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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Friday, July 31, 2009

GGBB Invasion Met with Anti-gay Bias

Two Mad River Bar & Grille employees fired for their actions

By Steve Charing

The Guerilla Gay Bar Baltimore monthly invasion of straight bars and clubs claimed its first "casualties" since the phenomenon began last November. Two doormen were discharged by the general manager of Mad River—a bar and grille in the midst of the bustling Federal Hill neighborhood—following complaints of anti-gay slurs and other allegations of homophobic bias on the part of the staff.

"This is the first time a bar has acted negatively towards our group," wrote GGBB co-founder Mark Yost, Jr. in a message immediately following the event to its ever-expanding list of members on Facebook. "I do want you to know as a group, we will not tolerate such behavior."

The examples of the rude treatment by employees and straight patrons were abundant. "I had a bouncer tell me to get off the landing because it's not a place to hang out, yet [he] allowed a group of straight guys and girls to congregate there all night, immediately after telling me to move," a source, who requested anonymity, told OUTloud.

He added, "Other tables were being waited on by staff because they were ordering food. When we wanted to order food, we had to go to the bar to order." The source also criticized how one of the female bartenders ignored the gay customers and how weak the drinks were.

Not only had some of the employees and staff been homophobic in their words and deeds, a few of the straight customers were as well. "In one instance a patron walked by and said, ‘goddamn faggots,’ igniting laughter from one of the bouncers checking ID’s," the source said.

The pleasant evening of July 3 that kicked off the holiday weekend started off calmly enough. But as the GGBB folks started to pour in—a total of over 350 attended the event—pushing the crowd to near capacity, that’s when the wheels began to fall off the cart.

To identify themselves as part of the "invasion" GGBB participants normally display stickers containing the group’s logo. It appeared that only when the crowd swelled with sticker-clad customers did some of the staff finally get the gist of what was going on.

In fact, the general manager of Mad River, Eric Leatherman told OUTloud that neither himself nor his events coordinator knew in advance about the "invasion." "We had planned on a smaller crowd for the start of the 4th of July weekend," Leatherman explained. "Had I known about the fact hundreds of people were going to come that night we would have added more employees and accommodated the crowd better."

Yost indicated in response to OUTloud that he notified Mad River via e-mail on June 29 and followed up with two phone calls the next day. He had left a message with a female daytime bartender (who, as it turned out, had been planning to quit by week’s end), but no one from the bar called him back. He assumed they received the message and had no problem with the group’s visit later in the week.

This lack of communication and preparedness among Mad River staff set the stage for the insulting events of that night. "I had several friends tell me homophobic comments they (or friends of theirs) heard from the staff, to include a comment by one bouncer to a person on the street that the person wouldn’t want to enter as it was ‘a bunch of fags in here tonight," said Adam Schadt, who is part of the GGBB group. "While leaving the event early on the way to a friend's birthday party, I heard one of the bouncers up front talking with several others in a mocking tone about the event. Still others told me that people were denied entry as they ‘didn’t have enough girls’ in their party."

Added Schadt, "Having been to all but one of the GGBB events, we have had nothing but positive experiences at every other location, even from the first few bars when our numbers were much smaller and we came unannounced. On several occasions I’ve had bartenders and staff mention how much they loved us and ask when we’d be coming back. This was anything but the reaction we got from Mad River."

Of course, not everybody had a bad experience that night. Sarah Billmaier and her fiancée, Jen, were apprehensive about going because they have not enjoyed straight bars recently. But as they settled down and had a drink they relaxed.

"Towards the middle of the evening I noticed this cute gay couple dancing and kissing - nothing too outrageous," said Billmaier. "I happened to glance the other way and saw a straight couple doing the very same thing. This not only made me smile but it also warmed my heart. When I first came out, I always wondered if there would ever come a day when every bar was for everyone."

After hearing the negative reports, however, Mark Yost had planned to contact Eric Leatherman to protest the treatment and harassment inflicted upon the GGBB members. Yet it was Leatherman who contacted Yost first after an employee noticed a number of postings to the GGBB’s Facebook page that lodged complaints.

Yost wrote the GGBB followers in a Facebook message, "[Leatherman] was extremely apologetic and indicated that the staff members who had acted inappropriately were discharged. He was concerned about the image of his bar and of his personal image and wanted us to be sure that we knew that he would not accept, promote or permit this type of behavior from his staff.

Indeed, Leatherman stated to OUTloud, "I hate that something like this would allow people to think that we feel this way about the gay community. It does not reflect how I feel nor does it reflect the position of Mad River."

"I believe his apology and his actions speak loudly and I truly believe they were well-intentioned and thoughtful," wrote Yost. "The behavior of this staff should be rightfully read as representing the individuals not the establishment. They are no longer there and that sends a pretty clear message."

Yost told OUTloud, "While the bar's apology was great and I truly believe that the employees involved do not represent the ownership, this incident is a sad reminder that not all people in Baltimore are enlightened about the gay community. As we continue to fight for our civil rights, it remains important that we go out, show our faces and build our community."

GGBB launches an "invasion" of a straight establishment in Baltimore with the bar management’s prior knowledge on the first Friday of every month. For more information about Guerilla Gay Bar Baltimore you may visit their website at www.ggb-baltimore.com or join the group on Facebook. The location of the next "invasion" is disclosed on Facebook the Wednesday before the event.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From Bally's to Ballyhoo

Why straight, religious model Demonta Walker embraces the LGBT community

By Steve Charing

A couple of years ago this fairly tall, well-built, exceptionally handsome man had been a manager at Bally’s Fitness on Route 40 in Ellicott City. His physique, like it was carved out of stone, was impressive enough. His personality was friendly, warm and most genuine. He was soft-spoken but engaging. And oh, those eyes!

One day, when I still was a member of that club, I summoned up the courage to suggest to Demonta (pronounced De-MON-tay) Walker that he should consider modeling. I mean this guy had everything going for him in the looks department plus he was as sweet as he could be.

It took some more prodding on my part, coupled with the encouragement from other friends and family who also saw the potential of Demonta’s posing in front of a camera lens, when he decided to give it a shot.

"At one point being in the fitness industry as a manager for Bally's Corporation, I found myself in a field that I really enjoyed along with meeting many people from every race and walk of life," he explained. "However I have always had a desire to become a bigger part of life and share a hidden talent that I was not able to do as a child growing up due to a lack of financial support."

He studied accounting at Baltimore County Community College before realizing that accounting wasn’t really his passion, although weight training, basketball and running were. Acting was a passion, too, and a dream.

The Ellicott City resident realized at the age of 35 that he would seek to capitalize on that not-so-hidden "talent" and try to enter the uber-competitive fields of hosting, modeling and acting. A devoutly religious man, Demonta calls his "talent" a gift from "the man in the heavens." Others would refer to his "talent" as strikingly good looks, but he’s too humble to say that.

Demonta has been on a fast track since he began his new career. Following some photo shoots in Florida, he has attracted sufficient attention to appear in other media. Demonta was an extra in the heralded film, Milk He has also been in a couple of TV shows, such as BET’s "Rap It Up" and VH1’s "Nick and Friends." He dreams of working alongside Will Smith one day.

Demonta has also shown up on a national advertising campaign for AT&T's Blue Room online experience. He had completed various photography shoots for Dolce and Gabbana, Kenneth Cole, Nike and Armani.

Beginning August 1, Demonta will be attending the well-known Tarsha's Acting School, located in Hollywood. He will use this opportunity to pursue one of the passions of his life—acting. "So look out Hollywood, a new actor’s coming to the silver screen," he warns.

One would think that his trek through the highways and byways of the modeling and entertainment worlds would provide Demonta with some exposure to elements of the LGBT community. It did.

"In my field and line of work, the fashion industry alone is run and coordinated by some of the world’s best designers. I have had the opportunity of going to Johnny Versace's mansion on South Beach every year for Model Week and even just for the pool parties from time to time. I have met many talented gay, lesbian and transgender people that play a major part in the fashion world," Demonta points out.

"I must say I have a lot of respect for their talent and wisdom. In the film industry I have also met some of the most talented actors and actresses whom just happen to be gay, lesbian as well as bisexual who I will not mention. Wouldn't you just love the inside scoop?" he chuckles.

"My acceptance of the gay and lesbian community did not start because of my journey in this career," Demonta explains. "It has been instilled in me from the days of my youth." He adds, "As a straight religious man, I was raised by my loving and supportive family to believe not only in faith or a higher power, but also in ‘live and let live.’"

Demonta feels that the support he receives from the gay community plus his own understanding of how minorities should be treated will help make the world a better place. "We are all good-looking brothers and sisters in God’s eyes and in our own way, and this earth would not be our house without all of us coming together and making this a home."

Demonta’s sums up his career change this way: "Life is a journey true, but when you hit hard times in your journey it does not mean unpack. It means it’s time to change luggage and continue traveling to achieve your dreams and accomplish your goals."

That’s a good philosophy to follow whether your looks can turn heads or not.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back Home Again

Equality Maryland’s move to Baltimore is welcome, but more is needed than just a change of address.

By Steve Charing

After five years of being headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., Equality Maryland (EQMD) has moved back to Baltimore, and that’s a good thing. Having the organization in our backyard is a win-win for everyone.

Nonetheless, during the time that the organization was based in Montgomery County, it had grown from essentially a one-man-band to employing at least six full-time staffers plus interns and lobbyists with an annual budget exceeding $1.1 million.

While that growth is welcome news for EQMD’s Board of Directors and supporters, the perception that it has been an organization associated with the tony Washington suburbs may have impeded its effectiveness throughout the state.

To be sure, a large portion of EQMD’s donor base resides in affluent Montgomery County as well as parts of Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Howard counties. Most of these folks are white, male, professional, upper middle class or higher and are largely coupled.

They attend the fundraisers more regularly than the urban dwellers of Baltimore and rural residents from elsewhere in Maryland. This demographic helps to boost EQMD’s coffers but the organization suffers from the D.C. area identity when it comes to the rest of the state.

Lobby Day is a prime example. It is an annual event that consists of a rally in Annapolis as well as scheduled meetings with legislators to help advance the lgbt legislative agenda primarily formulated by EQMD.

Crowds at these rallies have been declining over the years where a few hundred seems to be the norm. And it’s supposed to draw LGBT folks and allies from all over the state. Contrast those numbers to census estimates that indicate that there are as many as 16,000 same-sex couples and over 175,000 LGBT adults in Maryland. A few hundred gathered in the cold in Lawyer’s Mall will not impress lawmakers. A few thousand would. And a strong Baltimore contingent, which had been lacking each year, would fill the place up.

"If we had half the numbers at Pride show up to Lobby Day, we would be patting ourselves on the back," wrote a lesbian from Baltimore on a blog. "There are a lot of folks who don't even know what EQMD is or stands for. How can we hope to mobilize folks if they don't even know about the group who is supposed to be fighting for their rights? In order to move B-more, we have to be in your face. We have to be in the bars. We have to be in the ‘gayborhood’ 24/7."

It is true that thousands of people flock to the streets and park during Baltimore’s Pride festivities, and a good percentage of them are African-American and women. You won’t see most of these folks at EQMD galas, but they are very much a part of our community and cannot be set aside.

EQMD’s relocation to Baltimore is a good beginning. But a special outreach, especially to African-American members of the LGBT community, is not only the right thing to do but it also would be advantageous politically.

EQMD should join forces with such organizations as the GLCCB, The Portal and Black Pride to address critical issues facing the lgbt African-American population of Baltimore. HIV/AIDS, lgbt homelessness and other crises facing black lgbt youth head the list.

It would mean that EQMD, as well as these other organizations, should go to the bars, sponsor the weekly black gay events in Baltimore, linking with black gay party promoters and creating political/strategic partnerships. They would disseminate information and listen to concerns. In other words, they should fully engage, have a strong presence and demonstrate their commitment.

Building support from this community will go a long way towards persuading African-American Democrats in the legislature who are more aligned with conservative black ministers than lgbt folks. Marriage equality and transgender protections have faced roadblocks, and part of the problem clearly lies with these legislators. What makes this so frustrating is that some of these delegates represent heavily LGBT populated districts.

Seizing upon its new presence in Baltimore, EQMD continues to seek ways to make inroads with the African-American and Catholic communities. The Equality Maryland Foundation received a grant from the Arcus Foundation to conduct focus groups in an effort to develop a strategy to increase support for marriage equality among these groups.

I am pleased that EQMD is moving in that direction, and I urge the organization to help establish grass roots political advocacy groups in each of Baltimore’s districts, such as the successful one in District 45 in Northeast Baltimore.

Baltimore is the LGBT population center of the state; therefore, so it makes eminently good sense for EQMD to have a strong presence here. Neighborhoods with sizable lgbt populations abound within the city.

Now that they have moved to Baltimore, it’s time for EQMD to shed its D.C. suburban image and to make itself known in Charm City and engage our entire community more directly.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Don't Ask, Just Repeal

Letter Published in the
July 14, 2009 Edition of the Baltimore Sun

I applaud the Sun's editorial (July 12) urging Maryland's Congressional delegation to make a more concerted effort to repeal the utterly foolish "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy which denies openly gay men and lesbians the right to serve in our Armed Forces.

The nonsense offered by the proponents of the status quo that openly gay soldiers in the ranks would have a negative effect on troop morale and unit cohesion is just that--nonsense. Two dozen nations, including Canada, Great Britain, Israel and Australia, allow openly gay and lesbian service members without suffering from a decline in morale. What does that say about the confidence Congress has in our own troops? Other Western civilized countries can handle this assimilation but the U.S.--the land of liberty, freedom and equality--cannot?

Not only have 13,000 qualified, skilled service members been discharged since this discriminatory law was put in place, but a significant number of Arabic and other linguists were let go, which impeded our fight against terrorism and, therefore, compromised our national security.

In the meantime, the Pentagon has allowed the enlistment of thieves, drug dealers and those of sub-standard intelligence to fill the ranks needed to achieve enlistment quotas. How is that going to keep morale high?

Yes, our state delegation as well as others in Congress need to repeal this law as soon as possible. Our nation is ready for it. And our nation needs it.

Steve Charing
Clarksville, MD

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Don't Blame Us

Letter sent to TIME:

Reading Caitlin Flanagan's essay ("Why Marriage Matters", July 13) underscores how frivolous and unconvincing are the arguments put forth by opponents of same-sex marriage. They frighten people into believing that if gays and lesbians were allowed to marry, the institution of marriage as the bedrock of our society would crumble.

But the reality is that this institution is being threatened by a host of factors that heterosexual couples can by and large control. Gays and lesbians would no doubt face similar challenges. But all we ask is for the opportunity to be treated equally and secure the over 1,100 rights and responsibilities accorded heterosexual couples. And, we should not and cannot be blamed for adultery, children born out of wedlock, domestic violence, substance abuse and economic downturns that afflict too many heterosexual marriages today.

Steve Charing
Clarksville, MD