December 6, 2016 at 6:14 pm EDT | by Steve Charing
Baltimore’s new mayor an ally like Rawlings-Blake
Catherine Pugh, gay news, Washington Blade

Catherine Pugh was sworn in as Baltimore mayor on Tuesday. (Washington Blade photo by Steve Charing)

Catherine Pugh was sworn in as Baltimore’s 50th mayor on Tuesday succeeding Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and an abundance of challenges await. For the LGBT community, such thorny matters include the high rates of HIV/AIDS among predominantly African-American same gender loving men, the safety of the transgender population and homelessness among young LGBT people.

While these problems still need to be resolved, some other LGBT issues were addressed during the Rawlings-Blake administration. The former mayor’s nearly seven-year tenure was marked by her unwavering support for LGBT rights and her unprecedented engagement with the LGBT community.

Rawlings-Blake took office as mayor in 2010, and prior to that as a City Council member, she endeared herself to LGBT residents in and around Baltimore. From marching in Baltimore’s Pride parade each year, to being the first to host a Transgender Day of Remembrance at City Hall, Rawlings-Blake made her mark in the community.

Always comfortable around LGBT people, she traditionally celebrated her birthdays by playing bingo at the Club Hippo, prior to its closing in 2015. The mayor honored the Hippo’s owner by re-naming the intersection where the bar was located “Chuck Bowers Way.”

Rawlings-Blake was a staunch supporter of marriage equality and spoke openly on its behalf when other elected officials were reticent. She appeared at fundraisers during 2012 to help finance the effort to defeat the ballot initiative that would have overturned the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in March of that year.

As same-sex marriage ultimately became legal on Jan. 1, 2013, Rawlings-Blake officiated the first such ceremony in Maryland at the stroke of midnight at City Hall where a staffer Jim Scales married his longtime partner Bill Tasker. Several other gay and lesbian couples also tied the knot on that historic night.

“Words cannot express my feelings. I was beyond elated to officiate the city’s first official same-sex marriages at midnight on New Year’s Day in City Hall,” said Rawlings-Blake in an interview in 2013. “It was beautiful, amazing, loving, and gave me a sense of pride knowing that same-sex couples, including one of my staff members and his significant other, were able to be married legally. It was an historic moment in my career that I will always cherish.”

During the Pride celebration six months later, Rawlings-Blake performed a mass wedding ceremony at Druid Hill Park in which 20 same-sex couples were married in front of hundreds of cheering witnesses.

“The concept of civil rights for all was instilled in me from a very young age,” she said.  “It is an innate part of me and has made me the person who I am today. It was and still is, a part of my family’s belief system. If any person’s rights are being denied based on race, creed, ethnicity, gender identification and expression, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religious beliefs, or national origins, then it affects all of us.”

Advocates of marriage equality appreciated the efforts of Rawlings-Blake during the referendum battle but noted her commitment to the cause was evident even before. “The mayor was an early and unequivocal supporter of marriage equality,” Carrie Evans, former executive director of Equality Maryland, told the Blade. “In 2008, as Council president, she helped shepherd through a resolution from the City Council in support of the state bill. The LGBT community is fortunate to have her as a fierce ally.”

Additionally, Rawlings-Blake established an LGBT liaison who reported directly to her. The last individual who held that role was a staff member Demetrius Mallisham, a popular figure in Baltimore’s LGBT community, who died earlier this year.  Six months prior to his death, Mallisham said of Rawlings-Blake, “Working for Madame Mayor is a blessing that I don’t take for granted. She makes my job easy by being a true ally to the LGBTQ community.”

Another LGBT individual who was highly visible in her administration was Anthony McCarthy. He worked for several mayors and was Rawlings-Blake’s director of communications. He will continue in that role for Mayor Pugh.

For LGBT rights advocates there should be reason to be optimistic as Mayor Pugh assumes office. While a state senator, Pugh co-sponsored the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. Considered an ally, she also led the efforts to include group life insurance policies for domestic partners.

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