror those of the rest of the field whose differences aren’t dramatic.  

Trump’s distinction is that he and only he can get the job done and “Make America Great Again.”  It’s about him as the savior, not his particular positions on issues that should matter.
One good thing about Trump is that he is not a demagogue on social issues like most of the other GOP hopefuls.  His pro-life position had evolved to meet the requirements of the GOP but he is unconvincing.  While he is for “traditional marriage,” he doesn’t offer anti-gay diatribes as most of his fellow contenders do.  One reason for his relative silence on the topic is that he cannot come up with a good answer to the question, how do your three marriages represent traditional marriage?

He also said on Meet the Press on August 16 that being gay should not be a reason to fire employees of private companies.  Only Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and George Pataki of the other Republican candidates share that view.
How long can or will Trump remain in the race is the billion dollar question.  As long as he’s riding high in the polls, he is not going anywhere.  A significant dip may cause him to pull out, but that doesn’t seem likely now.  Such decisions will have to wait for the primaries and caucuses to get underway in the winter.  That will be a better measuring stick than current polling.

He has threatened to run as an independent should he be treated as badly by the GOP.  That is unlikely because of the need to gather so many signatures in all 50 states and the added costs of doing so.
Right now, he is riding the wave of voter anger and people are backing him no matter how absurd his comments and unrealistic his positions are.  They like people who call our elected officials “stupid”  and will keep him rolling along, so he remains a nightmare for establishment Republicans.

The longer the disarray, the better it is for the Democrats.  The Trump card will help them win the hand…for now.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Good 'Catch' at Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre

I must admit that when I first saw the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, the last thing I suspected was that this crime drama would ever be made into a Broadway musical.  Yet in 2011, with a book by Terrence McNally and a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, a musical, indeed, opened at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.  Oh, by the way, it garnered four Tony Award nominations, winning one for Best Actor. 

Josh Schoff (L.) and Noah Broth in the lead roles Photo: Rina Goloskov
For an all-too-brief run at Beth Tfiloh’s Rosen Arts Center, the musical Catch Me If You Can scores high marks under the polished direction of Diane M. Smith.  Based largely on the mega-hit film, which, in turn, was based on the biography of Frank Abagnale, Jr., the true story centers on a New Rochelle, NY teenager (Abagnale) in the 1960s who left home and made millions of dollars by being a con artist, check forger and counterfeiter, assuming a slew of identities and professions throughout his worldwide journey before being finally caught by the dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty.
The eyebrow-raising ruses that young Abagnale is able to pull off (airline pilot, lawyer, doctor, a Lutheran, etc. without ever finishing high school), his tender relationship with his father, his falling in love with Brenda, and his lucky near-miss evasions from the relentless Hanratty provide the essence of the plot.  #hocoarts

Noah Broth as Frank Jr. demonstrates a tremendous amount of poise for a 16 year-old performer.  His vocals are quite strong and on key in meeting the challenges of some difficult songs, such as the group opening number “Live in Living Color,” “Seven Wonders,” and especially “Goodbye.” 
Mr. Broth moves with agility and finesse around the stage in several dance routines, and his acting skills are showcased throughout.  The Abagnale character must exude confidence, swagger and charm to pull off his con games, and Mr. Broth, through facial expressions, voice inflections and body language, plays the role to the hilt.

Also performing with great skill is Josh Schoff as the determined and oft-frustrated agent Carl Hanratty.  At times intense and commanding but on other occasions allowing glimpses into Hanratty’s vulnerabilities, Mr. Schoff superbly handles the complexities of the role and does so with a bit of campiness and flair.  His powerful singing voice shines particularly in “The Man Inside the Clues.”  
Both of these young performers play off each other well in the production and both have promising futures in theatre if that’s the path they choose.

Photo: Steve Isack
Veteran Beth Tfiloh Theatre actor F. Scott Black is another outstanding addition to the cast as the elder Abagnale.  Having lost his store leading to financial hardship, refusing help from his newly “successful” son, being under pressure from the IRS, enduring the indignity of his wife leaving him, and ultimately driving himself to drink leading to his tragic demise, Frank Sr. is the character we have compassion for, and Mr. Black’s portrayal of him is robust.
Nicole Smith as Brenda Strong, a nurse whom young Frank met while pretending to be a doctor, does a fine job in her role.  Brenda lacked confidence until Frank instilled it in her.  They fell in love, planned to marry and have a family until her love got caught by Hanratty. Ms. Smith’s solo, “Fly, Fly Away,” highlights her sparkling singing voice.

As Brenda’s parents, Amanda Dickson and Carl Oppenheim provide the most laughs in the show as Brenda brings Frank home to New Orleans to meet them in a truly fun scene.
There are over a two dozen members of the company who ably support the leads with singing and dancing with many playing multiple roles.  The aforementioned Nicole Smith and Amanda Dickson along with Sharon Byrd coordinated the spot-on costumes that ranged from everyday wear to production number costumes for nurses, doctors, flight attendants and pilots uniforms.  Ms. Dickson also choreographed the well-executed dance routines.

Chris Rose leads an outstanding eight-piece orchestra whose rich sounds emanated from a multi-level platform on the stage cleverly designed by Evan Margolis.  Most of the action takes place in front of this platform bringing the performers closer to the audience.  But some performances take place on a platform between the orchestra sections, which change the eye-level and add depth to the staging.
In addition, Avi Goldman’s lighting design and Director Diane Smith’s sound design provide strong technical support to the overall production.

As a community theatre production, Beth Tfiloh’s presentation of Catch Me If You Can deserves high praise for its direction, performances and technical elements.  The problem is that it only runs for two more performances so you should definitely catch it while you can.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Catch Me If You Can plays August 18 and 20 at the Mintzes Theatre/Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikeville, MD 21208.  Tickets are $15 and can be reserved by calling the Beth Tfiloh Arts Department at 410- 413-2436 or online.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Summer Winds of Change are Blowing

No one can say this has been hum-drum summer in LGBT Baltimore.  Huge victories, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriages throughout the nation and the Boy Scouts of America officials voting to allow gay leaders grabbed the headlines.  This progress, unthinkable just a few years ago, were reasons to celebrate.
Taking it to the streets  Photo: Brian Gaither

Locally, other developments have taken place or occurring during the summer that are changing the LGBT landscape. This began prior to the summer when the iconic Hippo stunned the community by announcing its closing later this year after more than four decades of being a major LGBT institution in the city.

Another institution, Equality Maryland—a 25 year-old statewide civil rights advocacy organization that started out as Free State Justice—disclosed in June that financial difficulties stemming from declining revenues following the  passage of same-sex marriage among other factors led to the laying off of its executive director Carrie Evans. 

They recently vacated their Sharp Street offices to reduce overhead and gave away office furniture, old lawn signs from the marriage battles, and other such memorabilia.  On August 2, a new transitional board was established and decided the organization will remain open for the time being but with a scaled down operation.

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) is constantly in a state of flux so that any changes this summer are almost to be expected.  The GLCCB is experiencing a staggering amount of turnover in their Board of Directors and at the executive director position.  Since December four individuals have served as the Board’s president, and in less than a year and a half, four have held the executive director or interim executive director’s post.

To be fair, other local organizations have also experienced changes in leadership or in key personnel this summer.  Examples include Hearts & Ears, Moveable Feast and Iron Crow Theatre.  In the spring FreeState Legal hired its new executive director Patrick Paschall.

A major departure from the norm, however, was the recent GLCCB-led Pride celebration that took place in July rather than its customary June spot during Father’s Day weekend.  Schedule conflicts with the city forced the dates to July 25-26, and it worked out well overall.  The separation from other area Pride festivities allowed the Center to increase its sponsorships and more importantly, it provided greater opportunities for potential Pride-goers from out of town to visit Baltimore instead of having to make choices during June’s congested Pride calendar.   

The two-day event in Baltimore drew sizable crowds and in theory should have provided critical revenue to the financially wobbly GLCCB.  For these reasons, if the GLCCB continues to operate Pride in the future, keeping it in July should be seriously considered.

An additional change during the summer has been a renewed brand of activism that is by-passing conventional models and is instead taking it to the streets.  This is significant in that it is not a seasonal event but potentially the beginning of a larger movement. 
#BaltimoreTRANSUPrising marching at Pride  Photo: Bob Ford
Inspired by the protests under the banner #BlackLivesMatter that followed a spate of police-involved killings of unarmed African-American men including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, transgender advocates banded together and formed a #BaltimoreTRANSUPrising movement to air a list of grievances. 

Much of their disquiet centers on police relations with transgender individuals and unsolved murders of transgender victims.  Other issues include homelessness among transgender people, better access to health care in general as well as trans-specific health care, and other forms of discrimination, particularly towards transgender people of color. Many trans folks believe that they have been ignored during the fight for marriage equality and their concerns have been brushed aside.  Now it’s time, they feel, to raise their voices and be heard.

One day before Pride, around a hundred vocal demonstrators marched through the streets of Old Goucher—an area where many transgender women have been harassed or harmed.  They ended up at Washington Monument Plaza for a rally whereby a series of demands were announced.
"...potentially the beginning of a larger movement"

The amount of individuals participating in the movement and the support it is receiving from the broader community could signal a new dynamic in the quest for overall equality.  Perhaps as a way to recognize this cause, Pride officials agreed that a contingent from the #BaltimoreTRANSUPrising group lead off all marchers in the Pride parade.  This is a rare phenomenon in recent Baltimore Pride events in that increased focus was given to a political initiative, and it’s welcome.

As older, established organizations are becoming less relevant today to a younger group of impatient activists, a new wave of leaders are emerging to try to create visibility and support to help reach the goal of equality for all. 
This may be the most significant result of a summer whose winds of change are blowing through the streets of Baltimore.