News & Community

The Evolution of Baltimore’s Pride Festival

As Pride prepares to celebrate its 40th year, we look back at the local LGBT celebration.

On the heels of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the nation, the local LGBT community is gearing up for the 40th anniversary of Baltimore Pride.

This year’s festivities—July 25-26—will feature thousands of attendees at the Pride parade, live performances at Saturday’s Block Party in Mt. Vernon, and spectators perusing local vendors at Sunday’s festival in Druid Hill Park.

But long before organizers were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and bringing in the likes of Grammy-nominated R&B artist Martha Wash (“It’s Raining Men”) to perform at the two-day event, Pride started out as a small rally at Charles Plaza in 1975.

“It was more of a political thing back then, because it was during those times that you could have gotten fired for being gay,” says Gilbert Morrisette, longtime director of operations for Mt. Vernon’s stalwart gay bar, Club Hippo. “It was really nothing, just a little gathering with a few people handing out pamphlets and hot dogs.”

With Morrisette and his close friend Dennis Arnold at the helm during the early ’90s, Pride expanded into a weekend-long bash with a block party boasting a beer garden, a Bingo tent, drinking games, and two main stages. The festival saw a major increase in revenue the first year the duo took charge—raking in approximately $12,000.

“In previous years, they probably made like 100 bucks, so, of course, they came back to us and said, ‘Do you want to do it again?’” Morrisette says.

Over the years, Baltimore Pride had found a permanent home in Mt. Vernon and Druid Hill Park, until last summer when a new wave of committee members moved the festivities to Station North as a result of residential complaints.

“[Pride] doesn’t serve the purpose that it once did because we’ve won these battles,” Morrisette says. “In a way, we’re a victim of our own success, and over the years as it’s gotten bigger and bigger, people who had nothing to do with the event would just park their cars in the neighborhood and drink, and the block party began to get too big.”

Nevertheless, Pride has moved back to its emblematic venue this year after complaints that spaces in Station North were too crowded and that Mt. Vernon, the city’s “Gayborhood,” felt more like a natural fit.

Upwards of 25,000 people are estimated to participate in the festivities at the end of July, generating close to $1 million for the community. Events will include everything from rainbow-colored parade floats to high heel races, and feature live performances by rapper Cazwell, YouTube sensation T.S. Madison, and the legendary soul singer Wash.

This time around, organizers decided to hold the events the last weekend of July (instead of in June) to decrease sponsorship competition with celebrations in neighboring cities, like New York and Washington D.C.

“Sponsorships are where you really make your money, you don’t make it selling beer,” Morrisette says. “That’s your handout, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Speaking of saying goodbye, Mt. Vernon is bidding a fond farewell to Club Hippo, the iconic mainstay that has been around since Pride began. In May, owner Chuck Bowers made the announcement that the Hippo would be closing its doors in the fall to become a CVS Pharmacy.

“It’s not like the business isn’t there, it’s not like we can’t afford to stay open. It’s just that Chuck is 70 years old and he’s had to work for 37 years. I don’t blame him,” says Morrisette. “The outpouring of support has been overwhelming.”

Looking back, Morrisette says some of his fondest memories of managing the space include hosting iconic performers like Debbie Jacobs and Gloria Gaynor, and, of course, being a part of the annual Pride festival.

“It’s always surprised me, with Baltimore being so blue collar, how advanced our LGBT community has been,” he says. “And Pride is such a neat touch for the city.”

For more information on Club Hippo’s closure, pick up a copy of our July issue on newsstands now.