The first gay bar that I visited in Baltimore when I arrived almost a decade ago was The Drinkery. I knew nothing about the scene here other than the fact that Mount Vernon was the area that the Internet clearly designated as the home of the LGBTQ community in Baltimore. My wingman and I had no specific place in mind as we rolled along Charles and Read streets trying to size up the bars. Without a specific destination, The Drinkery and its tacky sign looked as good a place as any for us to get drinks and meet men. The Drinkery was—and is—the sort of spot that people who are being nice would call a neighborhood bar: dim lighting, aging décor, and inexpensive drinks (for a gay bar). Back then, we appreciated its racial diversity, and part of me cherished the leering from the mostly gray crowd that filled the bar stools. We eventually made our way over to Grand Central, where the crowd seemed younger and more lively, but I still recognize that lovely dive as my first impression of LGBTQ Baltimore: unmistakably queer, even in a neighborhood well into gentrification.
Mount Vernon wasn't always the gayborhood, and it seems likely that it won't continue to be either. I'm in my early thirties, and a transplant here, but queer Baltimoreans of a certain age will remember a time before West Eager and North Charles were an epicenter for gay life in the city, when queer folks found themselves just slightly north, in the broad swath of area commonly called Greater Charles Village.
Just a few decades ago, the neighborhoods that make up Greater Charles Village—Abell, Old Goucher, Charles Village, Harwood, and Barclay—were home to the HIV/AIDS clinic that would become Chase Brexton, the gay services switchboard that would become Baltimore Gay Life, and the gay alliance that would evolve into the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore & Central Maryland. The brightly painted houses of Abell Avenue carried the nickname Lesbian Lane, and rightfully so; before it was Normal's Bookstore, the 31st Street Bookstore acted as a hub for the lesbians and feminists in the city, along with the Lesbian Community Center just around the corner on Greenmount.
As it has in recent years, Baltimore Pride also moved around the city, from Charles Plaza downtown to the Wyman Park Dell to Mount Vernon. It wasn't a golden era: the HIV epidemic was spreading unimpeded, largely due to the apathy of the Reagan administration and the failure of many local governments. Gay bars were still being raided across the nation. Racism went unchecked in many bars both here and elsewhere, as in the case of Waverly's The Torch, where only men of color were carded at a time when asking for an ID in gay bars was still something that was avoided for privacy issues.
But it was a time before Mount Vernon was recognized as the city's singular gayborhood. During the '80s and '90s, The GLCCB bought a space on West Chase, Pride established itself as a Mount Vernon gem, and though LGBTQ bars remained speckled across the city, they concentrated in a new neighborhood. During the same period, Chase Brexton grew up and found a space of their own in Mount Vernon, too. The momentum generated by these changes moved the gayborhood, and now it looks as though this could happen again.
Last year saw the closing of the keystone gay bar The Hippo, as well as the departure of Free State Justice (formerly Free State Legal and Equality Maryland) from the neighborhood. Just last month, The Drinkery fought its way through a liquor license battle over what was ostensibly called an issue of crime, noise disturbances, and excess trash, but that some patrons of the bar suggested had more to do with racism, classism, and changing attitudes in the neighborhood. These events say something about the status of Mount Vernon—it should be impossible to ignore when a gay bar has to fight for its existence during Pride month against the same sort of allegations (some coming from fellow gay community members) that were used to shut down queer spaces in the days before an LGBTQ liberation movement in America.
"The gay ghettos aren't what the gay ghettos used to be," says Carlton Smith, longtime community activist and Executive Director of the Center for Black Equity Baltimore. "The rhetoric has started changing, and the income has started changing."
Since 2013, when Grand Central owner Don Davis publicly suggested that he might sell the neighborhood's other anchor bar, the community has waited for that shoe to drop too. Just on the horizon, the GLCCB is planning to move once again, and though they are being tightlipped about the details, it sounds like the move will likely be out of Mount Vernon and back into Greater Charles Village. Chase Brexton seems to have invested in remaining in the neighborhood, having bought the titanic Monumental Life building in 2011, but the multi-site community health center and primary care provider has grown well beyond being an exclusively LGBTQ service.
So what comes next? If Mount Vernon will no longer be the gayborhood, where will it go? Greater Charles Village is one likely answer, if the GLCCB returns along with—whenever it wins its long-standing liquor license struggle—the Baltimore Eagle over in Old Goucher. Hampden too flies a number of rainbow flags these days, but without a distinctly LGBTQ club in the neighborhood, it's worth asking whether this is just a diet version of the queer suburban flight taking place around the country. Of course, it is also worth considering whether or not gayborhoods will survive the new social and political landscape of queerness in America. Events like the Orlando Massacre highlighted for many of us the need for LGBTQ-only spaces, but will those young queer folk coming of age now—those who grew up with social media and a broad queer spectrum of identities more reasonably represented on television—feel the same way?
This week I returned to The Drinkery for the first time since I arrived here in 2007. I'm sure that they must have made some sort of upgrade over the last few years, even if it is just the paper sign on the front door that reminds patrons to be respectful of community neighbors, but I was hard pressed to see much difference between this visit and my first to the hole-in-the-wall bar. A gay institution in the Baltimore, the place is nothing if not consistent. Yet will that consistency continue to serve it well in a neighborhood that is no longer what it was? Can any gay bar survive in tomorrow's Mount Vernon?