Baltimore has always been an important city for me. My stepdad grew up here, and my family took regular trips here years before I started college at the Peabody Conservatory, a Johns-Hopkins-affiliated music conservatory in the city. In my sophomore year, my mom took a job teaching at a private school here and my parents followed me, though, really, they'd been looking for an excuse to move here since long before I chose a college. Far from the violent cesspool depicted by crime dramas like The Wire, Baltimore is mostly a fun, vibrant and large city with a quirky flavor. While you may or may not agree with the city's motto emblazoned on its benches -- "The Greatest City in America" -- it's hard to visit this place and not concur with Baltimore's other, far more popular nickname: Charm City.
BALTIMORE NEIGHBORHOODS TO KNOW
Mount Vernon: Both Baltimore's main cultural district and the closest thing it has to a "gayborhood." Also this is where my alma mater, Peabody, is so it's the area I know the best. Very scenic: lots of parks, marble buildings and cobblestone streets.
Hampden: A working-class neighborhood that has since been colonized by hipsters without fully losing its roots. The Avenue, the four blocks of 36th Street east of Falls Rd., is Hampden's "main street" where you can find lots of bars and quirky boutiques.
Homewood/Charles Village: The most student-y neighborhood as it's where the main Johns Hopkins campus is. Like most college towns, expect bars and cheap eats.
Station North: Mt. Vernon's edgier northern cousin, centered on Penn Station. Lots of bars and clubs, and underground/indie music venues. Home to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) on one end and the University of Baltimore on the other.
Inner Harbor: The tourist center of Baltimore, the Inner Harbor is dotted with chain restaurants and other attractions for out-of-towners, like the National Aquarium, the USS Constellation and the Harborplace/Gallery mall complex.
Harbor East/Little Italy: Harbor East is kind of swanky, with lots of upscale boutiques and fancy restaurants. Its main landmark is the Katyn Memorial, honoring the Polish generals and intelligentsia killed by Soviet secret police in the Katyn Forest in 1940. Walk a little further east and you'll find the culinary heaven that is Little Italy, where you can also see where Nancy Pelosi grew up.
Fells Point and Federal Hill: The city's two biggest bar scenes. The former is in the southeastern part of the city and is one of its oldest neighborhoods, with buildings dating back to the colonial era and cobblestone streets. The latter, south of the giant hill of the same name, tends to be a favorite home for young marrieds and other affluent but non-student young people (since it's kind of far away from most of the universities).
Roland Park: One of Baltimore's wealthier neighborhoods, it's also home to Loyola University of Maryland. And lots of cute cafes. You'll find more natives (and "Bawlmer" accents) here than you will further downtown.
Baltimore isn't usually thought of as a big city for the arts, and it's certainly no New York or LA in those respects. But it has way, way more going on than you think, especially music-wise:
Let's start with my area of expertise: classical music! If you like it, or even if you don't, really, you should definitely check out The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral Street) at some point. It's one of America's premier institutions of classical music, and its music director, Marin Alsop, is a queer lady. If a symphony concert sounds expensive, don't worry: if you have a student ID with you, you can get $10 "student rush" tickets starting at noon the day of a concert. And it's a fantastic way to impress the ladies! If you're more into having words with your music, the Lyric Opera Baltimore (Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mt. Royal Ave) is the city's main destination for grand opera. Because the Lyric is also used for musicals and big traveling performers, the opera company only does a few productions per season, but it's well worth checking one of them out if you can. If you're on a budget, Baltimore also has countless little chamber opera companies, mostly started by Peabody voice grads; one of my personal favorites is Figaro Project, who in the past have tended to go for contemporary operas (such as one-act operas by Peabody composition students and faculty) and quirky adaptations of traditional fare (like Don Giovanni as a murder mystery). They usually do one big production a year at the University of Baltimore, and a bunch of smaller aria selections concerts at area restaurants.
Peabody just about always has something going on, and while the large ensembles, operas and visiting artists will usually cost you money, most smaller concerts -- like degree or departmental recitals -- are free. Another popular destination for chamber music is An Die Musik (409 North Charles St.), a small, easy-to-miss little venue that also has a good CD store for classical, jazz and world music. An Die Musik is a particularly great place for contemporary classical and early music concerts; for fans of the former, I strongly recommend the Evolution Contemporary Music Series (currently hosting a Kickstarter campaign).
As for non-classical music: Baltimore is renowned nationwide for its indie music scene. Where to go for underground music varies a lot, although generally the bars and clubs in the various central/south Baltimore neighborhoods, especially Station North, are good places to look. There's also the Ottobar (2549 N. Howard St.) a haunt for Hopkins and MICA students that features both local and traveling indie acts. And proving just how eclectic the city's music scene is, there's even a Baltimore Rock Opera Society. The free underground newspaper Baltimore City Paper can keep you constantly updated on the city's music scene. As for where to buy it, check out Fells Point's The Sound Garden (1616 Thames St.), which also has a wide selection if you're into more mainstream rock/pop fare and is just all-around awesome, and Celebrated Summer Records at Hampden's Atomic Books (3620 Falls Rd.). For bigger names, check out the concerts at 1st Mariner Arena (201 W. Baltimore St.) or Merriweather Post Pavilion (10475 Little Patuxent Pky., Columbia).
If the stage is more your thing, Baltimore's two main professional theater companies are CenterStage (700 N. Calvert St.), located in Mt. Vernon, and The Everyman Theatre. Both offer a mix of works by big-name playwrights, old and modern, and those by local talents, including new works. For the truly out-there, though, you'll have to check out Baltimore's underground theater scene in Station North, including the Single Carrot Theatre (120 W. North Ave.) and the women-centered Strand Theater Company (1823 N. Charles St.). As for touring Broadway productions, you'll find most of those at the aforementioned Lyric Opera House and especially The Hippodrome Theatre (12 N. Eutaw St.).
What about movies? Serious film buffs should head to The Senator Theatre (5904 York Rd.) and the Charles Theatre (1711 N. Charles St.) in Station North, both sites of John Waters premieres. The Senator only shows one film at a time, but the Charles features a number of indie films, foreign and short films, as well as the usual Oscar bait. The main conventional theaters in the city are the Rotunda Cinematheque (711 W. 40th St.) near Hopkins and Harbor East Landmark Theatres (645 S. President St.).
As for the visual arts, Baltimore has a ton of great art museums. The main one is the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive), located near Hopkins. This is where you'll find your big-name artists: Warhol, Matisse, the impressionist masters and so on. If you're more into older art, like from ancient Egypt or Renaissance Europe, you'll find plenty of that at the BMA but your main destination should be the Walters Art Museum (600 N. Charles St.) in Mt. Vernon, which specializes in art from antiquity to the 19th century.
Both the BMA and the Walters are totally free, but you'll have to pay for Baltimore's most unique art museum, the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway) in Federal Hill. The AVAM specializes in "outsider art"; it's particular notable for its works made out of unusual materials, including intricate busts carved from Styrofoam cups and a totem pole created by blowtorching plastic bins. If you have to visit one art museum while you're in Baltimore, make it this one, because you won't find anything like it elsewhere. As for galleries: they can be found all over the city, particularly more upscale and artsy neighborhoods like Mt. Vernon or Harbor East, but the center of underground art is in northern Mt. Vernon and Station North, that is, near MICA, which itself hosts numerous showings and performances throughout the school year.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
Okay, so now that you've been jamming to some great tunes and looking at some great art, you're probably feeling your tummy start to grumble. Not to worry, Baltimore is a fantastic restaurant city, too!
Crabs: Obviously, the main culinary draw to Baltimore is its famous Maryland blue crabs. Whether you like them hard-shell, soft-shell, or fried in a crab cake, Baltimore is the place for all your crustacean needs. Crab cakes are available everywhere, every place bills themselves as "Baltimore's best crab cake" and you basically cannot go wrong with one in this city. It's steamed crabs where you have to dig a bit more; for those, my family tends to favor the suburban Ocean Pride (1534 York Rd., Lutherville) and harbor-front Canton joint Bo Brooks (2780 Lighthouse Point).
Other seafood: Good seafood, in general, is not hard to come by in this city. Two popular tourist destinations for seafood, near the Inner Harbor, are Phillip's (601 E. Pratt St.), which recently opened a deck for steamed crabs, and The Rusty Scupper (402 Key Highway). Both are on the pricey side by a long shot, but are worth checking out if it's your first visit to Baltimore and have some money to throw around. One of my seafood essentials is Bertha's Mussels (734 S. Broadway) in Fells Point, which has the BEST mussels you will find anywhere. You can order them with a variety of sauces, or you can get one of the specials, such as one with a Thai coconut sauce or beer-battered with Old Bay seasoning. Baltimore also has a million sushi restaurants; everyone has their personal favorite, and mine happens to be Chiu's Sushi (608 S. Exeter St.) in Harbor East. With its wide selection, there's something for just about every palate (including vegetarian sushi!) and if you're feeling adventurous, you can get a side of baby octopus or jellyfish.
Vegan/Vegetarian: I often find myself chowing down on the vegan sandwiches and soups at Milk & Honey (816 Cathedral St.); this extremely veg-friendly cafe has something on every section of its menu to accommodate herbivores, including a variety of vegan pastries from local bakeries like Dirty Carrots. It's also a mini-grocery store filled with organic and locally-grown goods. Another one in Mt. Vernon is Red Emma's (800 Saint Paul St.), an anarchist coffee shop/bookstore where vegan fare is more the rule than the exception. And Hopkins student favorite Carma's Cafe (3120 Saint Paul St.) always has at least a few delicious vegetarian or vegan options among its daily specials, while the nearby One World Cafe (100 West University Parkway) seems to specialize in vegan desserts and cheap lunch eats. The blink-and-you'll-miss-it Soup's On (11 W. Preston St.) near the University of Baltimore campus has a wide variety of cheap soups and open-face sandwiches, a huge chunk of which are vegetarian or vegan. And while I've mostly had their burgers, my friends tell me that Hampden's Golden West Cafe (1105 W. 36th St) has a lot of tasty vegan selections as well.
International Flavors: Afghan restaurant The Helmand (806 N. Charles St.) is owned by the brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, and man, is it delicious. It's also fairly healthy and veg-friendly, but make sure you stay for dessert and try some of the cocktails. Helmand's block in Mt. Vernon has a wide variety of South and Southeast Asian restaurants; across the street, check out the $10 weekday lunch buffet at Indian restaurant Indigma (801 N. Charles St.). And only a stone's throw away, you'll find chic French bistro Marie Louise (904 N. Charles St.) and Ethiopian favorite Dukem (1100 Maryland Ave.). If Italian food is your forte, look no further than Little Italy; it's probably quicker to list the Italian restaurants here that aren't good than those that are, so you really can't go wrong. You must check out the dessert menu at Vaccaro's (222 Albemarle St.), especially its gelato and cannoli. The latter are so good that even my sister, who normally hates cannoli, adores them. If you're more into Mexican, Holy Frijoles (908 W. 36th St.) in Hampden has a huge and varied menu, including massive burritos served with a fresh, spicy house salsa. Lastly, nestled among the cookie-cutter chain restaurants of the Inner Harbor's Harborplace pavilions, check out the Irish-themed sports bar Tir Na Nog (201 E. Pratt St.), with entrees like shepherd's pie and "Irish-style" bangers and mash alongside traditional bar fare.
Other Cool Places to Eat: Coffee shops! Baltimore has a lot of them. Many of the places I've already mentioned (Milk & Honey, Carma's, One World and Red Emma's, for example) are also good for coffee; some others popular with students-on-a-budget are Mt. Vernon's Koffee Therapy (6 E. Franklin St.) and Donna's Charles Village (3101 Saint Paul St.). XS (1307 N. Charles St.), one of my favorites, is an interesting blend of coffee shop, sushi/Asian fusion restaurant, bar (with tasty, but potent cocktails) and art gallery. Iggie's (818 N. Calvert St.) and Kyro Pizza (900 Cathedral St.) are great pizza joints, but be prepared for something a bit more interesting than just pepperoni or cheese. Local chain Sofi's Crepes has a variety of very cheap savory and sweet crepes, and multiple locations in the city: in Station North by the Charles Theatre (1723 N. Charles St.) and at Belvedere Square near the Senator (5911 York Rd.). Lastly, if you need some place to impress your parents and don't mind spending a lot of money, try some inventive, locavore gourmet at Woodberry Kitchen (2010 Clipper Park Rd., No. 126).
Drinking/Nightlife, Queer: While there are scattered gay bars and "lesbian nights" all over the city, most of Baltimore's queer nightlife is centered around Charles and Eager Streets in Mt. Vernon, where you'll find the two most popular gay nightclubs: Grand Central (1001/1003 N. Charles St.) and Club Hippo (1 W. Eager St.). The Hippo has a generally older clientele than its counterpart across the street. Grand Central is where most of the younger queers hang out, especially gay dudes, but it has a good mix of queer ladies, too, and even has a special lesbian lounge, Sappho's, open Fridays and Saturdays. Grand Central's drinks can be crazy expensive if you don't go when they have specials (like Wednesday's $1 drinks), so keep an eye on your wallet; it's easy to let money slip through your fingers as you order drink after drink when you're there on a crazy weekend night. Lastly, while more of a hipster bar than a gay bar, Club Charles (1724 N. Charles St.) in Station North has a proud reputation in the queer community as one of the supposed haunts of John Waters.
Drinking/Nightlife, General: The Brewer's Art (1106 N. Charles St.), one of Baltimore's most famous bars; it serves a variety of local brews as its house beers, most famously the Resurrection Ale, and the food is pretty good, too. The Power Plant Live (34 Market Place) complex near the Inner Harbor is one of the most popular and biggest places for drinking and dancing all night. Or you could just head over to Fell's Point or Federal Hill and crawl through their numerous cheap bars. If you're interested in history, go to the former and check out The Horse You Came In On Saloon (1626 Thames St.); while it looks like just another typical Fells Point sports bar (and pretty much is), it holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously-operating bar in the U.S., open since 1775 and even during Prohibition. Edgar Allan Poe himself was a patron and according to legend, he had his last drink there before he died. Spooky!
OTHER BIG ATTRACTIONS
Sports: Baltimoreans are absolutely crazy for their sports teams, especially the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. M&T Bank Stadium (1101 Russell St.) tickets are not cheap or easy-to-get, though, and in 2010 a lesbian couple was ousted from the stadium for kissing. However, you shouldn't have trouble seeing the city's other major-league sports team, the Baltimore Orioles (unless they're playing the hated Yankees or Red Sox). Oriole Park at Camden Yards (333 W. Camden St.) is one of the country's nicer baseball stadiums, and 2012 has been on of the most successful seasons for "the O's" in years, so get out there and show your orange! For those who prefer the other kind of football, Baltimore has a men's indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast. If you're into horse racing, you probably already know that Baltimore is home to the second jewel in the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. Lacrosse is one of the region's biggest high school and college sports, with some of the best teams in the country, like Johns Hopkins and men's national champions Loyola University, in the area. And of course, it's impossible to write a queer girl's guide to Baltimore sports without mentioning the Charm City Roller Girls, the city's roller derby league. The first bout of the 2012-2013 season, with the Mobtown Mods vs. the Night Terrors and the Junkyard Dolls vs. the Speed Regime, is Sept. 8th, 6:30 pm at Du Burns Arena (1301 S. Ellwood Ave.).
Educational Attractions: The National Aquarium in Baltimore (501 E. Pratt St.) is a must for any visit to Charm City. With special exhibits ranging from jellyfish to sharks, from the Amazon to Australia to Maryland's own aquatic species, it's got something for every sea lover. For general science geeks, there's also the Maryland Science Center (601 Light St.) which, while often billed as a kid-focused museum, has plenty to offer adults, too, including a state-of-the-art planetarium and an IMAX Theatre. If you're interested in African-American History, check out the Smithsonian-affiliated Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture (830 E. Pratt St.) near the Inner Harbor. One of my favorites is The Baltimore Museum of Industry (1415 Key Highway), where you can discover the city's labor history and the technologies behind those industries; exhibits cover everything from an old-fashioned pharmacy to print shops to canneries, and much more. Classic lit lovers will likely want to visit some of the city's many sites associated with Edgar Allan Poe; this website has a list of them, the most notable ones being the Poe House and Museum at 203 Amity St., and his gravesite at Westminster Hall (515 W. Fayette St.). And of course, American history buffs will want to see Fort McHenry (2400 E. Fort Ave.), the place that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the U.S. national anthem, though expect it to be extra-busy this year due to the War of 1812 bicentennial.
The City That Reads: This used to be the city's motto, and it's demonstrated through Baltimore's variety of interesting bookstores. The Inner Harbor boasts a huge Barnes and Noble in the location of the city's former Power Plant (601 E. Pratt St.); there's also a sizable one in Towson (1 E. Joppa Rd. #100, Towson) across the street from the Town Center mall. In terms of smaller and used book shops, one of my favorite drains on my wallet was Salamander Used Books (519 N. Charles St., Lower Level) in Mt. Vernon. The neighborhood also boasts The Book Escape (10 N. Calvert St.), which includes both new and used titles and has a second location in Federal Hill (805 Light St.), and the previously-mentioned anarchist bookstore/coffeehouse collective Red Emma's, which has a great selection of queer- and feminist-related books (along with ones on any other progressive topic your bleeding heart desires). The LGBT/queer section at Red Emma's particularly has a lot of books on trans* and gender-identity issues; they take up about half of that shelf. If you're out in the suburbs, there's Ukazoo Books (730 Dulaney Valley Rd., Towson), which seems to give out a free book coupon every year at the Baltimore Book Festival. But what if you want to read but don't have any money? Well, you could always go to the Enoch Pratt Free Library (with locations throughout the city, but the nicest is their Central Branch at 400 Cathedral St.), but if you want free books to keep, there's the legendary Book Thing (3001 Vineyard Lane), where you can take or leave all the free books you want.
Shop 'Till You Drop: If you're a mall rat, your main two destinations will be The Gallery and Harborplace Pavilions (200 E. Pratt St.) at the Inner Harbor, and Towson Town Center (825 Dulaney Valley Rd., Towson) out in the suburbs. The latter is much bigger, and a tad more upscale in its selection than the former. But Baltimore also has tons of downtown window-shipping: you'll find quirky boutiques in Hampden, upscale boutiques in Harbor East, cultural artifacts in Mt. Vernon, etc. - the city is your oyster!
FESTIVALS AND EVENTS
Baltimore has a number of festivals throughout the year. Some of my personal favorites are:
JHU Spring Fair (Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus) weekend in mid-to-late April: Basically Hopkins's biggest party during the year, the Spring Fair can give you a full day of fun: from every type of carnival food you can imagine (and some you probably didn't), to a bazaar full of local crafts, to booths for Hopkins student organizations, even rides! The best-known part is the JHU Beer Garden, where Hopkins student organizations ranging from Greek organizations to the College Democrats line up to sell you cheap draft beers to raise funds.
Flower Mart (Mount Vernon), first weekend in May: A small but cute festival, Flower Mart floods the area around the Washington Monument with stalls dedicated to every kind of greenery you could imagine, not just flowers as the name suggests, but also vegetables and herbs, and even carnivorous plants! The fair is almost just as notable for selling lemons with peppermint sticks, a favorite summer treat.
HonFest (Hampden), first weekend in June: In the Baltimore accent ("Bawlmerese"), "hon" is a popular term of endearment. In this festival dedicated to Baltimore's "hons," women come dressed in beehive hairdos a la Hairspray and feather boas to compete for the honor of "Bawlmer's Best Hon." You can check out the costumes or wear one, or just peruse the many booths and enjoy the live music and carnival foods.
Baltimore Pride (Mount Vernon and Druid Hill Park), mid-June: Baltimore's Pride Festival is relatively small compared to other large cities, and easy to ignore if you live outside of Mount Vernon, but if you're in that area at all, don't expect to go anywhere near Charles Street without being bombarded with rainbow flags, especially on Saturday, the day of the Pride Parade. The weekend also includes huge dance parties in many of the city's gay bars, particularly those in the Charles and Eager St. area; the area hosts a giant block party the night of the Pride Parade. On Sunday, the action moves to Druid Hill Park in the northwest part of the city where the Pride Festival includes booths, live music, carnival games and even family events.
Artscape (Station North, mid-July): Artscape takes up a huge chunk of the area around Penn Station with a massive free art fair, live bands and carnival rides and food. Unlike more typical art fairs, though, Artscape doesn't limit itself to the visual arts; Mt. Vernon and Station North's various arts venues also use it as a chance to flood the area with concerts, theatrical performances and film screenings, many of them featuring new or experimental fare.
Otakon (Baltimore Convention Center), weekend in July or early August: Otakon is the second-largest anime convention in the U.S. and the largest on the East Coast; you might remember the article I wrote about it this year. The next Otakon is scheduled for August 9-11, 2013. While the registration fee can be steep, you're guaranteed to have fun if you're interested in just about any aspect of Japanese pop culture, even if you're not quite dedicated enough to brave the heat and humidity in full costume.
Baltimore Book Festival (Mount Vernon), last weekend in September: Every major local bookstore makes an appearance, and it's easy to throw away tons of money on used books, but that's not the only reason to go, the Book Festival also includes talks and signings by local authors. For example, in the Children's Tent two years ago I got to meet two of my adolescent literary idols, Margaret Peterson Haddix and Scott Westerfeld.
Lighting of the Monument (Mount Vernon), first Thursday in December: During the holiday season (and often throughout the winter), Mt. Vernon's Washington Monument (older than the one in D.C., as locals will tell you) is strung with bright Christmas lights, and when the lights officially go up, one of the parks surrounding it hosts a festival filled with food stands and choral performances of holiday music, including by the renowned Morgan State University Choir. The festival starts at 5:30 pm, while the actual lighting happens at 7:30, accompanied by a display of fireworks. The event more or less signals the beginning of the holiday season in downtown Baltimore.
Miracle on 34th Street (Hampden), December and early January: Every year during the Christmas season, one residential bloc in Hampden's 34th Street goes all-out for the holidays, with every resident draping their house in elaborate light displays and holiday sculptures.
Within the city:
The Charm City Circulator will take you through most of the touristy sections of the city and is generally much safer than the money-charging MTA buses.
For other free buses, you can check the various college-specific shuttles, although some of them will require proof of school ID. There are two main multi-campus ones: the first is the Baltimore Collegetown Shuttle, which goes between the campuses of Johns Hopkins (main Homewood campus), Goucher, Towson University, Loyola, Notre Dame of Maryland, Morgan State and MICA, as well as the Towson Town Center mall and Penn Station. The second option is the JHMI Shuttle, used to transport Hopkins students between the Homewood campus, Peabody and the medical campus, as well as Penn Station. Officially, you are supposed to be a Johns Hopkins student or faculty member in order to use it, but I have never seen them check IDs except with people who look suspicious. And it's fairly reliable as long as you know the schedule (it can have strange times, like 20-25 minutes past the hour instead of 15 or 30).
The MTA Buses can be hit-or-miss; they aren't free ($1.60 one-way, and you have to use exact change) or fast. And depending on which route you take, safety can be an issue. You'll need to check with a local to make sure that the route you want to take is one that's safe to use, or, at the very least, look at the whole route map to see if it goes through any unsafe neighborhoods. It can also be somewhat unreliable, especially on days with special events that block up traffic. Even on regular days, drivers will sometimes skip your stop entirely if there are only a few people waiting at it, whereas the Circulator and JHMI Shuttle will almost always stop. On the plus side, the MTA Maryland website has a really nifty "trip planner" for when you need to get someplace by a specific time, telling you all the specific details of when/where/which bus you need to get on and off.
Out of the city:
One of my favorite things about living in Baltimore is how close it is to so many other large cities. Going by car, Washington, D.C. is about 45 minutes to an hour away, Philadelphia is about two hours, New York City is three and a half and Pittsburgh is four and a half hours. There are just about always trains going to and arriving from those cities at Penn Station, as well as a number of cheap bus options for trips to the first three, especially for D.C. If you take the Bolt Bus on the right day, it can cost as low as one dollar.
Two popular summer destinations for Baltimore residents are the Eastern Shore's resort town of Ocean City, with its 10-mile beach and boardwalk, and Pennsylvania's Hershey Park, a theme park that's basically a giant ad for the chocolate company. They're about three hours and two hours (respectively) from Baltimore by car.
LGBT RIGHTS IN BALTIMORE
Baltimore is a pretty good city to live in for LGB rights. Maryland state law officially prohibits job discrimination based on sexual orientation, and marriage equality was passed by the state legislature and signed into law here by Governor Martin O'Malley (D) on March 1st of this year. Maryland's political climate generally runs blue; the western Applachian foothills and the Eastern Shore are more conservative, but most people live in the liberal Baltimore and D.C. metro areas in the middle. But if you're interested in LGBT rights political activism, 2012 is a big year for that; anti-gay forces in the state have successfully put marriage equality on the ballot this year, and Maryland has a good chance of being the first state where the gays win at the ballot box. You can get involved with Marylanders for Marriage Equality to help ensure that happens (and make sure to vote "YES" on the ballot question this November)!
Baltimore also has an LGBT community center, The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB) (24 W. Chase St.) which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Some of its unique features include The LGBT History Project, a video series focusing on the lives of older LGBT Baltimoreans; a special Baltimore travel guide and website for LGBT visitors; and a special youth support group, SAIM (Sufficient As I Am), for queer people ages 24 and under. The GLCCB presents Baltimore in its travel guide as a gay-friendly city, and I would agree; as an out queer woman whose social circle is mostly queer as well, I've never felt unsafe in this city, and have usually felt accepted for my sexuality when I'm open about it.
Unfortunately, trans* rights aren't quite as secure in the Old Line State. The state's anti-discrimination laws have no protections for gender identity, and recent attempts to move bills securing those rights through the state legislature have failed, with the typical transphobic tropes about "men crossdressing to peek at women in bathrooms" popping up in floor discussions. And the bill in question, while supported by "mainstream" gay rights groups in the state like Equality Maryland, was largely opposed by trans* activist groups for failing to protect homeless trans* Marylanders. Rosedale in Baltimore County was also where trans woman Chrissy Lee Polis was attacked last year for using a women's bathroom at a McDonald's, a hate crime which galvanized the trans* community to push for change in Maryland and nationwide. As a cisgender woman I can't personally speak for the trans* community here, but that incident alone leads me to think that Baltimore isn't quite as safe for the T in LGBT. If you want to get involved to make things better, Trans Maryland is one of the state's biggest trans* rights groups; the GLCCB also has a list of support groups that meet at the center regularly, including specific ones for trans men and trans women.
THE SAFETY ISSUE
I'm a native of Detroit, so I grew up associating big cities with danger. But unlike the Motor City, Baltimore doesn't really fit the violent reputation it's been given by pop culture; while The Wire may be a realistic account of life in certain parts of the city, it's very easy to visit Baltimore or even live here for years without dealing with that part of it at all. But the "unsafe" marker isn't wholly undeserved. Here are some tips I picked up from my four years in "Harm City":
All the basic stuff applies: There's safety in numbers, don't draw unnecessary attention to yourself, don't leave any valuables visible in a parked car or apartment window, etc.
Certain neighborhoods are safer than others, but no neighborhood is 100% safe in Baltimore. Always be aware of your surroundings. Don't go walking around listening to music or texting, and if you don't have your wits about you (like if you're drunk, high, super-tired or whatever), make sure you have a sober friend nearby to keep an eye on things.
Trust your instincts.
Get to know some locals and find out where the parameters are for where you shouldn't go, as they vary by neighborhood. In Mt. Vernon, the rules of thumb were "don't go west of Howard Street, east of the highway, or to the area between Station North and Charles Village." In general, though, stay out of West Baltimore or northern East Baltimore unless you have a specific reason to be there (like if you're a student at JHU's medical campus, which is located in the latter).
Walk confidently and with purpose! Looking scared or lost will make you look like an easier target.
Check out this safety primer from City Paper's 2010 College Guide. Did you know that if you're on a one-way street, it's safer to walk on the driver's side? The more you know!
So whether you're here for college, for good or just for a week of fun, I hope I've given you enough info to make your stay in Baltimore a success. While I'm excited to get to know a new place, I'm very sad to leave this one behind, so be sure to say hi for me!