Mt. Vernon-Bolton Hill residents and other local lgbt need to step up
By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst
On the surface, one can easily label the Baltimore neighborhood of Mt. Vernon the gay capital of Maryland. It is the site of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB)—one of the longest-running centers of its kind in the country, if not the longest name. The largest lgbt multi-faceted health center in the state, Chase-Brexton Health Services, calls Mt. Vernon its home.
Mt. Vernon is also the venue for the two most popular gay bars in the state. Both Maryland lgbt newspapers—Baltimore OUTloud and Gay Life—are published in Mt. Vernon. Lambda Rising, the venerable lgbt bookstore, maintains its only Maryland store in Mt. Vernon. The state’s largest gay pride parade and street festival take place there as well. The adjoining neighborhood of Bolton Hill claims a large number of lgbt residents.
And when you factor in the other gay or gay-friendly eateries, drinkeries, bistros, boutiques, shops, antique stores, churches and some of the major cultural centers of the city, it seems to be a virtual slam-dunk that Mt. Vernon is the gay capital of Maryland.
Or is it?
To be truly a "capital" or a focal point in the lgbt movement, it also needs to be engaged politically. Areas that spawn activism like New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s Castro district and DC’s Dupont Circle would qualify. And if you go back to the sixties and seventies, Baltimore’s Charles Village and Waverly neighborhoods would also fit.
These places are the domains of lgbt leadership and advocacy. Politics—good, bad and ugly—would dominate the conversations. Grass-roots movements are born there. Fliers to rallies and meetings are handed out to passers-by. So are gay newspapers. These are genuine gay "capitals." Mt. Vernon in 2006, however, appears to be anything but.
Despite the large gay population within the Mt. Vernon-Bolton Hill area, a disappointing number showed up at last month’s Equality Maryland Lobby Day in Annapolis to attend the rally and visit with their local legislators. Based on pre-event registrations obtained from one of the organizers, Mt. Vernon and Bolton Hill’s participation paled compared with such city neighborhoods as Homeland, Roland Park, Tuscany, Canterbury, Mount Washington, Charles Village, Guilford, Northwood, Federal Hill, Canton, and Fells Point.
The rally crowd itself fell short of expectations. A goal of 2,000 had been established, but it barely reached last year’s total of several hundred. This occurred despite the anti-gay marriage rhetoric spewing from the mouths and press releases of Republican legislators and conservative or weak-kneed Democrats during the days just prior to the event. The motivation was there, but the anticipated large crowd wasn’t.
"There are many factors that contributed to attendance," said Meredith Moise, Field Coordinator for Equality Maryland. "Many folks were sidelined by the weather. Other people had difficulties with getting off of work, getting childcare or getting transportation to Annapolis. We are excited about those who attended the rally," she told OUTloud.
Indeed, those braving the chilly late Monday afternoon weather following a major snowstorm earlier in the weekend were largely suburban and white. A large chunk of the Lobby Day crowd came from Montgomery and Howard counties as well as from other suburban jurisdictions. Moreover, among those attending the rally was a sizable number of straight allies or parents of lgbt children.
The primary reason for the rally was to help those in the lgbt community to achieve equal rights and to prevent a discriminatory constitutional amendment from advancing to the floor of the General Assembly. But where were the masses of lgbt individuals? Aren’t they interested? Involved? Concerned?
Local gay activists are realizing a disturbing truth that too many members of the community are politically averse. This crosses gender and racial lines, urban and suburban.
"I see the apathy here," Craig Wiley, executive director for the GLCCB told OUTloud. "Sometimes people think that if the issue is too big, they don’t feel they can make a difference." He related the frustration of the Center’s renting a bus for last year’s rally but only a handful chose to get on board.
This year, the Center opted not to repeat the same error but did send out mass e-mail notices to those on their extensive mailing list with Equality Maryland’s Lobby Day information as an attachment. It obviously did not work.
Bar patrons can be just as frustrating when it comes to political apathy. A friend of mine who frequents the Quest reported that out of a dozen random people he spoke with, very few ever heard of Equality Maryland and fewer still knew of Lobby Day. He said no one picked up any of the gay papers on their way out that night, which would have informed them that the Governor and state legislators are trying to make them second-class citizens. This pattern is noticeable at other bars and clubs as well.
Political avoidance is not necessarily confined to Mt. Vernon or Baltimore City for that matter. In Howard County, where a gay men’s dinner group has been operating for over a decade, there is a need to motivate and mobilize. The group communicates information to a couple of hundred members through a newsgroup.
When I asked the current proprietor of the newsgroup, to publicize the formation of a Howard/Carroll County political investment organization (www.lgbtcaucus.com ), he said he would post it. Then he decided not to fulfill his promise ostensibly because he did not want to include anything political. However, he recently allowed the posting from a 22 year-old man announcing his arrival to the area. You can clearly see where his priorities lie.
Of course, political apathy is not necessarily a gay affliction. Look at the low level of participation from eligible voters during elections. But the general population has the right to marry. They have the right to make medical decisions for their spouses. They can openly serve in the military. They are not vilified as a group on the floors of state legislatures and Congress, nor are they chided by the President. They cannot be fired from their jobs for being straight. But lgbt individuals can.
Events like Lobby Day should have drawn thousands. We were under attack by religious zealots, hateful or insecure legislators and a governor who is aligned with the religious right. It was critical that we demonstrate against their demagoguery and their actions that are harmful to lgbt families. The media and officials needed to be impressed by the forcefulness of the lgbt effort. The opposition has no problem mobilizing the masses to sling hatred towards us, but we cannot seem to effectively respond.
"Apathy is one of our greatest enemies," said Jay Smith Brown, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lgbt civil rights organization. "Political issues are always personal. You need to find out the area that make individuals most passionate and reach out to them," he told OUTloud last June.
Our community needs to re-establish its priorities, read our newspapers and get more passionate about our struggle to achieve equality. And it wouldn’t hurt if it started from Maryland’s so-called gay "capital."