Now Reading
Why John Waters’ zany Baltimore is an overlooked East Coast LGBTI gem

Why John Waters’ zany Baltimore is an overlooked East Coast LGBTI gem

A drag queen marching at Baltimore Pride Parade 2016

Often overlooked as a tourist destination, the city that gave the world John Waters – and, of course, the film Hairspray – is certainly making up for lost time in the welcoming stakes.

Recently dubbed the ‘Coolest City on the East Coast’ and one of the most exciting food cities, Baltimore has experienced one of the largest millennial booms in the nation

Susannah Siger, owner of Ma Petite Shoe, a shoes and chocolate shop, said its appeal is simple: ‘Because of our unique geography we have a down-home friendliness of the South, coupled with an urban cosmopolitan aesthetic from the North.’

‘Baltimore’s harbor has acted as a hub for commerce and as the second largest port for European immigration, after New York’s Ellis Island.

‘We have a vibrant downtown with a historic Inner Harbor. Plus many fun, small neighborhoods surrounding the harbor that were greatly influenced by the immigrant communities. To name a few, Little Italy, Greektown, and Hampden.’

A mother and her daughter shopping in Hampden, Baltimore
Shopping in colorful Hampden | Photo: Ben Goodwin

One of the oldest Pride festivals in the US

This rich tapestry of history and culture clearly extends to the LGBTI community too, with Baltimore boasting one of the’ oldest Pride festivals in the country; growing from a small rally of a dozen activists in 1975 to attracting more than 30,000 revelers today. The LGBTI extravaganza returns this weekend, from 16-17 June.

‘There’s a culture we share here of helping one another and sticking together,’ said Michael Furr, a comedian, show producer and emcee of the Baltimore Pride Parade.

Baltimore Pride Parade in 2016 | Photo: Courtesy of Visit Baltimore

‘Artists and performers are supportive of each other and not petty or jealous of each other’s success.

‘There’s a sense of camaraderie. LGBT and queer artists, activists and professionals alike all seem to have each other’s backs. They work together within their fields. That’s not something I necessarily experience in a lot of other cities.’

Mount Vernon, the heart of the LGBTI local businesses

In the heart of the city, the Mount Vernon neighborhood is the center of Baltimore’s LGBTI community.

Numerous LGBTI-owned businesses and organizations are located along Charles Street. It’s found north of the Washington Monument. A walk from the Inner Harbor will immerse you in the city’s charming blocks of historic homes and shops along the way.

The Washington monument in Mt Vernon neighborhood
The Washington Monument in the distance in Mt Vernon neighborhood | Photo: Visit Baltimore

Carlton Ray Smith is the founder of the Center for Black Equity in Baltimore and chairman of the Greater Baltimore HIV Health Services Planning Council (GBHHSPC). A resident in Mount Vernon for 26 years, he described it as ‘beautiful and colorful’ no matter what the season. He also spoke enthusiastically about its 19th-century mansions, arts, and cultural landmarks, as well as its vibrant cafe culture.

‘One should have dinner with friends at City Cafe. On Friday nights the best house music is at Club Bunns, where you can listen to legendary Tommy Davis banging out those beats.’

Meanwhile, Susannah recommends Rocket to Venus for its hipster vibe and infamous weekend brunch. ‘Plus, Harmony Bakery is a go-to for vegan and gluten-free delights. My favorite is their turmeric infused drink called Golden Milk. Also they make these delightful orb snacks made of carob, coconut and an assortment of delicious ingredients. Magical!’

Leave a note for John Waters

And for those who want to experience John Waters’ Baltimore, head to The Avenue along 36th Street in the Hampden neighborhood. This is where Hairspray was filmed.

It’s also where Cafe Hon still epitomizes the director’s kitschy vision for his hometown. You can also leave a note for him at Atomic Books, his official fan mailbox, and pick up a – possibly signed – copy of one of his novels!

Patrons at legendary Cafe Hon
The legendary Cafe Hon during HonFest | Photo: Jan Exler

Regardless, Michael says it’s not hard to uncover Waters’ Baltimore. ‘Find a great dive bar and belly up to it. Strike up a conversation with some colorful and interesting locals,’ he says.

Fundraiser for the LGBTI community

Aside from events such as Pet Pride, Family Pride, Elder Pride, the High Heel Race and the Parade itself, Baltimore Pride acts as the largest fundraiser for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Centre of Baltimore (GLCCB). It was established in 1977 to unite and empower sexual and gender minorities (SGM) in Baltimore and Maryland. The GLCCB uses all proceeds generated from Baltimore Pride to help over 800 SGM individuals each month.

In a city where ‘hon’ is a well-known term of endearment for locals and visitors alike. Thus, it’s easy to see why Baltimore deserves its time in the spotlight as a solid destination for LGBTI travelers.

‘Shopping and people watching in Hampden is the best,’ said Susannah. ‘There are numerous queer-owned shops including SugarThe Parisian FleaHampden JunqueAndamento Studio & GalleryBazaar, and of course, Ma Petite Shoe!’

Meanwhile, for those attending Baltimore Pride this year, Carlton has this advice: ‘Be authentic and share the love!’

More from Gay Star News

Camp John Waters for adults is a real thing and heading to Connecticut this Sept

9 reasons John Waters is an icon of queer culture

Ailing John Waters missed his own holiday party