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6 Surprising Places It's Great To Be Gay (Dallas, Texas?)

It's not just coastal urban areas that can be safe havens for LGBT people.
 
 
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When most people think of the best places to live if you're lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), the immediate tendency is to hone in on urban places. And certainly, there's something to be said for living in places that offer a sense of community and safety.

As a Southerner, however, I know that tendency often overlooks places outside of coastal metropolitan locations – places that offer some of the best glimpses of American life, but that are off the beaten queer path. The list below is one take on some of the best places to be queer in the U.S., taking into account culture, history, law and geography.

6) Dallas, Texas. The Lone Star State has a long history of entrenched bigotry – to the extent that the Texas Republican Party's platform includes reprehensible statements about imprisoning LGBT Texans in order to uphold the moral fabric of the state. But, despite the seething bigotry that rages within the legislature and state party politics, Dallas shines a beacon of hope for queer Texans.

The city's laws aren't perfect, but they offer some anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. And the prevalence of gay bars in the city – encompassing everything from Latin to gender-queer to dance clubs to country-western – is really an oasis in the midst of a thick fog of bigotry. There's a vibrant moneyed gay community that puts a lot of resources into creating a backbone to support the burgeoning LGBT youth community as they navigate Texas' longstanding fear of change. Make no mistake – Dallas isn't a queer utopia and there is still a real need for conversations along the lines of race and class. But the city's gay bar culture is one of the most vibrant and most diverse in the country.

5) Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta has a deeply rooted queer culture that, combined with good old Southern hospitality, really has a unique flair. While Lexington and Louisville have cultivated queer spaces that provide community and support, Atlanta has carved out some pretty prominent and “out” queer spaces. From Five Points to Piedmont Park and beyond, Atlanta has a relaxed queer vibe – and one of the most spectacular collection of Pride parades around.

For those who enjoy “porch culture,” Atlanta offers not only the downtown area as pretty queer-friendly, but also offers multiple queer-identified suburbs. So if downtown living/visiting isn't your style, look for suburbs like Decatur (home of Eddie's Attic, an amazing music venue regularly hosting queer Southern rockers like Michelle Malone, Kristen Hall, and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls). And with strong progressive organizing happening throughout Georgia, Atlanta is really a great place for queer folks to live, work, organize, and play.

4) Lexington/Louisville, Kentucky. OK, this might be cheating a bit since Lexington is my hometown, but there are huge advantages to being queer in Lexington or Louisville. The rest of the state is challenging, but recent progress in both towns has really stepped up the ability to be out and comfortable in the two largest cities in the state.

In many Southern states, the LGBT community has carved out unique safe spaces for themselves that are pretty remarkable to experience. It's hard to describe, but going to a gay bar in Kentucky is a pretty powerful experience – the community is remarkably courageous and self-assured, and has created a queer Southern hospitality that just has to be experienced to be understand. And don't assume that this queer Southern hospitality is just a bunch of folks sitting around drinking sweet tea – Lady Gaga's recent appearance at a gay bar in Louisville showed just how outrageous queer spaces in Kentucky can be.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Kentucky's neighbor to the south, Tennessee, given that the state Senate just passed a law that prohibits mentioning anything at all related to LGBT issues in classrooms, and the governor just signed a law reversing anti-discrimination ordinances in Nashville. Anti-LGBT elected officials like Republican State Rep. Stacey Campfield, the “Don't Say Gay” bill's sponsor, are not just forcing these pieces of legislation through their state chambers -- they're approaching that work with a desperation that borders on obsession (as evidenced by recent efforts to amend state Constitutions in Minnesota and North Carolina to forever disallow same-sex marriage, even when same-sex marriage is already outlawed). This kind of vitriolic and cowardly lawmaking certainly impacts the overall legal standing of LGBT folks, but pockets of queer-friendliness like Lexington and Louisville certainly offer a reprieve from statewide laws.

3) Iowa City, Iowa. At first glance, Iowa is extraordinarily flat and unexciting. Deeper digging, however, reveals the best of Midwestern nice in a comfortable college town. Iowa City has a small-town feel in the heart of a university-dominated setting. There's a fantastic pedestrian bar area where you can enjoy a beer on a sunny day while reveling in Hawkeye football, or take a walk on a crisp fall afternoon. But Iowa City also has a long counterculture history, and there are plenty of opportunities to share in a queer culture that is shaped, but not dominated by the university.

Factor in the politically proud caucus culture that runs through Iowa's veins, and you have some pretty great conversations that unfold at the bars that dominate the downtown area. There are great opportunities to interact not only with the politicians who court Iowa's caucus-goers like nobody's business, but also the academics who have developed a bit of a political industry in the state. And of course, who can forget that as LGBT Californians lost the right to marry following the heartbreaking Prop. 8 vote, same-sex marriage became legal in the state of Iowa.

2) Anywhere in Vermont. The Green Mountain State is simply beautiful. Of course, the fact that LGBT folks who live there are as equal as possible without being federally equal is a big plus. (See the States of Equality Scorecard for a detailed run-down of LGBT legal standing in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.)

The state has done everything possible to protect its LGBT citizens to the degree possible while federal law renders them unequal. That work wasn't done easily, and certainly hasn't been without pushback. In some areas of the state, it is still quite controversial for LGBT residents to be out and open – though having the support and validation of the state government certainly mitigates most danger.

The absolutely gorgeous geography of the state is just icing on the cake – the state is nestled between the Green Mountains and the Adirondack mountains, with Lake Champlain thrown into the mix for good measure. The outdoorsy culture of the state lends itself to pretty regular interaction between neighbors (“Hey, can I borrow your skis to run up to the grocery store?”), and the reverence for participatory democracy that dominates the “town hall” season really boosts the quality of life factor for straight and queer Vermonters alike.

1) Western North Carolina. If you like mountains and eclectic culture, western North Carolina is the place for you. From the weirdness of Asheville to the artistry of Black Mountain to the university influence of Boone, the foothills of the Appalachian mountains are a really incredible place to visit and to live.

Despite the possibility of an amendment to the state constitution that would render marriage equality impossible (except in the case of a federal law/directive), western North Carolina is a great place to be if you're LGBT. Asheville, especially, is a warm and welcoming place – able to house a wide diversity of communities, from evangelicals to Wiccans to radical queers to folk artists. Asheville (due largely in part to some great organizing by GetEQUAL North Carolina and several other progressive groups) now has a domestic partner registry and one of the most welcoming downtown areas you'll run across. It's a community that values diversity, artistry and disparate folks sitting down together to break bread.

Add to that a stunning landscape and an outdoorsy culture, and you have a recipe for some great Southern queer living. It's a bit of a drive to find a gay bar, but sitting outside and drinking a beer at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains is a pretty great alternative.

In summary, the question of the best places to live if you're a queer American can't be boiled down to a scorecard -- though, certainly, scorecards are helpful. It's all those "in-between" factors like history and culture that create either a welcoming or hostile environment for making progress on LGBT equality. And it is up to our elected officials, our schools, our communities of faith, our large and small corporations, and our families to do the hard work not only to change our laws but to change our lives for the better. And it's also up to us -- LGBT Americans and fair-minded straight Americans. And I'm working toward a day when legal equality for LGBT Americans matches up to the cultural spaces that we've created for ourselves.

Heather Cronk is the managing director at the LGBT civil rights organization GetEQUAL (www.getequal.org). She currently lives in Maryland by way of Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Kentucky again, Georgia, North Carolina, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and New York.
 
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