Like many other Baltimore residents, members of the LGBT community were stunned by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s announcement on Sept. 11 that she would not seek re-election next year. The news follows months of turmoil in the city in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray and a subsequent spike in violent crime.
The mayor’s handling of the crisis has been widely criticized as was her decision to pay $6.4 million as a settlement to Freddie Gray’s family a month before the trials of the six police officers accused in his death. As these developments were unfolding, the field of candidates seeking to defeat her in 2016 was growing.
“It was a very difficult decision but I knew I needed to spend time, the remaining 15 months of my term, focused on the city’s future and not my own,” Rawlings-Blake, 45, said at a City Hall news conference. “The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions I make moving forward at a time when the city needs me the most to be questioned in the context of a political campaign.”
Rawlings-Blake took office as mayor in 2010 and prior to that as a City Council member, she had endeared herself to LGBT residents in Baltimore. From marching in Baltimore’s Pride parade each year, to being the first mayor to host a Transgender Day of Remembrance at City Hall, Rawlings-Blake made her mark on the community.
She was a staunch supporter of marriage equality and spoke openly on its behalf when other elected officials were reticent. Rawlings-Blake 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.
When 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—in the same room in which she made her announcement not to run—where several other gay and lesbian couples also tied the knot.
“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.”
Rawlings-Blake demonstrated her support in other ways. She established an LGBT liaison who reports directly to her. That person also sits on the LGBT Police Advisory Council that was created by former Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.
Rawlings-Blake traditionally celebrated her birthdays by playing bingo at the Club Hippo, Maryland’s largest gay bar. She recently honored the Hippo’s owner by re-naming the intersection where the bar is located “Chuck Bowers Way.” The bar is due to close by the end of the year.
The city and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) have worked closely together especially in coordinating the annual Pride celebrations.
“The GLCCB has always enjoyed a great working relationship with Mayor Rawlings-Blake,” Paul Liller, acting executive director of the GLCCB, told the Blade. “She has been not only an LGBT advocate but a friend and member of our extended family. We wish her and her family the best of luck as she moves forward to new and exciting things, and look forward to continuing the work we are already doing during the rest of her term as mayor.”
Rawlings-Blake said in 2013: “I want to applaud the LGBT community for their perseverance and strength to withstand the challenges they face on a daily basis. The LGBT community inspires and gives me hope that our society can overcome fear and bigotry with love, compassion and understanding. Continue to be the beacon of strength. Together, we are strong. Apart we are weak. I know at the end of the rainbow, there is something more valuable than gold and that is love.”