If you spend any time on the streets of Mount Vernon, there’s a chance you’ve noticed a new sign popping up in some business windows. It’s small—4 by 5 inches—but it has bold intentions: this space does not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Set against an outline of Baltimore City in rainbow colors, the removable sticker is the most visible outgrowth of BmoreInclusive, a new campaign aimed at engaging local businesses in creating safe spaces for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and establishing a more defined, cordial relationship between the community and the city at large.
The initiative is an extension of a class project undertaken by three Goucher College sophomores—Matt Wolff, a studio art and French major from Pennsylvania; Andrew Huff, a political science major from New Jersey; and Ryan Derham, a sociology major with an art minor from California. All three are students in the International Scholars Program, which, among other pursuits, trains students in the local dimensions of globalization through field exercises. The three are also roommates, and decided to combine their varied skills to tackle a problem in the city.
“The project emerged from last semester’s core assignment, which was to find an issue in Baltimore City and do something to contribute to the solution,” Huff says, “and through that really interact with people in the city, make connections, and try and avoid going onto someone else’s territory and throwing a solution at it—really working with the people to make the situation better.”
For all three members, the LGBT community represented a good avenue through which to explore their disparate specialties. “For me, I was specifically concerned with human rights, design, and social advocacy, and using the LGBT community as an outlet for that because it’s a current contemporary issue,” Wolff says. “For Andrew, it was just another example of just another playing field. . . Even with the 14th amendment there’s still a lot of loopholes. Waiting for stuff like the ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] to pass because it’s been proposed since the ’90s, so really going straight to businesses instead of waiting around. For Ryan, it was her interest in sociology, which branched out to being interested in community formation and how is the GLBT community excluded and how does it affect communities on the local level.”
The group eventually gravitated toward what is now BmoreInclusive, an initiative partially modeled off the Safe Space Campaign, which encourages schools to openly acknowledge that they accept and will protect LGBT students. Derham, Huff, and Wolff contact local businesses—so far, they’ve only done so in Mount Vernon—and ask them to display the sticker as well as follow a set of guidelines. The guidelines include such suggestions as being conscious of word choice—“Use the terms ‘partner’ or ‘significant other’ instead of spouse”—and reacting “positively when an LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer] employee first discloses his or her sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. ‘Thank you for sharing that with me.’).”
The packet also includes statistics intended to persuade: The total buying power of the adult LGBT population in 2010 was $743 billion, according to their stats; 87 percent of LGBT adults and 75 percent of non-LGBT adults say they are more likely to patronize a business or purchase a brand that openly provides equal workplace benefits; 71 percent of LGBT adults say they are more likely to remain loyal customers of said businesses and brands.
So far, community reaction has been mostly positive, according to the founders. The group has six businesses in Mount Vernon involved: The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore, Milk and Honey Market, Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, Michaelangelo’s Pizza, Chained Desires, and Mount Vernon Wine. But the group has encountered some obstacles.
Huff and Wolff say they recently had a positive, hour-long conversation with an employee at a Mount Vernon business who agreed to hang the sticker—only to find out later that the business had decided against it. The owner, it turned out, was concerned about the business being identified as an exclusively gay establishment. The store agreed to hang the sticker inside, but not in the window, for fear of sending away potential customers.
“When we went to the business. . . there was a gay section. . . and a bunch of stickers and things that were LGBT inclusive,” Derham says. “So it came as a surprise when they didn’t want to do this. It just goes to show that it’s a complicated issue.”
Huff says it’s important that the sticker be displayed on the window. “The sticker is to get people to come in, to see the sticker and know this is a place that is inclusive,” he says. “That’s the goal, for it to be a symbol.”
“I guess it just shows there’s a lot to be done still,” Derham adds. “If a business that identifies as inclusive—”
“—is afraid to put up the sticker—” Huff interjects.
“—then if they can’t even do it, then who is going to?” Derham concludes. “We learned there are going to be a lot of obstacles to overcome.”
The group is looking forward to the summer when Wolff and Huff, without full-time class schedules, will be able to devote themselves fully to expanding the project beyond Mount Vernon. (Derham will be returning home to California for the summer.) In fact, they are planning ahead for the next two years of college and beyond, and beginning to recruit new members who can spearhead the initiative in the trio’s absence—Derham and Huff will be studying abroad in the fall, Wolff in the spring—including meeting with Goucher’s Gay-Straight Alliance and other groups on campus.
“We don’t want it to be a club,” Huff says. “We want it to be something where we have a good group of people who really understand the goals of the project.”
“We’re hoping that by the time summer comes and time for [us to go] abroad,” Derham adds, “that we’ll have people that we can trust and contact and kind of pass on the project to.”