Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Rainbow Appears Over Harford


No one will ever describe conservative Harford County as the hub of LGBT life in Maryland.  Voters have sent homophobic legislators, such as Sen. Nancy Jacobs and Del. Richard Impallaria to Annapolis to represent them.  The county’s public school system had once tried to block LGBT-themed websites from the school’s computers.  The voters in the county opposed the marriage equality referendum in 2012 by a 56 to 44 percent margin.
Photo: Randy Billings

 
Despite this history, LGBT folks in Harford County are seeing progress, albeit slowly, as some have been taking matters into their own hands.  There is a welcoming church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Harford County led by the Rev. Lisa Ward.  A PFLAG chapter has existed as well the Rainbow Youth Alliance support group.  And openly gay Havre de Grace Councilman Joseph C. Smith will be seeking election to the Harford County Council this year.
While the political winds have been swirling, if not completely shifting in Harford, and not many gay happenings going on, a group of LGBT county residents had formed a social group six years ago this month.  “Four friends (two couples) decided that we were tired of having to drive to Baltimore to do anything ‘gay,’” says Calvin Wheatley, an Edgewood resident and one of the group’s founders.  “We wanted some local fun and decided to form what we called ‘Harford Rainbow Society.’ Members have since dubbed it HRS and we more or less use that name more frequently that the full name.”

Assuming this project would take off on its own, the guys designed a logo and flyers even though there were no other members.  They didn’t know how to go about reaching out to the LGBT community.
“We ended up posting ads in Craigslist in the Groups section but that was a flop,” Wheatley admitted.   “With not a single response we went to the Personals (M4M and W4W) and that worked for us… our first meeting pulled in about 12 people.”

Every meeting after that the membership increased as they scheduled dinners, happy hours, parties, bowling events, cookouts, movies,  and visits to theme parks.  Word of mouth took over and soon they could boast nearly 500 members.   “They were mostly inactive but they were getting our emails and notices and a single event would pull in between 20 to 60 people,” Wheatley recalls. 
Along the way, two of the original founders decided that they did not want to continue to participate and have moved on, leaving Wheatley and his partner to do all the work.  “Our group was becoming a huge success but after several years I started tiring of running everything especially during those frustrating times when events would fail,” he said.  “However, after giving up the group it began to implode under a weakened less committed leadership as well as ‘drama’ that the group had never known prior.  Membership fell to under 100 members on Facebook and even those had little interest in attended events.” 

Undaunted, Wheatley decided to return to the leadership of the group last July that had now gone nearly a year with no active events and began posting dinners and happy hours.  Membership has grown again and with those who are on their Gmail list and Facebook, which has about 155 members, there are nearly 400 people on the HRS mailing/notification list.
However, Wheatley senses a loss of confidence by the group members who think the “drama” may return as individual events typically attract 15-20 people.  In an effort to change the course, Wheatley has published two upbeat newsletters called the Harford Gay-zette since the last quarter of 2013 with the hope that it will bolster confidence once again.

In the first issue, Wheatley wrote: “We enjoyed many good times and made so many friends. It cannot be denied that many of our members have developed incredible friendships and relationships that they may not have experienced without HRS bringing them together so let’s hope that we can once again return to that valuable aspect of the group, as friendship and local experiences had always been the original intent of the group and still remains the goal.”
He went on to reminisce about all the successful events and candidly pointed out the “fails”.   Wheatley highlighted individual members and listed upcoming birthdays and events to boost camaraderie.

The next issue, a 10-pager, Wheatley highlighted several couples who tied the knot following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. He also used the opportunity to welcome the new members by first name and first initial of last name, spread the word about the Harford chapter of PFLAG as well as other articles including the Affordable Care Act.
The Harford Gay-zette is a professional quality newsletter with abundant information to keep the membership informed and in good spirits.  Now if the members show up to the local events in greater numbers, it would be a big shot in the arm to the LGBT folks living in Harford County.

They’re off to a good start.  Despite the snowy night on February 12, HRS had a successful Happy Hour at MaGerks Pub and Grill in Bel Air.  Further opportunities will soon take place as there will be Bingo Night on February 25 at Pulaski Bingo in Joppa and the monthly dinner will be held on February 27 at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
For more information about the Harford Rainbow Society, visit the group's Facebook page or email HarfordRainbow@gmail.com.

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