When Charles Bowers opened Club Hippo in 1972, his goal was to create a space that was welcoming to everyone—a “home,” he once told us, “for every man, woman, white, African-American, whatever, to come here, feel safe, feel wanted, have a great time, and come back another day.”
Fast forward a few years, and Bowers did exactly that, not just in turning his gay nightclub into a Baltimore institution on North Charles Street, but also transforming the surrounding neighborhood into the LGBTQ community hub. Before long, the “gayborhood,” anchored the most popular gay bars, housed the headquarters for the GLCCB community center, and hosted the city’s first Pride rally in 1975.
“Mt. Vernon was the gay mecca—a safe zone to meet people before the internet and dating apps,” says Don Davis, owner of Grand Central. “But through the years, crime and taxes have forced a lot of the neighborhood out. And the scene has changed.”
Within the last few years, that shift has accelerated as touchstones like the Hippo and the Baltimore Eagle leather bar have closed, and Grand Central is now for sale. But as gay culture has gone more mainstream, a new generation has found their footing elsewhere, with LGBTQ-owned and friendly establishments and events popping up across the city.
And as the community has spread out, it has also diversified (the “gayborhood” had largely been a haven for white men). Dance parties with a fresh focus on queer people of color, like DJ Trillnatured’s Version and GRL PWR’s Sweat!, have become new mainstays, while arts venues like The Crown, Metro Gallery, and Creative Alliance continue to offer more inclusive programming.
Drag has played a role, as well, with brunches and bingos from Fells Point to South Baltimore (see below). “We go where our community needs us to be,” says Lynora Lawless, spokesperson for the GLCCB, now located in Old Goucher. “I just see it as us expanding, and not just in Mt. Vernon. There is no longer one particular place that is the queer central. Eventually you will be able to find a queer space in every neighborhood. . . . Baltimore’s charm relies in that unique blend, that there is a place here for everyone.”