Before cell phones, cable TV, the internet, personal computers, playlists, smart phones, Grindr, Xtube, Netflix, Amazon – you name it – people gathered to listen to new record albums, go to discos and bars to dance and drink and socialize and hook up. Community was all about gathering places.
The 1970s was the era of Mary’s, the Hippo, the Masquerade, Leon’s, the Gallery, Club Bunns, Frankie and Ronnie’s, Club Mitchell, the Porthole, the Bullet, the Office, the Club Baths, the Barracks – and in New York City, Studio 54, and the Continental Baths where one Saturday night when I was sitting by the basement pool with a towel round my waist a young Bette Midler sang show tunes for us with Barry Manilow accompanying her on the piano. I had no idea who they were, but the huge, dark, serpentine, alcove-laden steam room and international crowd was a huge draw for me – as well as all of the peep shows along 42nd Street in Times Square that always seemed crowded.
Back in Baltimore we had all-day and night-time pick-up cruise zones around Park and Madison Streets to Read and Cathedral Streets and around Wyman Park across from and around the Art Museum and along Eastern Avenue by Patterson Park and areas in Druid Hill Park and along West 36th Street and the last mile or so of row-house lined Wilkens Avenue and the “Fruit Stand” near Patapsco and Potee along with a thriving “tea room” trade at highway rest stops, universities, and department stores. People were having fun, careers didn’t seem to matter so much. It was a different world! People maybe were not so isolated behind their screens – they only had TV screens with three stations.
Against this backdrop, some of us felt a need to have a place outside of the bars and parks and restrooms to gather with spaces for dances, movies, book signings, and lectures; space for a bookstore; a floor for a health clinic for STD services and counseling; a floor for the Gay Paper and the paper’s offices and production space; offices for our switchboard hotline; and meeting spaces for newly formed groups such as the Gay Married Men’s Association; Black and White Men Together, Dignity for Catholics; groups for lesbians and gay youth; Mishpacha for Jewish gays; Integrity for Protestants; consciousness-raising groups for talking our hearts out amongst our peers; Theater Closet a theater group, and of course, political groups.
At the pre-center crash pad in the basement of 15 West Madison Street, where I and others lived, as well as maybe a 125 key holders who would come and go, monthly calendars of event mailings were assembled for the up to 4,000 people on our mailing list (pre email), and the first issues of the Gay Paper were pasted up and distributed. Finally, after launching the first large-scale fundraising campaign in Baltimore gay community history, we bought a building in Mount Vernon that became the home of the Center for decades. That building filled many needs and gave many members of our community a sense of who we were, where we were, and above all Pride!
The author was the second president and first executive director of the Gay Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland and a driving force behind most of the Center’s early initiatives.