The Most LGBTQ+ Friendly City in Every Red State in America

Definitely do say “gay” in these progressive and welcoming queer-friendly enclaves.

Welcome to We’re Out Here, your year-round hub for LGBTQ+ travel and experiences! Here, you’ll find everything you need to plan your next great gaycation, including queer-centric travel stories, nightlife guides, profiles, pride event roundups, and ways to give back to local queer communities.

The state of the LGBTQ+ nation—much like the state of the rest of the nation—is quite precarious these days. On one hand, we’ve got swathes of motivated young elected officials and organizers committed to popping the over-inflated balloon of structural inequality by any means necessary. But on the other hand, we’ve got powerful lawmakers coming out against LGBTQ+ rights at an alarmingly rapid clip, throwing around bills that threaten to destroy all the progress of the Civil Rights Movement with a single signature. What a time to be alive.

Breaking things down into red states and blue states, especially at a time when the country is so politically and socially split, might seem like we’re reinforcing that ol’ problematic us vs. them, good vs. evil binary. But in reality, using hard numbers provided by the Human Rights Campaign’s 2022 Municipal Equality Index to determine the most LGBTQ+ friendly city in each state that went for Donald Trump in 2020 can only help to strengthen the idea that we’re all in this together. In 2022, a record-breaking 118 cities earned the highest score of 100, up from 110 in 2021. Maybe those divisions aren’t as deep as they seem.

States are hardly monoliths. In every one, cities are ahead of the curve in making life more welcoming—and more safe—for all residents regardless of sexuality or gender identity. “Cities are the most immediate iteration of democracy that we have,” says Xavier Persad, senior legislative counsel for the HRC in Washington, DC. The trench work for equality is happening in cities many blue-staters couldn’t pinpoint on a map.

The cities on this list are strategically positioned to lead 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 only gay bar in Jackson? Likewise you might fault Iowa for flipping from blue back to red in 2016, but almost no one is pushing harder for broad civil equality than the people of Iowa City.

These 25 cities represent the most LGBTQ+ friendly locale in each of America's republican-majority states, according to the HRC’s most recent Municipal Equality Index. And if your city didn’t make the cut, now’s the time to get to work. Talk to your city leaders—you never know how far that momentum will take you.

Alabama pride
Central Alabama Pride, Inc.

Population: 196,910
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
Birmingham has a solid infrastructure of support for its LGBTQ+ population, even though gay sex was illegal in Alabama until 2014. 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. Until 2019, state law dictated that teachers must tell students "that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public." And a slew of anti-trans legislature is now making its way through state government, banning trans kids from playing sports, mandating that school children only use the bathroom associated with the gender listed on their birth certificate, criminalizing gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth, and barring teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in any context deamed developmentally or age-inappropriate. So that’s where we’re at with Alabama.

Regardless, all hope is not lost. 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 an LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ book clubs, church groups, and youth centers—check out the Magic City Acceptance Center, which hosts a number of affirming youth groups, particularly for QTPOC and trans kids under 14 along with their parents. B'ham's main queer 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 in one night, you can!"

juneau pride

Population: 31,685
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
With no way to get there by car (unless you take a ferry, that is) and just 32,000 residents spread through the country’s second-largest city by area, Alaska’s capital might be the perfect place to get away from the crowds and live your life out loud. Since the early 1980s, it’s also been home to SEAGLA, or the Southeast Alaska LGBTQ+ Alliance, a community anchor dedicated to increasing queer visibility, promoting LGBTQ+ rights, and throwing the city’s robust Pride celebration, this year with trivia, a prom, queer film screenings, and a pet parade (!).

The city regularly observes Transgender Day of Rememberance, and in 2016, they were the second major city in Alaska to pass a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ+ citizens, after Anchorage. In a statement, SEAGLA chair Jenny Jahn, “This sends a clear message to Juneau residents, visitors, and those who are considering moving here: In Juneau, you will find a community that respects and values diversity, where you can attain whatever you dream, and where you will be judged based on your character, your behavior, and work ethic, not on the color of your skin, your age, or who you love.” Amen.

Population: 202, 864
Municipal Equality Index score: 62
This year, Arkansas passed legislation that threatens the safety of LGBTQ+ youth at school—prohibiting staff from addressing transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns, and prohibiting students from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. But over in Little Rock, locals celebrate a number of inclusive events, like the Central Arkansas Pride Fest, a parade and festival that takes over the capital city every October. The city also boasts a queer film festival, Kaleidoscope, as well as the state’s only gay rodeo, Diamond State Rodeo. All that plus business is booming at queer-owned food spots like El Sur Street Food Co and Lucky Lou’s, as well as gay nightclubs, Triniti and Sway.

Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade
Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival

Population: 11,342
Municipal Equality Index score: 118
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 a few years back.) There are no full-size hotels in Wilton Manors, but there is the clothing-optional Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa. Other evocatively named watering holes nearby include the Ramrod.

The double entendres are part of the fun in this small, subtropical city where queer households make up 14% of the population—that’s the second highest percentage in the country. A walkable mile and a half along Wilton Drive is the main attraction, says Gary Resnick, Wilton Manors’s longest serving member of the City Commission and longest serving mayor. "We made a point of supporting independent businesses and not having chain stores or big-box stores. Every night it's packed."

moscow idaho pride
Inland Oasis

Population: 26,249
Municipal Equality Index score: 69
Despite its majority-Republican legislature and a sizable Mormon population, Idaho lists 12 cities with non-discrimination ordinances in place—that’s in a state where just two cities top out at over 100,000 residents. This year, the humble university town of Moscow bested former winner Boise on the MEI index, scoring 69 to the capital’s 67, proving that Idaho’s largest metropolis isn’t the state’s only progressive enclave.

The University of Idaho founded one of the state’s first gay rights organizations, Northwest Gay People’s Alliance (NWGPA), back in 1974, and Moscow is also home to Inland Oasis, a volunteer organization that hosts the annual Palouse Pride festival, in addition to a regular food pantry and community center. And while it’s tough to find an explicitly gay bar or club around town, more than a few local joints like indie coffee shop One World Cafe show their support by flying pride flags while the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse prominently promotes itself as an LGBTQ-welcoming congregation.

bloomington indiana pride
Bloomington PRIDE

Population: 79,107
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
If we’ve said it once, we’ve set it a thousand times: Bloomington is one of the Midwest’s most surprisingly awesome destinations. The idyllic college town fully embraces progressive thinking, from its bike-savvy downtown, farm-to-table dining, and shop-local mentality to its vibrant LGBTQ+ population, which makes itself known at regular queer-centric celebrations, protests, and other rainbow-strewn gatherings. B-town has scored 100 points or more on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index every year since 2015 and in 2010 was named the fourth gayest city in the country by premiere LGBTQ+ publication, the Advocate.

What else? They’ve got a killer and super-inclusive queer bar by way of the Back Door, resident distillery darling Cardinal Spirits gets in on the action with their PRIDE Vodka, PrideFest and the annual Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival are beloved mainstays, and for the last 75 years, the world-famous Kinsey Institute has kept Indiana University firmly entrenched in LGBTQ+ issues. All that plus a smattering of pro-LGBTQ+ local legislation—including openly LGBTQ+ elected or appointed leaders, robust anti-discrimination measures, trans-inclusive healthcare benefits, and a dedicated LGBTQ+ police liaison or task force—will have you saying, “Mike Pence, who?” in no time.

Population: 75,233
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
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, former executive director of Des Moines-based One Iowa and current CEO for immigration nonprofit Proteus, Inc. "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. Among 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."

lawrence kansas pride
Lawrence PRIDE

Population: 195,794
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
Kansas, with its broadly conservative voting record, sparsely populated rural areas, and unfortunate association with the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, has never had a reputation as a gay mecca (Dorothy and co. excepted, of course). But Lawrence is hoping to give the Sunflower State a sparkly makeover, squeaking past previous contender Topeka to claim the title of Kansas’s most queer-friendly city with an overall 2022 Municipal Equality Index score of 101.

The college gem is the only city in Kansas with an equality ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Meanwhile, Lawrence Pride is set to become bigger and better in 2023, with several events spread throughout the year, such as film screenings, parades, drag shows, and a queer prom. And while officially sanctioned LGBTQ+ bars aren’t exactly easy to come by in these parts, there are plenty of queer-owned and queer-friendly local businesses to choose from, including Henry's Upstairs, Replay Lounge, and the cheekily named Big Gay Store.

lexington kentucky gay bar
Crossings Lexington

Population: 320,347
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
Lexington, with its thriving arts scene and large university, has long been a magnet for LGBTQ+ Southerners from around the region. The fabulously eccentric 20th-century painter Henry Faulkner, gay rights advocate John E. Fryer, award-winning multidisciplinary artist Marlene McCarty, queer teen actor Miles Heizer, and Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in any major Christian denomination, have all called Lexington home. In 2010, the city made waves when it elected Jim Gray, its first openly gay mayor, a move that fell in line with more than a decade of pro-LGBTQ+ and anti-discrimination legislature dating back to 1999’s groundbreaking Fairness Ordinance. All that contributed to Lexington’s impressive Municipal Equality Index jump, rising from a score of 53 in 2013 to 110 in 2022.

Visitors to Lexington can immerse themselves in the city’s queer history by following along the self-guided Pride of Place tour, available at the Visitors Center. The informative trek winds through 200 years of progress, including a three-story high mural depicting local Black trans icon Sweet Evening Breeze. The Lexington Pride Center takes care of advocacy, education, and Pride festivities, while LGBTQ+ nightlife abounds at local haunts Soundbar, Crossings, and the Bar Complex, which has been thumping away since 1980.

new orleans gay bar
Good Friends Bar & Queens Head Pub

Population: 369,749
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
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 became the first Louisiana city to pass a human rights ordinance back in 1991.

NOLA's LGBTQ+ community has historically been centered around the French Quarter and Treme, and the far end of Bourbon Street is still a mecca for queer 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 and the annual Pride Parade is a beloved tradition, Southern Decadence is arguably the bigger party, attracting up to 200,000 revelers every Labor Day weekend.

Population: 145,995
Municipal Equality Index score: 71
Based on past precedent, it seems that if Mississippi legislators had their way, queer sex, queer adoption, and same-sex 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 owned Jackson's late-great LGBTQ+ dance club WonderLust. "I can't go to the mall without running into 15 gay people I know." Since Pandolfo's beloved bar sadly shuttered during the pandemic, remaining hangouts SHADE Pub and Nightclub and Club City Lights have kept Jackson's queer nightlife alive. She also recommends visitors check out the walkable neighborhood of Fondren, "a super-kitschy, hippie, gay-friendly shopping and restaurant area"—especially coffee hangout The Bean 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 and MS Capital City Pride ensure the least represented members of the LGBTQ+ rainbow—namely youth, trans, veterans, and seniors—have access to healthcare and community-building resources.

st louis pride
Pride St. Louis

Population: 286,578
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
Missouri’s second largest metropolis tied with Kansas City in 2022, with a total Municipal Equality Index score of 108 each overall. And while both cities are more than worthy of the LGBTQ+ friendly moniker, we’re giving the Lou the nod here thanks to slightly more protective anti-discrimination laws, the presence of openly LGBTQ+ political leaders, and a higher pre-flex points showing.

St. Louis’ queer history is as deeply rooted as it is diverse. HIV/AIDS advocacy group the St. Louis Gender Foundation came on the scene in 1990, and we have University of Missouri at St. Louis grad student Rodney Wilson to thank for LGBT History Month, which he founded in 1994. St. Louis Black Pride has been celebrated each year since 1995 and remains vital to local culture, while Downtown’s PrideFest rages on as one of the largest in the region, buttressed by smaller nearby bashes like Tower Grove Pride, Metro East PrideFest, and Pride St. Charles. Still curious? Sign up for Gay Liberation in the Gateway City from See STL Tours (FKA Renegade STL), where pros from the Missouri Historical Society lead groups through St. Louis’ richly historic Central West End.

western montana pride parade
The Western Montana Community Center

Population: 76,955
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
David Herrera will be the first one to tell you Missoula's nightlife could improve. It's true that the last local gay bar turned off its taps years ago and has yet to be replaced, a dry spell that Herrera, the treasurer for the town’s LGBTQ+ 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."

It's true that extracurricular groups—like the gay men’s chorus and an LGBTQ+ spiritual group—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 college 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 also founded the Western Montana LGBTQ+ Community Center as a local hub for LGBTQ+ groups a full 15 years before Great Falls opened its own in 2015.

Population: 292,627
Municipal Equality Index score: 92
It’s only fitting that Lincoln, a city named after the Great Emancipator, receive the state’s highest Municipal Equality Index score, a resounding 92 points compared to Omaha’s 85, Grand Island’s 47, and Bellevue’s 46. Nebraska’s capital and second most-populous city, Lincoln rose above its competition thanks to high marks in terms of anti-discrimination laws, trans-inclusive healthcare, and inclusive workplace laws for city workers, city-provided services for people living with HIV or AIDS and trans residents, a dedicated LGBTQ+ police liaison, and openly LGBTQ+ elected or appointed officials.

However, things aren’t always peachy in the Cornhusker State. In February 2022, the Lincoln City Council voted to extend equal protection laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity as a part of the game-changing Fairness Ordinance—only to be met with fierce and well-funded opposition from powerful area conservative groups. While the future of that bill remains uncertain, Lincoln does have another recent W under its belt by way of a February 2021 City Council ordinance banning conversion therapy, making it the first city in Nebraska to pass such legislature. And it just so happens that three of that same City Council’s seven members identify as LGBTQ+.

“There are folks who are still struggling with their identity watching this victory in Lincoln. Struggling not because of what their heart tells them, but because of the fear imposed on them by society,” out gay council member James Michael Bowers told the Trevor Project shortly after the motion passed. “Let this progress be a message to our brothers, sisters, and siblings still in the closet—we will fight for you while you are in the closet and we will be here to love you when you decide it’s time to come out.”

chapel hill pride
Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture

Population: 62,098
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
Beating out fellow college town contender Greensboro by a slim margin of 4 Municipal Equality Index points, Chapel Hill is doing its best to keep the great state of North Carolina as queer as can be (again, they didn’t rate Asheville, so jury’s out on the true NC queen). Here, local leadership aced both evaluative categories—public position on LGBTQ+ equality and pro-equality legislative or policy efforts—while also collecting a host of extra points thanks to city-run services specifically catered toward LGBTQ+ youth, people experiencing homelessness, older adults, people living with HIV or AIDS, and transgender residents.

Now, onto the fun stuff. Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s LGBTQ+ population has plenty of places to proudly strut their stuff, including queer-owned and -friendly hangouts Bowbarr, the Northside District, Cat’s Cradle, Orange County Social Club, and Local 506. Elsewhere, PlayMakers Repertory Company on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus hosts frequent drag shows, while June’s Small Town Pride celebration draws folks out with the annual Chapel Hill Pride Promenade, drag storytimes, art exhibits, and more.

Fargo-Moorhead Pride
Fargo-Moorhead Pride

Population: 131,444
Municipal Equality Index score: 79
Fargo gets the edge over Grand Forks, the first North Dakota city to pass anti-discrimination ordinances. Even former North Dakota State Senate District 18 candidate and Grand Forks’ Pride organizer, Kyle Thorson, points to Fargo’s more diverse population. “There are many, many areas across North Dakota which can be improved for LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ Film Festival, now in its 15th year. And while there are no avowed gay bars in the city, the general atmosphere is calmly out of the closet. In 2015, the visitors bureau ran a North of Normal campaign video that featured shots of LGBTQ+ 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, former president of the local Pride Collective and Community Center, reports that activist events have gotten much more prominent in recent years. “We’ve changed,” he says. “Our mission is to reflect the world we live in today.”

cincinnati pride shirts
Cincinnati Pride

Population: 309,513
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
Sprawling Columbus, with its massive university, growing population, and renown Pride celebration, might be the obvious choice for Ohio’s most LGBTQ+ friendly city. “Think again,” says good old Cinci-nasty, whose Municipal Equality Index score upset the capital city 118 to 115. Perched on the banks of the Ohio River and closer to Kentucky than any other major Ohio city, this southwestern staple’s stance on LGBTQ+ has evolved slowly but steadily over the past few decades. 2005 saw the repeal of Article XII, a 1994 city charter amendment that outlawed legal protection based on sexual orientation. Article XII’s demise paved the path for sweeping municipal non-discrimination laws, city-provided services for LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, and people living with HIV or AIDS, an LGBTQ+ police liaison or task force, and a local ban on conversion therapy.

Cincinnati’s LGBTQ+ cred also got a sizable PR boost when local civil rights activist Jim Obergefell took his fight for federal same-sex marriage recognition all the way to the Supreme Court. It was this course-altering 2015 decision that ultimately brought marriage equality to all 50 states, cementing Obergefell’s—and Cincinnati’s—rightful place in America’s queer history.

Population: 129,627
Municipal Equality Index score: 100
Oklahoma experienced some rocky changes last year, when the state’s governor signed an anti-trans bathroom bill into law. But Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, has always been a progressive star in a sea of red.

Since 2010, they’ve officially recognized LGBTQ+ History Month in October, which encompasses Coming Out day on October 11. In 2019, Norman was the first city in the state to pass an anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination ordinance, covering areas including private employment, housing, and public accommodations, and in 2021, they were the first in the state to ban conversion therapy. Though there are no official gay bars to speak of, rainbow stickers in many windows around signal LGBTQ+-friendly businesses. And they’re so into Pride, they kick things off a full month early—May 5’s kick-off party came complete with performances by local drag royalty. 

Harriet Hancock LGBT Center south carolina
Harriet Hancock LGBT Center

Population: 139,698
Municipal Equality Index score: 77
South Carolina elected its first openly gay state lawmaker in 2017—Greenville attorney Jason Elliott, a Republican. But this hasn’t kickstarted laws against discrimination of prospective LGBTQ+ parents, rolling back the criminalization of those who are HIV+, and riding the state of “don’t say gay” laws that bar LGBTQ+ topics taught in schools. However, state employees and folks associated with colleges and universities are protected by non-discrimination laws, and anti-bullying laws as well as suicide prevention policies are firmly in place within the state’s school system.

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 forward-thinking destinations, 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 LGBTQ+ Center, named after an early SC pride activist, are trying to change hearts and minds.

Since parts of South Carolina still seem to dwell in the 1960s, an era when “blue laws” regulated alcohol sales, some bars operate as private clubs that only admit members and their guests. This allows them certain privileges, like the ability to decide who can enter. This holds for the city's 42-year-old “genteel” establishment, The Capital Club. Call ahead, and getting in shouldn't be a problem.

brookings south dakota pride flag
PFLAG - Brookings SD

Population: 23,993
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
South Dakota hasn’t always been headed in a progressive direction, but things are changing. In February of 2019, LGBTQ+ newspaper The Washington Blade, ran the headline "South Dakota leads the way in anti-LGBT bills for 2019 session." Yikes. In 2017, Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a bill allowing adoption and foster agencies to legally refuse working with gay couples, and in 2019, the legislature adopted a “Don’t Say Trans” bill. However, foster care non-discrimination laws are now on the books, coupled with a host of other anti-discrimination protections relating to LGBTQ+ individuals. Brookings—which earned an outstanding 102 in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2022 Municipal Equality Index—is a driving force behind South Dakota’s more accepting future.

Local elected officials have made a concerted effort to make the city more inclusive, says Lawrence Novotny, who serves as the LGBTQ+ liaison for the Brookings Human Rights Commission and secretary-treasurer for Equality South Dakota, a statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group. “Some of these [changes] are: a Human Rights Commission, non-discrimination laws in city employment, an LGBTQ+ liaison to the city government, and LGBTQ+ liaison to the city police department, benefits for partners of city employees, and trans-inclusive health benefits,” Novotny explains. Brookings also benefits from being the home of South Dakota State University, whose on-campus gender and sexuality alliance hosts drag shows and other inclusive events.

nashville tennessee pride
Nashville Pride

Population: 683,622
Municipal Equality Index score: 77
When country starlet Chely Wright came out on the cover of People Magazine in 2010, the news hit with all the force of a 1,000-foot gong. At the time, Nashville, a city long synonymous with—let’s face it—campy flamboyance, was holding onto its cookie-cutter cowboy and cowgirl image by the skin of its teeth. Fast-forward 12 years, and Music City is finally starting to lean into its fabulous true self, scoring well above the 69-point national average on the Municipal Equality Index and beating its fellow Tennessee cities like Memphis (54), Chattanooga (50), and Knoxville (54), handily.

Nashville dropped the most points in the realm of non-discrimination laws, a fact that holds true throughout the historically conservative state. While city employees have access to anti-discrimination policies, domestic partner benefits, and inclusive worksplace measures, there’s nothing protecting the rest of Nashville’s LGBTQ+ population from suffering bias at work, in public, or when trying to secure housing. Municipal services gave Nashville a bump, thanks to LGBTQ+ youth programs, as did the presence of law enforcement liaisons and openly LGBTQ+ elected or appointed officials.

Unfortunately, all that might not be enough to curb several anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently moving through the state legislature, including Tennessee's own version of the “Don’t Say Gay” motion, which would prohibit any materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address controversial social issues, such as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) lifestyles” from being discussed in public schools. That’s exactly why Nashville-based organizations like the Tennessee Equality Project, Nashville Pride, and Nashville Black Pride are so vital right now, alongside out-and-proud community spaces like Thrillist’s ShiftChange star the Lipstick Lounge, one of the country’s few surviving lesbian bars.

Population: 974,447
Municipal Equality Index score: 107
Less of a no-brainer than one might think, with Houston rapidly morphing into one of America’s most diverse cities, Dallas nipping at Austin’s heels with a strong slate of municipal protections, and even low-key LGBTQ+ hub San Antonio throwing its weight around, but the proverbial blueberry in the cherry pie has done it again. The MEI awarded Austin 107 points in 2022, a telling accomplishment at a time when Texas’ LGBTQ+ population is staring down some of the most draconian and harmful statewide legislation this country has seen in a generation. More than 30 explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been proposed by Texas lawmakers in recent years, from criminalizing affirming healthcare for trans youth to actions preempting local nondiscrimination ordinances. Smdh.

Queer Austinites are working hard to get the Lone Star State back on track, teaming up with organizations like Out Youth, The Q Austin, Central Texas Transgender Health Coalition, Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation, and Equality Texas to aid in their efforts. They’re playing hard, too, making good use of local LGBTQ+ institutions like Cheer Up Charlies, Coconut Club, Barbarella, Rain on 4th, and more.

salt lake city pride
Photo by Austen Diamond Photography, courtesy of Visit Salt Lake

Population: 204,657
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
We know what you're thinking: Isn't Salt Lake City the home base for Mormon-lead attacks on gay rights? Well, yes. But Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says that's exactly what spawned the changing of some hearts and minds and the reinvention of SLC as a great LGBTQ+ community.

"Prop 8 [passing] in California—and knowing that millions of dollars in protest money from the 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, the LDS and LGBTQ+ communities haven't found middle ground around issues of 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. In 2019, the Utah Supreme Court ousted a law that previously barred same-sex couples from entering into surrogacy agreements, avowing that "same-sex couples must be afforded all of the benefits the state has linked to marriage.” Also in 2019, the state Senate passed a bill criminalizing hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender, while in 2021, the state’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 to give trans citizens the right to change their name and gender on their birth certificates. Most recently, Governor Spencer Cox vetoed a looming trans sports ban in March, 2022—sadly, the state legislature overrode the veto. 

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 queer nightlife scene, too, centered around places like Club Try-Angles, M I L K +, 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.

Huntington west virginia Pride
Huntington Pride

Population: 45,746
Municipal Equality Index score: 100+
West Virginia isn't as far behind the times as some other Southern states—not for nothing, 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 2019 pro-LGBTQ+ marketing campaign declaring that it's “Welcome to All.” The cute, livable city boasts a small college (Marshall University), an award-winning rose garden, and a few longstanding LGBTQ+ and queer-friendly bars, most notably Stonewall. 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 these spots embody the spirit of Appalachia at its come-as-you-are best.

Laramie Pride Fest
Laramie Pride Fest

Population: 32,035
Municipal Equality Index score: 70
Wyoming is not an easy place to be anything but heterosexual, but there's one decent, however complicated, respite amid this deeply red terrain: Laramie. Still known to many as the site of gay college student Matthew Shephard’s horrible 1998 murder, Laramie is a surprisingly bohemian college town tucked 7,200 feet up in the Snowy Range—and in 2015, the town rallied to become the first city in Wyoming to pass an ordinance to protect LGBTQ+ citizens from job, housing, and service discrimination.

Erin Clingman, executive director of Wyoming Equality, says they plan to push for protective laws city by city in the coming years, while also acknowledging the uphill battle that lies ahead. Case in point? In early 2022, the state Senate passed a bill in favor of defunding the University of Wyoming's Gender and Women's Studies program, dubbing it "an extremely biased, ideologically driven program" with no "academic legitimacy." And while Laramie still retains much of the state's "Cowboy culture" that can often foster hostility toward 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 out-and-proud gay bars per se, but a number of local watering holes are welcoming and openly queer-friendly. Pop into Front Street Tavern—attached to Sweet Melissa's vegetarian cafe next door—on any given night and you'll find amiable Laramigos 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 for folks representing all corners of the gender and sexuality spectrum.

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