Recording the Rainbow Revolution: As gay bars in Baltimore shut their doors, activists work to document LGBTQ history

City Paper
As gay bars shut down in Baltimore, activists work to preserve LGBTQ history.

The Hippo opened in the summer of 1972, and in the ensuing years, the bar has been the setting for Pride block parties, for political organizing, for first kisses and last breakups. Early fundraisers for AIDS were held here, and the bar's regular Gay Bingo nights and annual 12 Days of Christmas parties have raised money for a variety of nonprofits. Its Halloween parties are epic celebrations of queer creativity, and as the host of many drag and leather pageants, the Hippo has been home for parts of the queer community that have struggled to find a home anywhere else. The Hippo is more than a bar—it is a community institution. But in May, owner Charles "Chuck" Bowers confirmed that the club would be closing and the space would turn into a CVS.

The history of the Hippo is not simply celebratory, however. Louis Hughes, a black gay man and longtime Baltimore activist, tells of trying to go to the bar with his mother in the 1970s; both of them were asked for multiple forms of identification, a demand never made of white patrons. This was a common tactic used to enforce racial segregation and make whites-only spaces a reality after formal segregation ended. The Torch and the Porthole, gay bars in Waverly, were even sued in the 1980s for their discriminatory practices. They settled, but the bars, including the Hippo, remained largely segregated. As recently as 2009 the Hippo came under fire again, this time for refusing a trans man entry into the men's bathroom. The club's motto might be "Where everyone is welcome," but who counts as "everyone" and what we mean by "welcome" is an ongoing struggle and conversation, one that can teach us a lot about what it means to be with our differences.

Despite the problems the Hippo has had with inclusivity, when word spread that the Hippo would be closing down to make way for yet another pharmacy, reaction was swift and, in many quarters, negative. How could this club that has served as an anchor for the gay community for decades just disappear? Jay's on Read Street is closing too, joining the ranks of Leon's Leather Lounge (now Steampunk Alley) and The Quest, among others, as the latest to bid farewell to Baltimore. In his "Wide Stance" column in City Paper, Anthony Moll argued that these businesses are closing partly because they are less needed as centers of community as LGBTQ life has gone mainstream. When queers are welcome in bars all over town, how can the gay bar survive?

While the first part of that claim is certainly arguable, as anyone who's gotten "the stare" from straight folks for holding hands with her girlfriend can tell you, the fact is, many of our institutions are closing down and taking their histories with them. Fortunately, activists who were part of the early organizing for LGBTQ justice are now working to preserve the LGBTQ past to ensure that the stories of organized resistance, love, and life-making will not be lost when the Hippo closes its doors. These histories, they argue, are vital if we are to understand the long history of the struggle for justice in these communities, and as we figure out what to do next.

Louis Hughes, now 71, moved to Baltimore in 1970 and came out in 1974. In 1975 he helped found the Baltimore Gay Alliance, which is now the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB). He served on the community advisory board of Johns Hopkins Hospital and worked tirelessly with others to pass the Baltimore City and Maryland lesbian and gay rights bills, work that took years. After those bills were passed, he helped with trainings for police, social workers, teachers, and the general public to help what he calls "the slow but sure process of change." He now serves on the Baltimore Heritage LGBTQ history committee and helps lead tours of Baltimore's "gayborhoods" of Mount Vernon and Charles Village.

Hughes argues, "it is very important to preserve and discuss our history and our paths to the present and the future for generations to come as we get older." From his perspective, it is vital to understand at a very basic level that change can and does happen—because it has: "I experienced growing up in segregated Virginia public schools and colleges to entering desegregated work force, housing, and schools, to lesbian and gay movements to be more inclusive. I have lived to see the first African-American president, the first lesbian and gay right to marriage achieved, and more. Everything changes with time and effort." For contemporary activists, change may appear slow and uneven, and in many respects it is. The historical perspective offered by Hughes and others helps shift that vision and remember that we're in it for the long haul, not just to save the Hippo.

The idea that this history should be preserved is, though, itself a surprisingly new idea. Researchers will find a small list of articles on LGBTQ history in Baltimore, and there is a book from 1988 called "And Justice For All" featuring essays by Baltimoreans who attended the 1987 LGBT March on Washington—but you'll have to dig through the still-being-organized GLCCB archives to find the one copy publicly available. Scholars and interested parties can look forward to this August when Louise Kelley's new book, "LGBT Baltimore," will be out from Arcadia Publishing. Kelley's history as an organizer stretches back to 1975. Among her many projects: She was a founder and editor of the Baltimore Gay Paper of GLCCB, wrote for Women's Express, and was a board member of the Chase Brexton clinic, one of the first volunteer-run gay health clinics in the country. She helped coordinate women's activities for the GLCCB, was a chair of Pride, and worked with the Schmoke administration's Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Her latest book will share the history of this work in the larger context of Baltimore's LGBT history. And there's a long history here—Baltimore's first Pride rally, held in 1975; the founding of Baltimore's chapter of ACT UP by John Stuban in 1987; the publishing home of the feminist journal Women: A Journal of Liberation, a globally circulated journal that shared significant lesbian content; and so, so many more stories to tell.

For Kelley, "LGBT history is important because if we forget what we accomplished and who did it, eventually we'll forget why we even have a Pride Festival." She worries that our histories are being lost, she writes in an email: "People move, throw things out, or they die, and someone else throws it out. We go invisible again. The vanguard generation, as I think of them (people about ten years older than I am, which is 58) paid a high price for coming out. Those stories of courage and sacrifice are important." Her work will help preserve those stories. A new GLCCB archive held at the University of Baltimore is helping in a more formal way, and volunteer archivists Ben Blake and Arnie VandeBrake are working tirelessly to organize the full run of the Baltimore Gay Paper as well as files and ephemera from the GLCCB. Kelley is excited about this archival project, but she wishes there were "five times as many artifacts and documents in it. The revolution was crowded!"

And it didn't all take place at the GLCCB. Local scholar-activists Jodi Kelber, April Householder, and Betsy Nix are collecting oral histories as part of the Baltimore Communes and Collectives Project. For Kelber, it is important to contextualize LGBTQ movements' histories in the larger framework of the 1970s and the move to critique mainstream ideologies of all sorts. "There are real lessons to be learned from living in intentional communities, across lines of race, class, and gender" that can help us move forward with today's political projects, Kelber says. Although not explicitly about LGBTQ life, Kelber's work has already uncovered the deep roots of lesbian political action in these communities, and there's much to learn from them in terms of fighting the rampant sexism that still runs through much organizing. Again, the past is an essential precursor to thinking creatively about the future.

Yes, we may be saying goodbye to the Hippo this year, but we are not saying goodbye to the histories that supported that bar, or the harder histories that come along with it as the LGBTQ movement has struggled with its own racism, sexism, and classism. It's different now, but how it got to be that way is the result of a whole lot of work that must be remembered and taken forward in contemporary organizing. And that is work that should be celebrated this Pride season. As Kelley puts it, "Just watch us do our sexy dance. Bigotry can't stop us, AIDS can't stop us, misogyny can't stop us and that's why we're doing one of many victory dances this year. We need to record the rainbow revolution completely. There's never been anything like it, ever."

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