The Hippo opened in the summer of 1972, and in the ensuing years, the bar has been the setting for Pride block parties, for political organizing, for first kisses and last breakups. Early fundraisers for AIDS were held here, and the bar's regular Gay Bingo nights and annual 12 Days of Christmas parties have raised money for a variety of nonprofits. Its Halloween parties are epic celebrations of queer creativity, and as the host of many drag and leather pageants, the Hippo has been home for parts of the queer community that have struggled to find a home anywhere else. The Hippo is more than a bar—it is a community institution. But in May, owner Charles "Chuck" Bowers confirmed that the club would be closing and the space would turn into a CVS.
The history of the Hippo is not simply celebratory, however. Louis Hughes, a black gay man and longtime Baltimore activist, tells of trying to go to the bar with his mother in the 1970s; both of them were asked for multiple forms of identification, a demand never made of white patrons. This was a common tactic used to enforce racial segregation and make whites-only spaces a reality after formal segregation ended. The Torch and the Porthole, gay bars in Waverly, were even sued in the 1980s for their discriminatory practices. They settled, but the bars, including the Hippo, remained largely segregated. As recently as 2009 the Hippo came under fire again, this time for refusing a trans man entry into the men's bathroom. The club's motto might be "Where everyone is welcome," but who counts as "everyone" and what we mean by "welcome" is an ongoing struggle and conversation, one that can teach us a lot about what it means to be with our differences.
Despite the problems the Hippo has had with inclusivity, when word spread that the Hippo would be closing down to make way for yet another pharmacy, reaction was swift and, in many quarters, negative. How could this club that has served as an anchor for the gay community for decades just disappear? Jay's on Read Street is closing too, joining the ranks of Leon's Leather Lounge (now Steampunk Alley) and The Quest, among others, as the latest to bid farewell to Baltimore. In his "Wide Stance" column in City Paper, Anthony Moll argued that these businesses are closing partly because they are less needed as centers of community as LGBTQ life has gone mainstream. When queers are welcome in bars all over town, how can the gay bar survive?
While the first part of that claim is certainly arguable, as anyone who's gotten "the stare" from straight folks for holding hands with her girlfriend can tell you, the fact is, many of our institutions are closing down and taking their histories with them. Fortunately, activists who were part of the early organizing for LGBTQ justice are now working to preserve the LGBTQ past to ensure that the stories of organized resistance, love, and life-making will not be lost when the Hippo closes its doors. These histories, they argue, are vital if we are to understand the long history of the struggle for justice in these communities, and as we figure out what to do next.