The road is long.
With a many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where.
Who knows where?
These lyrics from the pop song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell and made famous by The Hollies, Neil Diamond and others metaphorically describe the events in LGBTQ Baltimore during the 20 years that Baltimore OUTloud has been existence. The twists and turns are seemingly endless. Along this road, which is alternately rough and smooth, are triumphs, defeats, jubilation, tragedies, courage and determination.
The birth of OUTloud itself was an unlikely development with its first publication occurring in May 2003. It came about when the editor of Gay Life, the communication arm of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB), sought more independence in its content, and along with other investors launched a new company, Pride Media, Ltd., that published a newspaper, Baltimore OUTloud. A bunch of writers and staff who had been volunteering at Gay Life headed over to the nascent periodical.
The GLCCB and OUTloud had an uneasy co-existence at first. Some would characterize the situation as contentious. Over the years, however, there was a rapprochement, and both Gay Life and OUTloud co-existed peacefully for the betterment of the community.
In 2016, the road took another turn and a deal was struck between OUTloud and the GLCCB whereby Pride Media, Ltd. bought out Gay Life and in effect, merged providing space in OUTloud to publicize GLCCB events, such as Pride, and its programs.
The fact that these entities reached such a significant and collegial agreement after the early frosty relations marks one of the major turns in Baltimore’s rainbow road.
Politically, that rainbow road was fraught with speed bumps and potholes along the journey. Yet, it took us to some important destinations but by no means final. Marriage equality is a prime example.
When OUTloud first hit the streets on May 16, 2003, the legal recognition of same-sex couples was merely a pipe dream. The only article in the first issue that remotely touched on the subject was a lawsuit filed in federal court to strike down a Nebraska constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex relationship recognition. Very few envisioned the legalization of same-sex marriage, not with all the conservative and religious opposition getting in the way.
As the years passed, momentum for achieving what was once considered impossible gained steam. With the work by key LGBTQ organizations, hundreds of dedicated individuals, elected officials and a society that was growing more amenable to fairness and equality, that pipe dream became a reality. Marylanders voted to support marriage equality, and the U.S. Supreme Court in effect made it legal in every state. And whoever thought that the Mayor of Baltimore, the Governor of Maryland and the President of the United States would all advocate for marriage equality?Baltimore OUTloud was there every step of the way covering the setbacks and successes, which are intrinsic to any civil rights movement. A little less than 10 years after its first publication, OUTloud was present at Baltimore’s City Hall to chronicle the first same-sex weddings in Maryland. And that was followed up with a state law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity that survived heated and nonfactual rhetoric from opponents.
So the road seemed to have unbended with the surface appearing to be smooth. But another turn has been encountered: a sharp turn, which is making the journey more perilous.
The far right has seized upon queer-affirming books in school libraries, drag shows, pronoun usage, transgender athletes and a revived emphasis on parental control in education as a way to justify attacking the LGBTQ+ community. They have falsely accused LGBTQ+ people of “grooming” children and wrongly conflating drag queens with transgender individuals.
These ideas, which have been politically successful in many conservative areas, are threatening the LGBTQ+ communities and the gains we achieved, thus putting all of us at risk. In fact, hundreds of bills are before state legislatures (some already passed) that largely target transgender youth especially gender affirming care.
From the dim prospects of marriage quality to the celebratory same-sex weddings, to attacks on trans kids, to asserting drag shows more of a threat to children’s safety than guns, along with the condemnations of Pride events, the turn in the road is so sharp, it borders on being a u-turn.
Another turn occurred since publication day, which also
could not have been predicted. Twenty years
ago, the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore, dubbed as the “gayborhood” because of the plethora of LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly bars, clubs, shops and restaurants concentrated in a small area, was a bustling place. On a given Saturday night, people were dining inside and outside the City Café. Lines of patrons were seen waiting for admission into the Club Hippo. Across the street, Grand Central was packed where you could hardly move. Leon’s, The Drinkery and Jay’s on Read attracted their own devotees.
Almost suddenly in 2015 when the Hippo actually closed its doors, the gayborhood began its descent. The ending of the 43 year-old mainstay of Mount Vernon—the largest dance club in the state that attracted visitors from all over the U.S. and beyond—signaled a turn that became irreversible. Grand Central, the next largest club in the area, was put on sale. While it tried to hang on as a viable alternative to the Hippo, a combination of factors led to its demise, not the least of it was the Covid pandemic. Jay’s on Read closed ostensibly for financial reasons. The effects of Covid claimed the City Café and the Mount Vernon Stable, which were popular eateries in the area. Flavor, the only lesbian bar in Mount Vernon, was also forced to close its doors.
Prior to these losses, the community center, which is now called the Pride Center of Maryland, had moved a mile or so northbound to be closer to a population that would benefit more from its programs. Not only did the Center leave the gayborhood but the annual Pride parades and block parties—a staple of the area every June—left with it.
Earlier, Lambda Rising, a well-known LGBTQ+ bookstore chain, went out of business succumbing to competition from online book retailers.
While other establishments have sprung up to serve the community, the identity of the gayborhood is not the same with all of these missing pieces gone. It just seems like a long time between May 2003 and now with so much happening, both good and bad.
But what remains constant despite the twisting rainbow road over 20 years is the fact that Baltimore OUTloud remains the only LGBTQ publication in Maryland. It has weathered a precipitous decline in interest in print periodicals, the passing of its co-owner, the effects of the pandemic as well as financial challenges that all newspapers and magazines are facing.
Other publications have folded, among them and surprisingly, the City Paper. But here we are 20 years later: Baltimore OUTloud is still standing and poised to continue its coverage along that winding rainbow road that leads us to who knows where.