Carl Patrick “Charles” Hughes, a founding member of the Baltimore Gay Alliance and Gay Community Center of Baltimore, died March 7th in his Charles Village home of 53 years. He was 78 and had been diagnosed with an inoperable aneurysm after suffering a heart attack in October. The aneurysm was the likely cause of his death.
Cover image: Charles (right) and Scott Emmons at gay pride in New York in the 1970s
Charles, also known as Buster, was born in Palm Beach, Florida, but lived most of his life in Baltimore City. He was the son of Joseph Hughes, a steelworker, and Florita Zadany, a bookkeeper. He grew up in Waverly, not far from his Abell Avenue home.
Charles Hughes, early gay activist, streetcar fan, has died
Charles “came out” as gay in the late 1960s and was an enthusiastic participant in Baltimore’s underground gay scene of that era. He was a frequent patron of Leon’s and other now long-closed gay bars and attended many of the mostly hidden after-hours parties and other events that comprised Baltimore’s gay social life.
“Coming out” in the 1960s did not have the meaning it does today. Few people were “out” at work or to family and friends. There were no openly gay doctors, lawyers, steelworkers or politicians, no gay organization or churches, no out parents. Gay people had no visibility, no job protections, no political or social support. Homosexuality was labeled a disease and to be identified as gay could lead to loss of job, family rejection, and even violence. Finding gay bars and gathering places was by word-of-mouth or a few gay guide books sold in porn stores. It was in this atmosphere that Charles “came out,” which meant he knew he was gay, accepted it without any reservation or regret, and happily joined the hidden network of like-minded people who were determined to live positive and joyful lives despite severe societal repression. Although being gay did not define him and he had many interests, Charles was always a proud gay man.
The 1960s was also a time of political and social unrest brought on by the overt white supremacist Jim Crow laws and the Vietnam war. Charles was not a vocal activist but attended demonstrations against the war and he had an affinity for Baltimore’s counterculture. The home he shared with Jim Becker was communal, if not a commune.
In 1975 Charles joined other gay men and lesbians to found the Baltimore Gay Alliance, one of Baltimore’s early successful gay rights groups. He was also a founder in 1977 of the Gay Community Center of Baltimore, now known as the Pride Center of Maryland. He documented many of the early events of the emerging Baltimore gay rights movement with his always-ready camera. In 2015, his slides of those events were shown at the 40th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Baltimore Gay Alliance.
Paulette Young, the first president of the BGA and the Community Center, reflected on Charles’s low key but significant contributions: “Charles was always the silent but very active member of our group. I’ll always remember his smile as we went about in those days of physically building and enthusiastically working within the earliest days of the movement. He was a good friend, humorous, and because of his charming personality made our struggle a little more bearable as he marched alongside us.”
Harvey Schwartz, the first executive director of the Community Center said, “Charles was around when we opened the Chase Street Center and with his knowledge of restoration and fixing things, he must have been all over the building making repairs and showing volunteers how to do it. I remember him thinking nothing of riding the number 3 bus home at 4 am with $1,000 in cash that needed safe-keeping from a late-night after-hours fundraiser.”
Joe Stewart, another lifelong gay activist, founder of Maryland Swim for Life, and friend who participated with Charles in a dinner sharing coop in the early 1980s, remember Charles as “a gentle giant who was always delightful to be around.” John Love, BGA’s lawyer and a former president of the Community Center now living in France said, “Charles never did toot his own horn but was always humble and never a braggart of his quite substantial accomplishments. He was such a special person and he certainly will be missed.”
The Gay Switchboard, started by BGA in 1975, was in Charles’s home and served as an important lifeline to people needing information or someone to talk to at a time of continued invisibility and isolation. It operated with volunteers from 6 pm to midnight seven days a week, but Charles often answered it at other times when he was home. Rob Lance came out and became an activist in part due to Charles and the Switchboard. “The first and only time I called the BGA help line, Charles answered,” Rob recalled on learning of Charles’ death. “I was desperate and didn’t know which way to turn as I dissolved a marriage and struggled to come out. Charles’s distinct voice and way of speaking calmed me. He had no advice other than encouraging me to come to a BGA meeting. I did that and got the support I needed. Forty-eight years later, I can still hear his voice.”
Charles graduated from Baltimore City College High School in 1966 and began working as assistant manager in the drug department of the E.J. Korvette’s department store in the Perring Plaza shopping center. After Korvette’s closed, he worked for many years as a self-employed and self-taught handyman doing electrical work, plumbing, painting, and other jobs. He had a loyal customer base because he was reliable, everything was done with precision, and he was very reasonable. Although he was quiet and unassuming, Ann Gordon, a friend of many years who frequently employed Charles, said, “he was one of the best conversationalists I ever met.”
Charles’s gay activism, while important, was only a small part of his life. He had a lifelong love of streetcars and trains, was a founding member of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, served as its restoration chief, and devoted much of his life to its mission of preserving the vintage streetcars that once travelled the streets of Baltimore. “Buster was in the restoration shop just about every day. He spent hours and hours there. Anything at the museum that needed to be done, Buster was there with his screwdriver,” said John J. O’Neill, the museum’s president. Christopher M. McNally, a friend and member of the museum, said in a Facebook post the day after his death, “Buster was one of the most truly gifted and talented carpenters, painters, and restorers of our precious collection of vintage streetcars at the museum …. There is not a car at the museum that doesn’t have a mark of his expert hand. He was instrumental in leading the restoration of virtually every streetcar at BSM going back to the early days. Buster was also a kind soul – unassuming, humble, hard-working, and methodical. He was wickedly funny and had a dry, hilarious sense of humor. He did not seek any recognition for any of his incredible accomplishments.”
Charles’s love of the old did not end with streetcars and included streetlights, vintage light bulbs, Benjamin cluster light fixtures, vintage traffic signals, and lanterns. One of the first things he did when he moved in to his Abell Avenue house in August of 1970 was to remove the “modern” light switches and replace them with old push-button switches. He installed combination electric / gas light fixtures like those that came with the house when it was built.
Charles was especially proud of his collection of 1930s to 1950s area Christmas bubble lights and vintage Christmas ornaments. He took meticulous care of the bubble lights, repaired them when they burned out, and displayed them on his lovingly trimmed Christmas trees. Dr. Hugh Francis Hicks, who at the time of his death in 2002 was believed to possess the largest collection of vintage light bulbs in the world, said that one of Charles’s Christmas trees had lights on it worth more than $10,000. Charles was unfazed; he cared not a whit about their monetary value. Collecting and preserving old bubble lights was a labor of love that gave him great joy. His friend and fellow collector, Scott Netro, described his Christmas trees as “magnificent” and perfect 1930s re-creations. To Charles, that was all the reward he wanted.
Charles is survived by a boyfriend of many years, Danny Cohen of Maine, two sisters, Jenny Reeber of Rome, Georgia, and April Prachniak of Dundalk, and nieces and nephews. A celebration of his life was held on Saturday, April 15th at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. The family suggests that donations in his honor may be made to the museum (donation link).