Four years ago, at the age of 21, Wayne Allen Lerch said he admitted to himself for the first time that he was gay. "After that point," he said, "I didn't care who knew or didn't know."
And so when he heard that Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening was looking for someone from the gay community to place on the Human Relations Commission, he submitted his name. It turned out he was the only member of the county's gay community to do so.
Last week, he became the first acknowledged gay person to hold a seat on a county board or commission.
"I don't hide my homosexuality," said Lerch, a tall, thin man with green eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee. "But I don't announce it either. I don't go up to people and say, 'Hi, I'm Wayne Lerch, I'm gay, how are you?' "
Lerch, 25, is no stranger to the county or its political arena. Born in the District, he has lived the past 18 years in New Carrollton and is a graduate of Parkdale High School in Riverdale, where he was active in the drama club and concert choir.
He had his first taste of politics at Charles Carroll Middle School in Hyattsville, passing out leaflets for William Goodman's campaign for County Council. In 1974, he worked in Gladys Spellman's first campaign for Congress, addressing and stuffing envelopes and working at fund-raisers and at the polls.
Lerch recalled that the first time he saw Spellman, talking to students at his school, "she seemed to care a lot about human rights."
The cause of human rights is one that Lerch has been involved with ever since. He has done volunteer work with such groups as the United Farm Workers, the National Association of the Deaf and the National Organization for Women. He lobbied the Maryland General Assembly to liberalize abortion law and provide better access for the handicapped to public transportation.
But it was Lerch's activities with gay groups that caused him problems when he came up for confirmation by the County Council last week. He was the only one of the nominees to the commission not approved by a unanimous vote.
Two of the three council members who voted against him, chairman Frank J. Casula and Sue V. Mills, expressed fears that as a commissioner Lerch may want to concentrate too much on gay issues.
And one of the other appointees, George Rodriguez, the first Hispanic to serve on the commission, said he was not that thrilled about Lerch's appointment either. Rodriguez said he is a member of the Mormon Church, which views homosexuality as immoral. But he added he was "willing to work" with Lerch.
For his part, Lerch said, "I refuse to let anybody put me down or try to deny me anything because I'm gay."
To the people who say he represents too much of a special interest on the board, he said, "Even before I admitted I was gay, I always believed everyone deserved the same chance. . . . Women have traditionally been discriminated against, along with blacks. The handicapped, along with the elderly, are our great wasted resources."
To that group he also adds homosexuals. "I know of people who have been fired from their jobs. Of course, the people who fire them will never admit that it's because the employe is gay.
"I know of people who have been harassed on the job. In the work place, people will say, 'I don't want to sit next to some faggot.' " Because of those attitudes, Lerch said, the Prince George's gay community tends to be "very closeted through intimidation. They don't want to be found out."
Lerch works as an office assistant with the Washington law firm of Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott, where he said he enjoys a good working atmosphere.
It was not always like that, he added. Once he worked as a salesman in a Greenbelt liquor store and said that two weeks after his boss found out he was gay, he was laid off--in the middle of the Christmas rush.
Lerch also had problems in the military. Two years into his four-year tour, he admitted that he was a homosexual and therefore was subject to an automatic discharge. But he was allowed to finish his enlistment as an aircraft mechanic. However, when he reenlisted, the Navy began proceedings to have him discharged on the grounds of homosexuality. Lerch challenged his dismissal, but a federal judge in Washington recently ruled against him. Lerch said he will appeal.
For relaxation, Lerch said he listens to classical music and goes to stock car races at Dover Downs in Delaware. His interest in the races, he said, stems from his childhood, when his father took him to the old Beltsville race track.
Lerch lives with his father and grandfather in New Carrollton. He said members of his family were "very supportive" when they learned he was gay.
For the future, Lerch said, he would like to become a full-time lobbyist in Annapolis, specializing in legislation affecting the rights of minorities.