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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015: A Transformative Year for the LGBT Community

When it comes to LGBT history and its ongoing struggle for equal rights, every year, especially recent ones, has produced landmark accomplishments and setbacks.  Yet 2015 seems to have outdone past years as victories and defeats have taken on new shapes with longer-lasting effects.
Nationally, we witnessed the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country—a decision rooted on Constitutional grounds.  Following that epic 5-4 ruling, attempts to quell the victory were met with resistance and ultimately defeat. 
The discriminatory religious freedom law in Indiana whereby corporations joined with activists to thwart that attempt and the Kim Davis saga in Kentucky proved that gays’ influence even in red states is increasing.  You know there is progress if conservative NASCAR joined hands with LGBT activists in stopping the Indiana law.
These were just a couple of significant developments in the movement, but what happened in LGBT Baltimore and Maryland all in one year is simply mindboggling.
Shifting directions of organizations
For all intents and purposes we lost Equality Maryland (EQMD).  Technically, the organization is still alive with only a board of directors, but it’s on life support.  Funding shortfalls doomed EQMD thanks in large part to the achievement of marriage equality in Maryland.  Donations needed to staff the organization and its initiatives simply dried up.
In June the board laid off Carrie Evans, the executive director.  Then it relinquished its Sharp Street office space.  Not long after that the acting executive director Keith Thirion parted ways as he found new employment. 
So, for the first time in decades, the Maryland General Assembly, which will begin next month, will not have a viable EQMD presence.  This is sad as the organization, warts and all, worked hard on behalf of Marylanders with plenty of less glamorous and money-attracting work remaining. 
FreeState Legal's executive director Patrick Paschall
Photo: Bob Ford
Fortunately, a rising organization, Baltimore-based FreeState Legal Project, will attempt to fill that void by continuing to be a watchdog on behalf of the LGBT community and as an advocate for policies and legislative actions at the state level.  Under the capable leadership of its executive director Patrick Paschall, FreeState Legal, a non-profit that provides legal services to low income LGBT community members, will assume a greater role in the near future.
One organization in flux, however, is the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB).  The 38 year-old LGBT Baltimore institution has experienced a multitude of leadership and board changes over the past few years, and 2015 was no exception.  The instability created by these changes has damaged its brand as many wonder what the GLCCB’s purpose is other than running the annual Pride events.  And a criminal trial to begin in late January 2016 against the former Pride coordinator Paul Liller could drive a wedge into the community at a time when fence-mending and sustainable fundraising are crucial to its success. 
Regardless of the outcome, the GLCCB is pinning the hopes on board president Jabari Lyles and the remainder of the new board to stabilize the center, assert its relevance, and resume its program mission moving forward to help attract a steady stream of much-needed revenue. 
The emergence in 2015 of the LGBT Health Resource Center (LHRC) at Chase Brexton under executive director Nate Sweeney has been a breath of fresh air.  The fledgling group, among other objectives, focuses on LGBT health and wellness and linking community members with competent service providers.
Through a partnership with SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), LHRC launched the SAGECAP program that addresses the needs LGBT folks who provide eldercare services and also focuses the needs of LGBT elders who are becoming a growing segment of the LGBT community.
A new culture of activism
Bryanna Jenkins  Photo: Brian Gaither
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.  Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that followed a spate of police-involved killings of unarmed African-American men including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, transgender advocates—mostly but not entirely African-Americans—banded together, took to the streets in protest marches and formed a #BaltimoreTRANSUPrising movement to air a list of grievances. 

Much of the 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. Led by Bryanna Jenkins, Ken Jiretsu, Monica Yorkman and others, many trans folks believe that they have been ignored during the fight for marriage equality and their concerns have been brushed aside.
Last Call
Photo: Bob Ford
Arguably the most crushing change in 2015 was the closing of the Club Hippo on October 3.  The announcement in May sent shockwaves throughout Baltimore’s LGBT community and beyond.  As the acknowledged anchor of the Mount Vernon “gayborhood” and the state’s largest gay bar, hundreds of thousands of people had passed through the doors of the Hippo over its 43 year-old history.  The final night of the dance bar occurred September 26 with an emotional crowd experiencing the last dance.
For many the Hippo was the first gay bar they ever patronized.  It was a safe space for those first coming to grips with their sexuality but the nightclub was also a favorite of straight patrons.  The community felt disappointed that the building is being converted to a CVS drugstore.  A large number of people are questioning if the LGBT community is indeed losing its identity.
Undoubtedly this was a year of change for our community—good and bad.  Time will tell what 2016 will bring, but it will be hard to top 2015.

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