The Queer Eye guys came, they saw, they tszuj’d. After blowing through rural Georgia and suburban Kansas City in the three, tear-filled seasons of their Netflix hit, the Fab Five finally achieved what countless community and activist groups couldn’t before: Full-blown equality and acceptance of “the gays.”
We’re done now, right?
Ah, wishful thinking is such a privilege. Even in the year of our lord, 2019, the US is still a sea of red (trigger warning: the 2016 presidential electoral map is bleak). But don’t be discouraged: The arc of American history is long, and it's rainbow-colored.
Back in those naive, hopeful days of 2016, the Republican candidate for president won 30 states, making them, for the next four years, "red states." Thirty is a lot of states, all with varying levels of protections for their LGBTQIA+ citizens, but we can safely generalize on this: As a group, these states are lagging. Nationwide, the Human Rights Campaign counts 31 states that don't have comprehensive laws to protect LGBTQIA+ people from discrimination in housing, in employment, and in receiving services. Of those 31 states, Trump won 29.
That's the discouraging news, if you're living in any of those states, or if you care about equal rights. The better news is, states are hardly monoliths. In every one, cities are ahead of the curve in making life more welcoming -- and more safe -- for diverse peoples. "Cities are the most immediate iteration of democracy that we have," says Xavier Persad, legislative counsel for the HRC in Washington, DC.
The trench work for equality is happening in cities many blue-staters couldn’t find on a map.
City councils are simply faster and more nimble than state legislatures. They've got to be. Cities in the likes of Wyoming and Kentucky and Arkansas are the best chance for leading their deep-red states toward overdue changes. It's easy to sniff at the slow progress in Mississippi -- but who in America is fighting the good fight like Jesse Pandolfo, who runs the gay bar in Jackson? Likewise you might fault Iowa for flipping back to red in 2016 -- but almost no one is pushing harder for broad civil equality than the people of Iowa City.
The trench work for equality is happening in cities most blue-staters couldn't find on a map. And you can't judge a city simply by the voting habits of people nearby. As Samantha Allen writes in her book, Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, “the only way for people on the coasts to understand how states such as Mississipppi, Texas and Tennessee are evolving is to stop flying over them and start going to them. Nothing can be queerer than getting out of your comfort zone.”
In choosing cities to recognize, we looked often to the HRC's most recent Municipal Quality Index, which scores cities' LGBTQIA+ legal protections on a 100-point scale. We also wanted chill places with an LGBTQIA+ scene, so we asked locals for their observations and impressions. (One simple metric that recurred: Where would a same-sex couple be most comfortable holding hands in public?) The hope is, in these cities, a visitor or newcomer could enjoy the best overall experience.
As Allen writes in her intro, “if the dominant LGBT narrative of the twentieth century was a gay boy in the country buying a one-way bus ticket to the Big Apple, the untold story of the twenty-first is the queer girl in Tennessee who stays put.” People in these states are doing The Work, and it’s about time they get some recognition.
If your city isn't on here, there's always time to get to work. Talk to your city leaders. You never know where that momentum will go. "When cities begin to make a stand, state legislators take a notice," Persad says. "These are state legislators' constituents as well. There's a bubbling-up effect that starts on the ground."
The best hope for a state so often behind the civil rights curve
Bona fides: Birmingham has a solid infrastructure of support for its LGBTQIA+ population, but gay sex was illegal in Alabama until 2014. State law still dictates that teachers must tell students "that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public." In 2017, the state legislature moved to ban gays from adopting needy children, and the owner of a movie theater refused to show Beauty and the Beast because of a gay-coded character. In May, Alabama Public Television decided it wouldn’t air a groundbreaking episode of children’s show Arthur, which depicted a same-sex marriage between teacher Mr. Ratburn and his partner. So you see where we're at with Alabama.
Regardless, all hope is not lost. That “no promo homo” bill still on the books? An amendment which removes stigmatizing language and the homophobic provision passed the state’s Senate and awaits House approval before being signed by the governor. (God speed.) And Gina Mallisham, a member of the Pride advisory board in Birmingham, says wryly, "Adversity is nothing new to disenfranchised people in the South." Birmingham, she says, "is a very affirming city," with a gay community big and active enough to support a 10-day, tri-county Pride celebration, a gay softball league, and a chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a protest/performance art troupe of queer "nuns"). There are also LGBTQIA+ book clubs, church groups, and youth centers -- check out the Magic City Acceptance Center, which hosts a number of affirming youth peer groups, particularly for queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) and trans kids under 14 and their parents. B'ham's main gay bars -- Al's on Seventh, Our Place, and Quest Club -- all have their own cast of drag queens. "Showtimes are strategically launched," Mallisham says, "so if you want to catch all three on one night, you can!"
Honorable mention: Montevallo. In 2018, the city enacted a non-discrimination ordinance, protecting the LGBTQIA+ community from housing, public accomodation, and employment discrimination.
One great city with a surprisingly diverse community
Bona fides: One of the nation's best gay bars is alone worth the trip.
At one time, Anchorage was the only Alaskan city to score in double digits in HRC's yearly evaluation -- that’s changing. Slow clap, Alaska. Right now, Anchorage is living its best life. Brooks Banker, director of community engagement and youth programming at Identity Alaska, says that the city's Pride Fest had 10,000 in attendance last year. Since 1977, Identity Alaska has been advancing the state’s LGBTQIA+ community through advocacy and education, including youth programming and trans support groups -- the “T” in LGBTQIA+ can so often be ignored. The city's also home to "The Premier Alaskan Gay Bar" Mad Myrna's, which hosts inclusive drag and variety shows. "It's still a very red state with difficulties," Banker says, "but it is getting better here."
Honorable mention: Juneau, which passed anti-discrimination protections in 2016
There is no space for discrimination in this aggressively pro-LGBTQIA+ city.
Bona fides: The newly installed Safe Place program is one of the most progressive protections in the country.
Arizona cities are kicking ass -- Phoenix and Tempe also have perfect HRC scores -- but Tucson gets the nod here. Says Tony Ray Baker, of GayTucson: "Tucson was the first city in the US to enact a domestic partner provision way back in the '70s, and was also home of the first church to openly welcome gay members -- drawing the ire and protest of a very young Fred Phelps." Pissing off the Westboro Baptist Church patriarch is truly God's work, but Tucson marches on. The city also boasts a program called Safe Place, wherein businesses throughout the community have rainbow stickers in their windows, indicating that they are a shelter from harassment or bullying. Adding to that, the police have trained business owners to be able to handle all kinds of issues, especially situations that may threaten trans people.
It all makes for a surprisingly well-protected and inviting city; even the US Veterans Administration hosts regular clinic hours for trans servicemembers. Meanwhile, the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation provides housing, food, care services and support groups for those living with HIV/AIDS. "We keep getting lumped in with the red mass," Baker says, "but we're a town full of loving and beautiful people."
Honorable mentions: Phoenix, Tempe, and Bisbee, which has the highest ratio of gay couples anywhere in the Southwest
A mountain hippie hamlet famous for radical inclusion
Bona fides: Nearby Fayetteville was the first town in the state to pass an LGBTQIA+-focused anti-discrimination civil rights ordinance (later nullified by state lawmakers), but Eureka, in 2015, wasn't far behind.
This town in Northwest Arkansas probably has the highest concentration of publicly displayed rainbow flags within a 500-mile radius. No one would expect less from a touristy liberal enclave with openly gay municipal employees, where same-sex couples feel comfortable walking hand-in-hand, and which three times a year -- spring, summer, and fall -- celebrates diversity weekends that include parades, drag shows, and dance parties. "It's a little oasis of all things tolerant in Arkansas," says Kendra R. Johnson, former state director for Human Rights Campaign Arkansas (and current executive director of Equality North Carolina). "Basically your hippie colony tucked into the woods that's been ahead of the curve for social tolerance issues."
Honorable mentions: Fayetteville, Little Rock, Conway
Gay life powers this suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
Bona fides: In November, 2018, the city voted in the city’s first all-LGBTQIA+ city commission.
Wilton Manors is so LGBTQIA+ friendly that the locals call it “straight friendly” (though they won’t be holding a Pride for their heteros this year). The community is home to the Stonewall National Museum, and holds a Stonewall parade and festival each year. Meanwhile, SunServe -- based in Wilton Manors -- is a social service agency serving the South Florida metro area LGBTQIA+ community with women and trans services, mental health support, youth and senior groups, and a slew of other social services across age, socio-economic need and physical ability.
Scientists are still parsing through data to determine the gayest strip mall in America, but we're going to go ahead and call it: the Shoppes of Wilton Manors. This plaza is home to Java Boys, Hunters Nightclub, and Georgie's Alibi. (Sadly, Humpy's Pizza closed.)
The double entendres are part of the fun in this small, subtropical city where gay households make up 8.81% of the population (compared to 0.56% of households statewide). A walkable mile and a half along Wilton Dr is the main attraction, says former mayor (now commissioner) Gary Resnick. "We made a point of supporting independent businesses and not having chain stores, or big-box stores. Every night it's packed." Cruise lines using nearby Fort Lauderdale's port actually bus people in.
There is no full-size hotel in Wilton Manors, but there is a clothing-optional Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa. Other evocatively named watering holes nearby include the Ramrod and the Cubby Hole (featuring "Bear Meat" Saturdays and "Underwear Wednesdays").
Honorable mentions: Orlando, St. Petersburg, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Key West
A welcoming burg smack in the middle of the Bible Belt
Bona fides: Though it lacks the robust legal protections of a metropolis like Atlanta, this tourist town in the Appalachian foothills has an active LGBTQIA+ community.
A recent influx of gay residents and business owners has helped to revive this once-depressed Appalachian logging town by bringing a spate of gourmet restaurants, boutiques, and, most importantly, a climate that’s welcoming to all. With one of the highest concentrations of same-sex households in the state, tiny Blue Ridge has its own PFLAG chapter, an Independence Day parade complete with a marching band in drag, and a handful of churches that buck Bible Belt orthodoxy by embracing faithful of all orientations and gender identities. "It's a great little mountain community," says Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, who frequently vacations in Blue Ridge with his husband. "It's a very friendly, pleasant atmosphere that a lot of folks wouldn't expect in a very conservative part of Georgia."
Honorable mentions: Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus
A mix of safety and entertainment in the middle of red country
Bona fides: A pro-gay movement has been active here for nearly a century.
Despite its majority Republican legislature and a heavy Mormon population, Idaho boasts 13 cities with non-discrimination ordinances in place. The state capital harbors the most progressive enclave; its gay community center dates to 1983, and influxes of Cascadians getting priced out of the West Coast has only fed the momentum.
The annual Boise Pride Festival -- which just turned 30 -- rallies large crowds each summer, but drag performance group LipsInc! has kept the Pride party perennial for 22 years with regular shows in town. Steve Martin, the regional philanthropy officer for Idaho's Pride Foundation, explains that LGBTQIA+ support extends beyond the entertainment scene. "Most high schools here, and even at least one junior high, have a gay-straight alliance club,” he says. “Boise State University also has a GSA called Pride Alliance, as well as a very active Gender Equity Center."
Honorable mention: Pocatello, Moscow, Coeur d'Alene
The capital of Mike Pence's home state calls BS on "religious freedom."
Bona fides: A business community vocal in its support for civil rights
When then-Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law in 2015, giving bigoted business owners legal cover to discriminate against anyone they perceived might be gay, the Indy community pushed back. All along Massachusetts Ave. -- the heart of the "gayborhood" -- and throughout the city, shops display stickers that promise "This Business Serves Everyone," thanks to an initiative called Open for Service, a nationwide directory of inclusive stores, churches, and schools. About three-quarters of the businesses along Mass Ave are gay-owned, says Freedom Indiana's Chris Paulsen, and each year Indy Pride draws some 50,000 marchers down the formerly depressed thoroughfare, where condos now sell for millions. "I think RFRA actually moved gay rights forward," says Paulsen. "It helped highlight that there weren't and still aren't statewide protections for LGBT people." Meanwhile, resources like Indiana Youth Group (for LGBTQIA+ youth ages 12 to 20) and Indiana Transgender Network help connect people with their communities and get access to support.
Honorable mentions: Bloomington, Spencer, Fort Wayne, Lafayette, Kokomo, Columbus
The most progressive town in a surprisingly progressive state
Bona fides: Its anti-discrimination measures go back to 2007.
Here's trivia that'll win you a bar bet: The first Midwestern state to legalize gay marriage? Iowa, via a 2008 state court decision. And out in front of this pioneering state is Iowa City. "The town has absolutely been a trailblazer for civil rights in Iowa," says Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of One Iowa, based in Des Moines. "The first female attorney admitted to a state bar in America was in Iowa City, some of the first non-discrimination laws in Iowa were started there. It's just got a good legacy of advancement and it's been ahead of the curve for the LGBT movement."
The town's progressive nature is intertwined with its largest employer, the University of Iowa. Amongst other things -- like its robust and supportive Pride Alliance Center -- the college was among the first to offer benefits to its staffers' partners. Incoming freshmen can choose both their preferred name and gender for their student record, and transgender students are housed according to their preferred gender. And while the town only has one gay bar in Studio 13, it has bragging rights as the launch stage for RuPaul's Drag Race alumna Sasha Belle/Frisbee Jenkins. Says Hoffman-Zinnel: "We surprise folks."
Honorable mentions: Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Sioux City
A conservative metropolis gets a more progressive police presence.
Bona fides: A longstanding community space, The Center of Wichita, is the brick-and-mortar home to organizing and support groups for LGBTQIA+ Kansans.
Wichita’s 2018 HRC score is an abysmal 22 -- it lacks the non-discrimination ordinances that smaller, more liberal counterparts around the state have passed. Meanwhile, state-wide adoption discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people is legal and sodomy laws are still on the books. But that’s hardly the whole picture, and changes are already afoot: As her first act in January 2019, new Governor Laura Kelly rolled back anti-LGBT laws that allowed state agencies to discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Meanwhile, Wichita does offer the most enduring peer support for LGBTQIA+ residents in the form of a half-dozen gay bars, a substantial Pride celebration, and a new police chief, Gordon Ramsay, who introduced the city's first LGBTQIA+ liaisons. To wit: In 2016, for the first time, a mounted police unit marched in the Pride parade. "There's no rainbow dot in Kansas," says Thomas Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, the statewide political advocacy and political action group for the LGBTQIA+ community. Meanwhile, The Center of Wichita is doing the work to create a safe space for queer youth and the community -- there’s a specially-curated library, a central meeting place for the city’s LGBT Health Coalition and much more. At least Kansas' biggest city may be the next best thing.
Honorable mentions: Lawrence, Manhattan, Salina, Hutchinson, Roeland Park, Topeka
Kim Davis' hometown fights back.
Bona fides: Though liberal Louisville was one of the first Southern cities to pass an inclusive non-discrimination fairness ordinance, tiny Morehead earns its spot for opposing Davis' headline-making bigotry.
In 2015, county clerk Kim Davis put Morehead on the map by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide. In response, a few hundred residents in the little town took to the streets, chanting, "Gay or straight, black or white, marriage is an equal right."
It shouldn't be so shocking; a few years prior, the town quietly became the sixth city in Kentucky to pass a fairness ordinance. "It happened so easily and with such little controversy that people sitting next to me asked, 'When are they gonna pass the ordinance?'" says Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign. "And they'd already passed it! Unanimously." The town, which pre-Davis had never had a Pride march, in 2016 hosted not one, but two such festivals.
Honorable mentions: Louisville, Lexington, Vicco, Midway
A shining star in the South
Bona fides: With the country's fourth-highest concentration of LGBTQIA+ residents, N'awlins is also home to the South's biggest gay party.
Prior to the massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, the 1973 arson fire at New Orleans' UpStairs Lounge was the deadliest attack on a gay club in US history. "The UpStairs Lounge fire is a part of why New Orleans has done some historic things prior to other areas," explains SarahJane Brady, executive director of Louisiana's Forum for Equality, who adds that the Big Easy in 1991 became the first Louisiana city to pass a human rights ordinance. NOLA's LGBTQIA+ community has historically been centered around the French Quarter and Treme, and the far end of Bourbon Street is still a mecca for gay nightlife, with bars and clubs like Oz, the Bourbon Pub, Napoleon’s Itch, the 700 Club, Good Friends, and The Golden Lantern. Though there are a handful of gay Mardi Gras krewes, Southern Decadence is arguably the bigger party, attracting up to 200,000 revelers every Labor Day weekend.
Honorable mentions: Shreveport, Lafayette, Baton Rouge
The Midwest's best, brightest gay vacation destination
Population: 960 and 1,330, respectively
Bona fides: Michigan has plenty of pockets of liberal progressivism, but these tiny Lake Michigan towns have the Midwest's largest gay and lesbian resort.
With more than 140 gay-owned businesses ranging from B&Bs to art galleries to pie shops, wee Saugatuck and neighboring Douglas have been dubbed the Fire Island of the Midwest. While that might be a stretch, the charming lakeside villages have a welcoming vibe that dates back almost a century, when the Art Institute of Chicago ushered in a bohemian air by establishing its summer school of painting on the Ox-Bow Lagoon. Today, vacationers make the two-hour trek from Chicago to spend a weekend at the Dunes Resort, which claims to be the Midwest's largest LGBTQIA+ getaway, catering primarily to men, aside from three women's weekends each year. Those who make their home here year-round are also protected from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation by a 2007 municipal fairness ordinance.
Honorable mentions: Detroit, Ferndale, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Pleasant Ridge, Ypsilanti
A welcoming oasis in a gay-unfriendly state
Bona fides: In 2014, Unite Mississippi started a Pride parade here that Kit Williamson, a Jackson native and actor on Mad Men, came home to emcee in 2016.
If Mississippi legislators had their way, gay sex, gay adoption, and gay marriage would all be illegal. They're not -- only because federal court decisions have superseded the discrimination that locals officials sought to codify. Jackson, though, is a bright spot. "The crowd is much bigger than what you would think for a Southern area," says Jesse Pandolfo, who owns the gay bar WonderLust. "I can't go to the mall without running into 15 gay people I know." Pandolfo's bar has become the de facto headquarters for the gay community; he recommends visitors check out the walkable neighborhood of Fondren, "a super-kitschy, hippie, gay-friendly shopping and restaurant area" -- especially Sneaky Beans coffee shop and Saltine Oyster Bar. There is charm here, even if it has limits. "Most people smile to your face," Pandolfo says. "They just vote against you behind your back." Meanwhile, local groups like the Jackson Pride Center ensure the least represented members of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow -- namely youth, trans, veterans and seniors -- have access to health and community.
Honorable mention: Magnolia, which just passed its own anti-discrimination measures
Simultaneously dead center on the map of America and the battle for transgender rights
Bona fides: Strong city anti-discrimination laws and a wealth of resources for transgender people.
In recent years, the media has cast a rainbow spotlight on Kansas City, and we’re not just talking about Queer Eye Season 3. In 2017, fourth-grader Avery Jackson became the first openly transgender subject to grace the cover of National Geographic, sparking national conversation. Her journey to transition started young, a process that wouldn’t be easy anywhere but at least happened in a town with plenty of LGBTQIA+ support, like KCMO.
After Avery’s story hit the mainstream, her mother, Debi, made it a mission to help parents, teachers, and employers around the continent create transgender-inclusive environments. And locally, with resources like TransasCity.org (a site that tracks the local transgender community) and The Transgender Institute (where therapists help counsel people through the transitioning process), there’s no shortage of support for trans youth.
The LGBTQIA+-positive attitude in KC was fostered by a mix of local politicians and business leaders reaching out to the queer community. The last few mayors have been active at Pride events, and major employer Hallmark was an early ally of the KC-based Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Though Missouri’s state legislature has refused to vote on an anti-discrimination bill for 21 consecutive sessions, Rep. Greg Razer, an openly gay man who represents Kansas City, remains at the frontlines fighting for LGBTQIA+ protections statewide. “We’ve had a good, strong support system not just here but in Kansas too, since we straddle the state line,” says John Long, longtime editor and publisher of Camp KC Magazine. “There are non-discrimination laws, a lively arts scene, and a very welcoming populace.”
Honorable mentions: St. Louis, Columbia
Ground zero for organizers in a state with a middling civil rights record
Bona fides: Montana's first LGBTQIA+ community center and a leader in anti-discrimination laws
David Herrera will be the first one to tell you Missoula's nightlife could improve. It's true the last local gay bar turned off its taps years ago and has yet to be replaced, a dry spell that Herrera, a board member of the town’s LGBTQIA+ center, blames more on Montana's scarce liquor licenses than he does on any lack of tolerance. “We don't have a gay bar per se, but several bars downtown are certainly friendly and welcoming to the community,” he says. “So I don't know that we even need one."
And it's true that extracurricular groups -- like the gay men's running club, the gay men’s chorus, and the LGBTQIA+ spiritual group that meets -- rise and fall as their founders move in and out of town. But like so many of these entries, what Missoula does have is the bedrock of a progressive liberal arts school like the University of Montana that gives the mid-sized town a permanent, if shifting community of civic-minded folk. They elected leaders to make Missoula the first city in Montana to pass municipal anti-discrimination laws as protections at the state level continue to flounder, and who founded the Western Montana LGBTQIA+ Community Center as a local hub for LGBTQIA+ groups more than 15 years before Great Falls opened its own in 2015.
Honorable mentions: Bozeman, Helena, Whitefish
A well-educated and livable small city
Bona fides: Even the local Baptist church is gay-friendly.
Of the Carolina cities Human Rights Campaign rated last year, Greensboro ranked highest for gay-friendliness (though for some reason, they didn't rate Asheville). A University of North Carolina campus gives the place life, plus happening bars like Chemistry Nightclub. Mellower attractions include the Greensboro Arboretum and the Antique Market Place. Nearby High Point is the “furniture capital of the world.” North Carolina Pride claims, tongue in cheek, that the gay population spikes -- from 14 points below the national average to 200 points above it -- when big furniture shows are in town. Finally, the Guilford Green Foundation’s LGBTQ Center serves the local community with movie nights, “Gay & Gray” events targeting folks aged 55-plus and even youth drop-in events, to create affirming spaces for young people.
Honorable mentions: Chapel Hill, Charlotte
Where city and business leaders continue to work together to get statewide protections
Bona fides: The only city in Nebraska with an ordinance barring discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In April 2012, the Omaha City Council voted 4-3 to approve an ordinance extending city anti-discrimination laws to cover gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents. No small victory in a state where no other city has anti-discrimination laws on the books, and where attempts to pass state-level legislation failed once again in March 2019. Last year’s model, Legislative Bill 173, counted Union Pacific, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce among its supporters, however, voting on the bill was indefinitely postponed in 2018. But protections can be found at the commercial level and Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ scene continues to thrive.
“Many people underestimate what Omaha has to offer,” says Ryan Sallans, an LGBTQIA+ rights speaker, diversity trainer, out-trans man, and native Nebraskan who calls Omaha home. “Major companies (here) are also committed to diversity and inclusion, and have non-discrimination policies that also include sexual orientation and gender identity.”
If your only exposure to Nebraska was Omaha, the surplus of LGBTQIA+-friendly nightlife would easily give you a more generous impression of the state’s attitude towards inclusion. The Omaha Mining Company, DCs Saloon, Flixx Video Bar, and M's Pub cater to the gay, lesbian, and bi crowd and scratch any itch you have for a drag show. Or just hang out at the Max and hit up any of the four, count them four, bars hosted in this single gay mega-pub.
A politically charged scene that sells new residents on the city’s inclusiveness
Bona fides: This early adopter of non-discrimination ordinances has an epic Pride festival more than 10 years running.
Fargo gets the edge over Grand Forks, the first North Dakota city to pass anti-discrimination ordinances. Even the organizer of Grand Forks’ Pride, Kyle Thorson, gives the edge to Fargo for its diverse population. “There are many, many areas across North Dakota which can be improved for LGBT folks,” he says, “but for the most part Fargo and Grand Forks are two places that are willing to engage with the questions, try to work together, and bring a vibrancy to the state that is uniquely different than other cities.”
In Fargo’s case, that means supporting the state’s longest-running Pride festival, and there’s even an LGBT Film Festival -- 10 years old as of last year. And while there are no avowed gay bars in the city, the city is calmly out. The visitors bureau last year ran a North of Normal campaign video that featured shots of LGBTQIA+ residents as not just a typical part of the city’s community, but one of its main selling points. It’s also unabashedly vocal. Ken Story, who runs the brick-and-mortar LGBTQIA+ center in town, says the activist events have gotten ever more political lately. “We’ve changed,” he says. “Our mission is to reflect the world we live in today.”
Honorable mention: Grand Forks
An LGBTQIA+ destination in a college-town capital city
Bona fides: Columbus’ vibrant gay cultural scene is hard to beat in this part of the country.
In a place like Ohio, where both the legislature and the governor’s office are red and state-level LGBTQIA+ protections are nonexistent, “our refuge is our cities,” says Grant Stancliff, communications director for Equality Ohio. And while the three C’s -- Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland -- have lately been passing ever more progressive legislation in a race to be considered most welcoming, Columbus has a certain je ne sais quoi beyond its perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign’s equality index. It helps to have the support of groups like Stonewall Columbus, which was founded in 1981, while the gay cultural landscape is vibrant, with an active drag scene that was documented in the film Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens. “A lot of LGBTQ people get it in their gut: There are cities where intuitively you feel comfortable holding your same-sex partner’s hand and some cities where you just don’t,” Stancliff says. “Columbus is a place where you see people holding hands; you see a lot of transgender folks around, just living, working and playing. It’s the vibe that makes Columbus the city that it is.”
Honorable mentions: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Zanesville
The tremendous LGBTQIA+ center is an oasis in a ravenously red state.
Bona fides: Holiday meals, welcome to all, are hosted out of a city looking to change hearts and minds.
While Oklahoma City is twice the size, it doesn’t even have one LGBTQIA+ center. Meanwhile, Tulsa boasts the seventh-largest center in the world. Josh, a volunteer with Oklahomans for Equality, says that the center has helped spread awareness and love while fighting for gay rights in the state. The community has art shows, gala events, and innumerable fundraisers in a city that is evolving for the better. There's little else in the state that can compare.
Honorable mentions: Norman, Oklahoma City
Truly “the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection”
Population: 1.5 million
Bona fides: Philly elected its first openly gay state legislator, Brian Sims, in 2012.
Philly has welcomed its LGBTQIA+ peeps since the 1930s, when the scene consisted of private house parties and semisecret venues. In the 1960s, even before New York's Stonewall Riots, marchers came out for “Reminder Day” -- a parade to remind people that gays had civil rights, too.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood between Walnut and Pine Streets, around Juniper and 11th, became known for its gay community. Back then, it was kind of seedy. With the ensuing decades came trendy shops and restaurants, and “The Gayborhood” became its official moniker. In 2007, the city hoisted rainbow-colored street signs at intersections.
In the Gayborhood, hit up Antique Row on Pine St, and rest your feet in Washington Square Park. Wrap up the day with awesome food and cocktails, available all over. Outside, the city does hold other attractions, like the “Rocky Steps” and the Liberty Bell. Check out the Philadelphia Gay Tourism caucus’ handy map.
Honorable mention: Allentown
Where the very old South is making progress toward the new
Bona fides: The USC mascot is a gamecock, so the swag is on-point.
South Carolina elected its first openly gay state lawmaker in 2017 -- Greenville attorney Jason Elliott, a Republican. But this hasn’t kickstarted laws protecting discrimination of prospective LGBTQIA+ parents, or rolling back the criminalization of those who are HIV+ and “don’t say gay” laws barring LGBTQIA+ topics taught in schools. However, state employees are protected by non-discrimination laws. Columbia embodies this tug between entrenched old South sensibilities and modern progressive influences. The city is home to plenty of conservative elements, but also more modern enclaves, like the Five Points area near the University of South Carolina, and the Vista, a waterfront arts and entertainment district. Of course, groups like the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center, named after an early SC pride activist, are trying to change hearts and minds.
Since South Carolina still hangs out in the 1960s, when “blue laws” regulated alcohol sales, some bars operate as private clubs that only admit members and their guests. This allows them to stay open later, sell on Sundays, and discern who can enter. This holds for the city's nearly 40-year-old “genteel” establishment, The Capital Club. Call ahead, and getting in shouldn't be a problem.
Honorable mention: Charleston
In a state fighting to roll back LGBTQIA+ rights, an outpost of decency
Bona fides: The city government has newly committed to anti-discrimination laws and partner benefits.
South Dakota isn’t going in the right direction -- in February, leading LGBT newspaper The Washington Blade, ran the headline “South Dakota leads the way in anti-LGBT bills for 2019 session.” Woof. In 2017, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill allowing adoption and foster agencies to legally refuse working with gay couples, while this year, the legislature adopted a “Don’t Say Trans” bill, one of three anti-transgender bills pending in the state. Yet Brookings -- a perfect 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 Municipal Equality Index -- is working to be civil.
Local elected officials have made a concerted effort to make the city more inclusive, says Lawrence Novotny, LGBTQIA+ liaison to the city government and a member of the Brookings Human Rights Commission, as well as the chair of Equality South Dakota, a statewide LGBTQIA+ advocacy group. “Some of these (changes) are: a Human Rights Commission, non-discrimination laws in city employment, an LGBTQIA+ liaison to the city government, and LGBTQIA+ liaison to the city police department, benefits for partners of city employees, and trans-inclusive health benefits,” Novotny writes. Brookings also benefits from being the home of South Dakota State University, whose on-campus gender and sexuality alliance -- which hosts a drag show each semester -- is working to form a similar alliance at the high school.
Honorable mention: Sioux Falls
Bona fides: Several rural communes make up the country’s largest, oldest LGBTQIA+ planned community, nestled in the hills of middle Tennessee.
As documented by the New York Times Magazine in 2015, Short Mountain Sanctuary is a queer safe space started in the late ‘70s by Radical Faeries founder Harry Hay that still operates according to the communal ethos of the counterculture that birthed it. Aside from landmarks with names like Sex Change Ridge and a hiking trail called the Fruit Loop, commune residents are said to lead a fairly traditional back-to-the-land lifestyle, keeping goats and tending gardens and making decisions by consensus. “It’s a major settlement of LGBT folks in extremely rural Cannon County,” says Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project. “It was a way to affirm gay men at first, but now it’s open to everyone.”
Honorable mentions: Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Greeneville
The gay community of the future
Population: 2.3 million
Bona fides: The Montrose area has replaced all the gender images on their bathrooms with the symbol for The Artist Formally Known as Prince, and that's just frickin’ baller.
Houston’s gay community is uncommonly intertwined with organizing and governance. In 1978, Houston had its own Stonewall-level event which created "Town Meeting 1" -- an initiative that created more than 100 organizations across the state that are now turning 40 this year. The city had an openly gay mayor until 2016 with a dedicated caucus, as well as out city council members and an openly gay DA, which gives a lot of role models for younger kids to look up to.
"The number of smaller organizations focused around single societal issues or interests is what sets us apart,” says Kennedy Lofton, the Chief Development Officer of Montrose Center. “The number of groups with leaders or board members under 35 is the surest sign we're building something for the future. But in this state, once you get out of the blue zones you are unsafe. We benefit from people congregating in the cities but also this leads to a lot of homeless gay youth, so we're trying to do good by them." Independent comedy producer Kathryn Way is also leading an intersectional revolution out of locations like Rec Room that welcome everyone from across the spectrum to get into stand-up and improv. And not for nothing: The Pride celebration here is one of the world’s largest, while The Montrose Center -- a robust LGBTQIA+ community center -- uplifts and empowers the local scene.
Honorable mentions: Dallas, Austin, El Paso
A former political warzone is changing with the times
Bona fides: They’ve elected a lesbian mayor and multiple out city council members
We know what you're thinking: Isn't Salt Lake City home base for Mormon attacks on gay rights? Well, yes. But Troy Williams from Equality Utah says that's exactly what led to the changing of some hearts and minds that have reinvented SLC as a great gay community.
"Prop 8 in California, and knowing that millions of dollars in protest money from Church of LDS was flowing to California, was actually what led us to start protesting, but also reaching across to find common ground," Williams says. Since then, LDS and the gay community haven't found middle ground on sexuality or marriage, but they have found a powerful agreement in believing that people should not be discriminated against in housing or employment. In 2015, a statewide anti-discrimination bill made it through a Republican super-majority in the state legislature.
Salt Lake City meanwhile just cranks right along. In 2016, the city council unanimously rechristened 20 city blocks as Harvey Milk Boulevard (between Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks streets). There's an active gay nightlife scene, too, centered around places like Club Try-Angles and The Sun Trapp. "We're a state of contradictions," Williams says. "We're a red state but not a redneck state. This is a place for unexpected victories."
Honorable mentions: Ogden, Provo
A welcoming Appalachian artists’ haven
Bona fides: The mayor voluntarily formed an LGBTQIA+ advisory committee two years ago.
West Virginia isn't as far behind the times as other Southern states; it repealed its sodomy laws way back in 1976. Still, being gay here is enough of a novelty that when a high school athlete comes out or a gay couple goes to prom, it might make for a newspaper article.
Huntington staked a claim for progressiveness when it kicked off a recent pro-LGBTQIA+ marketing campaign declaring that it's “Welcome to All.” The cute, livable city has a small college (Marshall University) an award-winning rose garden, and a few longstanding gay bars. Appreciate the history of Appalachia at the Heritage Farm Museum, which has a blacksmith shop and petting zoo. Pick up some local, organic foods at the Wild Ramp. Artisan shops, yoga classes, and baked goods are all on offer at Heritage Station, a converted train depot -- all are Appalachia at its come-as-you-are best.
Honorable mentions: Charles Town, Lewisburg, Morgantown
A purple state capital with anti-discrimination ordinances older than you are
Bona fides: Excellent state and local civil rights laws and some of the nation’s oldest gay rights groups.
Since at least the 1970s Wisconsinites have widely accepted Madison -- a historically progressive city with a huge college student population -- as the state’s unofficial LGBTQIA+ capital. The scene there helped Wisconsin to become the first state to pass anti-discrimination measures.
Now the city extends those protections to employment, housing, and public accommodations. Its school district employs a liaison for LGBTQIA+ students. Recently, Dane County offered trans-inclusive healthcare, says Steve Starkey, the executive director at OutReach, a Madison LGBTQIA+ community center. Then the city council got right to work on its own such plan. “The city has always had a very positive attitude,” Starkey says. “Whenever there is something lacking, they’ve been willing to work on it.” Madison is also just plain fun, with half-a-dozen LGBTQIA+-friendly teams sports that put Madison among the best cities in America for amateur gay and lesbian athletes. But you don’t have to take our word for it. Ask the Madison Gay Hockey Association.
Honorable mentions: Milwaukee
A city that took real steps to grapple with its most infamous crime, but still lives with its stigma
Bona fides: After Matthew Shepard's 1998 murder, the city has moved to protect its LGBTQIA+ citizens.
Wyoming is not an easy place to be non-heterosexual, but there's one decent, though complicated, answer for us to offer up: Laramie. Still known by many as the site of a horrible hate crime, Laramie is a surprisingly bohemian college town tucked 7,200ft up in the Snowy Range -- and in 2015 the town rallied to become the first city in Wyoming to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQIA+ citizens from job, housing, or service discrimination. Erin Clingman from Wyoming Equality says they plan to push for protective laws city by city in the coming years, but this state is red enough that they have an uphill battle ahead. And while Laramie still retains much of the state's "Cowboy culture" that can often be downright hostile to queer people, the 2015 ordinance was a moving, momentous accomplishment for the city, and those who fought so hard to make it happen.
Laramie has no specifically gay bars per se, but a number of Laramie's watering holes are welcoming and gay-friendly. Pop into Front Street Tavern -- attached to Sweet Melissa's vegetarian cafe next door -- and on any given night you'll find Laramigos of good cheer, drinking the night away with anyone and everyone who walks through the door. Being out in Wyoming takes a measure of gumption, but like so many places across America, there are plenty of people fighting to make life better.
Honorable mention: Jackson
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