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Gay Back When

Asking About--and Telling--Baltimore's Homosexual History

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/15/2000

Gay and lesbian Baltimoreans have their own four-story community center, their own publications, and their own out-in-the-open social clubs and nightspots. Indeed, City Paper's weekly calendar has separate listings for gay and lesbian bars, clubs, and events. And outspoken community advocates lobby for gay rights everywhere from City Hall to the State House to the Capitol.

Such are the conditions in the year 2000. But what was like to be a gay man in Baltimore in 1940? Where did local lesbians meet in 1950? What was it like to grapple with sexual-identity issues back when Eisenhower was in the White House and Father Knows Best was on television?

The Preserve Our History project, launched by Michael Linnemann and Carole Wiedorfer, is designed to answer these questions. Their goal is to compile a comprehensive history of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Maryland.

Linnemann, coordinator of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB), says the project was born three years ago during the center's 20th-anniversary festivities. An open house at the GLCCB was attended by founders of the Baltimore Gay Alliance, one of the city's earliest gay-advocacy groups, dating to the 1960s.

"We recognized that a lot of people were no longer with us," Linnemann says. "And there were people there we didn't know who were telling all these stories. We just realized we were losing our history."

A questionnaire was developed and a handful of senior members of the gay and lesbian community were interviewed on tape, answering questions such as "How accepting was society at the time?" and "Did you experience any violence or harassment?" Some older gays and lesbians, reluctant to speak openly about their sexuality, submitted anonymous autobiographical sketches of their lives.

"We interviewed people who can take us back to the '40s and '50s. The oldest person we've spoken with was in his 80s," Linnemann says. "It's important for future generations to understand where the movement came from. We don't want to take things for granted or make the same mistakes."

The interviewees also provided names of other people for the project to contact. To date more than 50 conversations have been taped, and the project has a list of some 200 other individuals to be interviewed. Progress has been slow--Linnemann laments that he and his colleagues haven't had much time to compile the data (or even transcribe many of the interviews), and the project went on a brief hiatus while Wiedorfer had a baby. Nevertheless, a picture of gay Baltimore is emerging.

"The part I find most interesting is how gays met, because everyone was so in the closet," says the 34-year-old Linnemann, who came out in the '80s "It wasn't as easy as it is now, but there was a gay community and people did know who everyone was."

In the age before openly gay bars existed, certain downtown hotels were known as places for homosexuals to hang out. The Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library was a popular gay meeting place.

"I expected [the interviewees} to say that they were miserable and that this wasn't a fun time," Linnemann says. "But while [homosexuality] was definitely hidden, gay people actually survived, had a decent community, and networks of friends. Some people have even said it was even more fun back then meeting people. . . .

"When people talk about all the places they went to meet," he adds, "we have to assume the police were looking the other way."

Nevertheless, clashes with the law did occur. Many interviewees mentioned the city vice squad's notorious 1955 raid on the Pepper Hill Club, a Gay Street nightclub that was popular with homosexuals. More than 160 people were arrested, and the story--described as the largest nightclub raid in Baltimore history--was splashed across local newspapers. (This was nearly 15 years before the storied Stonewall Inn police raid in New York, generally considered to have touched off the modern gay-rights movement.)

In the 1960s, Baltimore's homosexual community began to emerge in earnest. Gay rights became intertwined with the civil-rights movement of the era. "When the Gay Alliance started, one of biggest [sources of hostility] they encountered wasn't that they were gay and lesbians, but that they were black and white men and women together," Linnemann says.

In addition to the taped oral histories, the project is also collecting physical artifacts from gay Baltimore's earlier days. Linnemann says project workers have received boxes of material--newspaper clippings, magazines, photographs, even vintage T-shirts from the first Gay Pride festivals. "We've yet to go through it all," he says. "Much of the material is from the '70s, and we'd like to find earlier items."

Linnemann figures to work on the project for another two years, and would like to end it by publishing a book on Baltimore's and Maryland's gay history. There has also been talk of videotaping some of the interviews with an eye toward producing a public-access cable program on the project.

Once all the materials are accumulated and analyzed, Linnemann would like to donate them to the Maryland Historical Society or another mainstream institution, rather than have them archived at GLCCB--he wants the project's output considered a legitimate part of Maryland's overall history. But his goals for Preserve Our History don't stop there--he envisions gay-history tours of Baltimore, perhaps a gay-Baltimore trivia game.

"Maybe," Linnemann adds with a laugh, "we can have a Great Gays in Wax Museum."

For more information about Preserve Our History, call GLCCB at (410) 837-5445.

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