Going Gay With Age: A Short History of Gay Rights in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 9, 2004

Gay rights got off to a rocky start in Maryland. When Lord Baltimore was granted his charter for the colony of Maryland in 1632, he adopted English common law, which outlawed sodomy. This legal tradition viewed the biblical crime as nonprocreative sexual acts, such as anal and oral sex, be it hetero- or homosexual (or involving animals). Common-law penalties included live burial or burning. Their threat helped to quash any notion that colonial gays and lesbians had rights to assert; they were criminals, plain and simple, and were to be treated as such when caught–though apparently not many were, as the historical record is sparse on colonial sodomy prosecutions in Maryland.

After gaining statehood, according to sodomy-law historian George Painter’s Web site (www.sodomylaws.org), Maryland in 1793 passed a sodomy statute that set a sentence of up to seven years of hard labor in irons on bread-and-water rations, with lashings for misconduct. Slaves convicted of sodomy would get the death penalty or, if lucky, 14 years of the same rough handling. In 1809 the penalty was changed to one to 10 years’ confinement, with slaves getting equal treatment. Then, in the first published sodomy case in the nation, the Maryland Court of Appeals in 1810 upheld an indictment for “that most horrid and detestable crime (among christians not to be named), called Sodomy.” The law, with its religious undertones, stood unchanged for more than a century but resulted in few recorded cases.

Taking its cue again from England, where Victorian moralists had spurred public obsession with sex, Maryland in 1915 issued a Vice Commission Report about some of its residents’ sexual adventures. Seven of the report’s thousand-plus pages addressed homosexuality. The following year, a new sodomy law was passed, outlawing oral sex and other unspecified “unnatural or perverted sexual practices” with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $1,000 fine. Three published cases in the 1940s-’60s involved heterosexuals, establishing that the law was not designed to target gay behavior alone.

Thus, gay sex, and straight sex venturing somewhere into the vast realm beyond the missionary position, were criminal acts in Maryland from the very beginning. In a sense, they still are; the 1916 statute, after the last effort to repeal it failed in 1988, was found unconstitutional in two late-’90s decisions, but sodomy in theory is still a common-law crime in Maryland. In practice, presumably judges would frown on any attempts to prosecute it.

The struggle for gay rights in Maryland since the 1960s, though, has been about much more than the right to practice same-sex intimacy. It’s been about protection from discrimination, achieving recognition for same-sex partners who want to share employment benefits or visitation rights at hospitals, and allowing gay or lesbian couples to marry, or adopt, or split up but still retain custody rights over children. It has also involved blocking proposed anti-gay measures.

Not everyone sees the point in grappling with the system. Betsy Brown of western Oregon became like a young Malcolm X in a world of Martin Luther King Jr. lesbians with her mid-1990s “lesbian separatism” manifestos, inspired in part by the black-separatist economic model of self-reliance. “Participationists work for legal recognition of same-sex marriages and other gay-rights legislation,” Brown wrote in Off Our Backsin 1995, but “as a separatist, I recognize marriage as an institution created by men in order to control wimmin, children, and female sexuality.” Marriage and every other invention of civil society are tools of political repression, she argued, so why fight for them? Instead, she urged lesbians to direct their collective energy into building and strengthening “wimmin-only zones.”

The history of the gay-rights movement, however, is populated not by the few who opted out of the system, but by the many who grappled with it. Here’s a short, abridged version of their story here in Maryland, compiled from interviews, contemporary news accounts, and legal sources.

The 1970s

The 1969 New York City police raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn is credited with inspiring the national gay-rights movement, but the higher profile also brought more hostility. “Despite the excellent work being done by gay activists around the world,” writer Alan Payne mused in a 1980 City Paper essay titled “Gay Gloom,” “I look around me at the general community and realize that 15 years ago gays were pitied and now . . . we are hated.” While the young movement managed to elbow its way into the national civil-rights discussion and gain broader acceptance in the 1970s, its opposition fought back hard.

Evidence of the new tolerance–and the strident opposition–mounted throughout the decade. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, which had classified homosexuality as a mental illness, recommended the stigma be lifted; in 1975, the American Medical Association urged that sodomy laws be repealed. Many churches were taken aback by the outburst of open-mindedness; in 1976, the Vatican was moved to remind the Catholic world that homosexuality is a “serious depravity” that “can in no way be approved of.”

Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, and Detroit passed laws extending civil-rights protections to gays. But the sunset of Jimmy Carter’s term as president loomed without passage of a federal gay civil-rights bill–an unfulfilled promise he’d made in his 1976 campaign. In a moment that demonstrated the intensity of emotions the gay-rights cause could inspire, San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, and its openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, were gunned down in 1978 by Dan White, Milk’s anti-gay predecessor. Still, a fall 1979 gay-rights march in Washington drew an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people.

In Maryland, though, gay rights lost ground in the 1970s, and leading politicians weren’t shy about openly dismissing the gay agenda. In 1973, reacting to attempts by gay and lesbian couples to marry in Maryland, the Free State became the first in the nation to legally define marriage as only between a man and a woman–what has since come to be known as the Defense of Marriage Act. Democrat Blair Lee, the acting governor from 1977 to ’79, famously announced that he had “more important things to do” than worry about gay rights, while one of the state’s Republican members of Congress, Marjorie Holt, quipped, “That’s stupid,” to the suggestion that feminists should support gay rights. Meanwhile, religious arguments against repealing the state’s sodomy law won out regularly in Annapolis.

In the city, the gay movement since the 1960s had revolved around the Baltimore Gay Alliance, the progenitor of today’s Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB). And the alliance’s main political thespian was Harvey Schwartz, a woolly, streetwise activist who was as quick with a witty comeback as he was with raising a crowd for a rally.

“Harvey was a 24-hour-a-day queer,” recalls Pat Moran, a local TV and movie casting director with longstanding ties to the gay community. “It was always, ‘Here comes Harvey with another sign.’ And the Sunpapers, every time there was a gay issue to cover, they always called only Harvey. You’d have thought they could have found three other gays to talk to somewhere in town.”

Part of the problem, Moran speculates, was that so many gay people were in the closet. “Schoolteachers had it the worst, but it was everybody,” she recalls. “They’d lose their jobs if they showed up at a party with their actual partners, so they’d have a woman come with them–the beard syndrome was rife. People couldn’t be themselves.”

But some local gays were willing to be vocal and out-front. “We were young, crazy activists,” remembers Louis Hughes, now retired after decades of involvement in the local gay movement, though he still volunteers here and there. “We would meet in peoples’ apartments, their basements, and form various splinter groups. That’s where the Chase-Brexton clinic came from, and what’s now called Gay Life newspaper. And we had the first Gay Pride Festival on 31st Street in Waverly, before it moved to Wyman Park.” (It’s now held in Druid Hill Park.)

“Other than Harvey, there were myself and Paulette Young, an African-American lesbian who was the Baltimore Gay Alliance’s first president, and many others,” Hughes says. “We would go down to Annapolis, starting in the 1970s, to get gay-rights legislation passed in Annapolis, but it always went nowhere.”

The gay and lesbian community’s hopes for a gay civil-rights law in Baltimore were backed by members the city’s Community Relations Commission, whose chair, Antonya Keane, began feeling out then-mayor William Donald Schaefer for possible support. She found none; Schaefer “didn’t commit himself either way,” Keane told CP in 1978. But support was gelling among four sympathetic members of the City Council–Mary Pat Clarke, Wally Orlinsky, Victorine Adams, and Thomas Waxter. After returning from the 1979 march on Washington, Schwartz and the Baltimore Gay Alliance kept the momentum going with a rally at the Inner Harbor.

Area college campuses stirred with gay controversy, too. The Towson State University Student Government Association in 1978 denied a gay student group’s $84 budget because of “moral qualms” over the criminality of its members’ presumed sexual behavior. At the University of Maryland, in College Park, on the other hand, the SGA backed gay-friendly amendments to the university code. And at Johns Hopkins University, the Gay Caucus president boldly told CP that “if a campus doesn’t have a faggot group, it’s nowhere.”

The 1980s

The era of Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 proclaimed that he would “resist the efforts of some to obtain government endorsement of homosexuality,” offered an unfriendly political climate for gays and lesbians, and it coincided with the dawn of HIV/AIDS. The disease was quickly recognized as spreading fastest among gay males, a fact that contributed to a what many saw as a rise in homophobia.

“There are a large number of people who are afraid of homosexuals,” Baltimore psychotherapist Ernestine Maben told City Paper in 1983. “Have always been. But more so [recently] because of AIDS.” Five years later, The New York Times reported about a “hostile world” for gays, citing a study by Baltimore psychiatrist Kenneth Morgen, who found that 16 percent of gays in Baltimore had been harassed or assaulted at least once by someone who mentioned AIDS. “This is a crime that is coming out of the closet,” Morgen told the Times.

AIDS, meanwhile, took its toll on the burgeoning gay-rights movement. “It was quite a blow,” Hughes says. “We lost people early on from AIDS, so they could no longer be there to be activists. We had to raise a new generation.” In particular, he remembers Eddie King, who was involved in the Health Education Resource Center and helped build bridges between local AIDS sufferers and groups such as the Urban League before he died in the mid-’80s.

The ’80s also brought unavoidable recognition that gays and lesbians are ubiquitous–a message that was delivered with keen irony in 1980 when Congressman Bob Bauman, a conservative Eastern Shore Republican and a vocal foe of gays, was charged with soliciting a 16-year-old male for sex. Harvey Schwartz gleefully joked to CP at the time that the Bauman case did “more for [gay] liberation” than activism.

The inadvertent outing was followed in 1983 by another: Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds (D), facing a congressional reprimand for a sexual relationship a decade earlier with a teenage male, admitted he was homosexual. Not since the 1972 death of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who left much of his estate to his lifelong male companion, had so many in the country wink-winked so heartily. Actor Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS further ushered in a growing realization in mainstream America that gays and lesbians were more a part of society’s fabric than a threat to it.

By 1983, Bauman had transformed himself into a gay advocate, telling The Washington Post that gay civil rights “is a concept whose time has come. I don’t think it is politically damaging to the right or the left to support that.” Still, while gay-friendly laws came to pass in Maryland and around the country, so did setbacks.

Baltimore City’s gay and lesbian civil-rights bill was introduced first in 1980, then in 1984, and finally in 1988 before it passed. “It helped when Kurt Schmoke became mayor and Mary Pat [Clarke] became City Council president” in 1988, says Tony Ambridge. The local real-estate developer is a former City Council member who was the measure’s chief sponsor in ’84 and ’88.

When he first put the bill before the City Council in 1984, Ambridge recalls, “Schaefer was not happy with it, and neither were many of my colleagues on the council. Waxter and Kweisi Mfume, I remember, were with me. Other than that, though, people weren’t happy.

“Remember, I’d only been in there maybe three months, and then this?” Ambridge continues. “Schaefer just didn’t think it was germane that they were a special class of people. And I said, ‘But that’s the whole point. They’re not a special class of people. They’re another group of people who need the same protections from discrimination as everyone else.’

“I bet we had 200 people at the hearings each time. People don’t remember now how vociferous the opposition could be–it was the only time in my life that I saw Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and born-again Christians at the same table on the same issue.”

John Hannay, now a public-health consultant in Columbia, lobbied hard in support of the city’s 1988 gay-rights bill. He has similar memories. “The key was that a large number of people involved in nongay and nonlesbian groups came to support it, like community groups and other human-rights groups,” Hannay says. “An important one was the NAACP, which had shown some hesitancy until then because they didn’t want to offend one of their strong bases of support–a number of African-American clergy who were conservative on this issue.” And, he adds, winning the neutrality of the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, whose Archbishop William Borders had previously lobbied against the bill, didn’t hurt either.

A good portion of the opposition was cultural rather than religious. In the middle of the 1980 City Council battle over gay rights, for instance, then-councilman Joseph P. Murphy told CP the bill was “a joke,” and that machinists and factory workers he knows told him they would deliberately mistrain gay co-workers so they would be injured in industrial accidents.

Ambridge recalls that, during the 1988 wrangling over the bill, Councilman Mimi DiPietro–the voice of Southeast Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods–was told by a CP reporter that one in 10 people are gay. “He looked around and started counting out the people around him,” Ambridge says. “‘One, two, three . . . ,’ on up to 10. And then asks them, ‘OK, so which one of you’s guys is gay?” DiPietro echoed a common blue-collar belief about the bill: “If you open the door to gays in Baltimore,” he told The Sun, “they’ll come from everywhere.”

Moran recalls DiPietro’s ilk with scorn. “Those people were buffoons,” she says. “They didn’t recognize that gay people are everywhere–everywhere–and they always have been.”

Early on in the fight for the city’s gay-rights ordinance, in 1983, Harvey Schwartz was booted from his post as head of the Gay Community Center of Baltimore (the early-’80s iteration of the Baltimore Gay Alliance). He explained to CP at the time that it resulted from a split between “streetwise” activists such as himself and “bureaucratic” gays, many of them professionals, who represented an emerging new leadership. By the time the battle over the 1988 bill began, this new generation–which included, among others, Hannay, AIDS activist Gary Lambert, and Curt Decker, who helped lead the city’s Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club–were politely building political bridges across the city and state. To present a united front in pressing for change, the gay and lesbian community also coalesced around a civil-rights group called the Free State Justice Campaign (now named Maryland Equality).

“There were a lot of new folks getting involved, including myself,” Hannay says. “Green faces, relatively inexperienced. We learned a lot.” (A lot of the strategy sessions back then, Hannay recalls, were held in the home offices of architect Stephen Glassman, which were located in what is now City Paper‘s offices at 812 Park Ave.) With a city gay-rights bill gained, a fuller agenda was in the offing–including not only more legislative efforts, but also through the courts and the mayor’s office.

The 1990s

The decade opened with two important 1990 court decisions. Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Kathleen O’Ferrall Friedman, ruling in a custody case involving a lesbian couple’s daughter, found that the woman who hadn’t given birth to the daughter still retained limited custody rights. The decision was innovative, creating new boundaries for the legal concept of parenthood–an important issue for the many gays and lesbians who raise families.

Also in 1990, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided Schochet v. State, ruling that the state’s sodomy and unnatural- and perverted-sex laws could not be applied to consenting heterosexuals. The ruling flew in the face of the appeals court’s own precedents and appeared to deprive gays of equal protection under the law. Nonetheless, until 1998 and 1999, when new court rulings legalized consensual sodomy for everyone, Schochet was used to argue that gay and lesbian parents shouldn’t have child custody because acting on their sexual preferences was a crime, explains Mark Scurti, president of the Gay and Lesbian Bar Association of Maryland.

The effect of these court decisions, and other around the country, was to recognize same-sex couples under family law–a legal shift that fed into another national debate raging throughout the 1990s, and up to the present: same-sex marriage.

A case in Hawaii shuttled around its state courts throughout the decade, turning on the question of whether or not the state’s constitution allowed it to ban gay marriage. The case touched off discussions in legislatures around the country about whether or not to recognize gay marriages allowed in other states. Maryland politicians battled it out, with bills to allow gay marriage in this state going as far as bills not to recognize other states’ gay marriages–nowhere.

Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton–who over the course of his two terms was wishy-washy on gay issues–signed a federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, saying he “has long opposed same-sex marriage.” Maryland’s Democratic U.S. senators, Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, both voted for the measure, disappointing their gay supporters.

The repeatedly defeated statewide gay civil-rights bill also didn’t make it out of the state legislature during the 1990s, despite its endorsement by Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat. He took matters into his own hands upon gaining office in 1995 by ordering the state government to enforce an explicit policy of nondiscrimination against gay and lesbian employees. In 1991 and 1994, meanwhile, the Baltimore City Council rejected domestic partnership proposals that would have established a registry for same-sex or heterosexual nonmarried couples; by signing up and gaining recognition as domestic partners, it was hoped such couples could appeal to their employers to extend benefits to their partners. Mayor Schmoke and several council members–Ambridge, Clarke, and Wilbur “Bill” Cunningham, among them–backed the bill, and in 1993 Schmoke had extended benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. But local clergy came on strong, and got it defeated.

“It was the same reaction from them as to the gay-rights bill,” Ambridge says. “All this biblical rhetoric and irrational fears about pedophiles. I always pointed out that the Bible also says that some people should be stoned to death, and that the studies show that most pedophiles are men going after little girls, not little boys.”

“Schmoke had a task force to study the domestic-partnership registry idea,” Hughes recalls. “And he found that it cost almost nothing. So when the legislature failed to act, he saw it as a no-cost no-brainer to do as an executive order. A lot of positive things came out of the Schmoke administration–especially in terms of how to apply the 1988 law extending protections to gays and lesbians. He set up the complaint and appeals procedures, and made sure it was all well-studied and done properly. It was good to know that city government was on our side.”

The private sector, meanwhile, started to budge on gay issues. In 1999, the same year that Montgomery County followed Baltimore City’s and Takoma Park’s leads in instituting benefits for same-sex partners of its government employees, the Johns Hopkins family of educational, medical, and research institutions–one of Maryland’s largest employers–did the same. The groundwork for that move actually had been laid out 10 years earlier, when the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission brokered a deal with a local company to provide limited job benefits to same-sex partners. But Hopkins’ move was in a whole nother league, and was a harbinger of more progressive corporate decisions to come.

2000 and Onward

Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley enjoyed energetic support from the gay and lesbian community in the 1999 mayoral race, but in December 2000 one of his key appointees got him into trouble. Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano was arrested for disorderly conduct after an outburst of verbal gay-bashing at a Fells Point bar. O’Malley kept Graziano at his post, over the protests of gay activists, after ordering him to enter alcohol treatment and sensitivity training. Promises of regular meetings between gay leaders and the mayor, along with discussions of appointing gays and lesbians to administration jobs, repaired the rift–as did O’Malley’s June 2001 announcement that a Gay and Lesbian Task Force would be appointed to address activists’ concerns. As an added bonus, the City Council passed and O’Malley signed a bill in December 2002 extending civil-rights protections to the city’s transgendered population.

On the statewide front, Glendening and gay and lesbian lobbyists finally negotiated a gay civil-rights bill into law in 2001.

“I was there the day when Glendening came in as a citizen to testify,” Hughes remembers. “And then the bill passed–it was a real shock. His testimony was very effective in getting people to understand gay rights affected everybody.” (Glendening’s late brother Bruce, an Air Force veteran, died of AIDS in 1988 after keeping his homosexuality hidden during his 19-year military career.)

The bill even garnered the “yes” vote of conservative Cecil County Democratic Sen. Walter Baker (since ousted at the polls), who a decade earlier had remarked that gays and lesbians are “sick” and “messed up sexually,” and suggested that property owners should be allowed to discriminate against them.

Plenty of opposition to gay rights still existed, though. In fact, the state bill’s passage spurred anti-gay forces to form a political campaign committee called Take Back Maryland, which organized grass-roots support for putting the new law up for a referendum on the 2002 ballot. Their efforts to get the referendum on the ballot fell short, and the law stands.

At the beginning of the 2002 legislative session, longtime Democratic state Del. Maggie McIntosh, of Baltimore City, came out–the first Maryland legislator to do so. Since then, Montgomery County voters elected in 2002 an openly gay delegate, Richard Madaleno, and another delegate, Ann Kaiser, came out as a lesbian while giving testimony in support of a statewide domestic-partner registry during the 2004 session in Annapolis.

Kaiser says her decision to announce her same-sex preference in such a public forum helps push society’s evolution toward more acceptance of gays and lesbians. “The face of gay America is very much the same as the rest of America,” she says, “and people are learning that.”

The past General Assembly session hosted more than Kaiser’s surprise. It was a replay of the gay-issue gridlock of the 1990s, with religiously motivated anti-gay-rights measures competing for attention and support with pro-gay-rights bills. Thus, while gay activists sought approval of a bill to allow same-sex couples to make medical decisions for one another, and another to add gays and lesbians to the list of minorities protected under the state’s hate-crime laws, they had to work to kill two separate bills that would have made it illegal for Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

“There’s not enough support either to ban or approve same-sex marriage right now,” Kaiser observes. But she believes that will change with time. “I’m convinced to my core that we will move in the direction of gay marriage and civil unions. Unfortunately, it might be in another generation that that happens, because what seems shocking in one generation seems acceptable in the next. But we’ve already come a long way.”

“As far as I’m concerned, people should be flipping out that they aren’t allowed to be married,” an exasperated Pat Moran exclaims. “I mean, if I was tormented by health-care workers and insurance people right on down, as gays so often are, and if I lived with someone for 20 years who died and I had no rights to anything, I’d be ready to tear some buildings down. One out of two straight marriages end in divorce, so where do they get off telling anyone what to do? I say it’s time not to be polite about going after the rights they’re due.”

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