In the 2010s, we witnessed unprecedented national momentum with LGBTQ rights – the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the election of several queer politicians, to highlight a few milestones. However, despite the progress of the last decade, it often feels like the only places where queer folks can thrive are coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles, where liberal values rule, populations number in the millions, and the cost of living is astronomical. For those hoping for more alternatives, safe spaces are popping up in some of the most unlikely places – red states.
We live in an age of deep political polarization, and a state largely populated by conservatives might seem like the LGBTQ community’s worst nightmare. States like Arkansas and West Virginia are by no means queer utopias, but there are blue dots within them that offer a glimmer of hope.
Eureka Springs, AR/Fayetteville, AR
Arkansas is a deep red state, but two cities in its northwest corridor serve as safe havens and champions of the LGBTQ community.
Eureka Springs is a tiny mountain town with a vibrant liberal spirt. Of its 2,000 residents, an estimated 30% identify as LGBTQ. Eureka Live Underground, the local nightlife venue, hosts monthly drag events. And each summer, the city hosts its Summer Diversity Weekend, which features PDA in the Park, the self-described “largest public display of affection in the Midwest”.
Close by is Fayetteville, which is home to the University of Arkansas. The city became the first in Arkansas to join the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, and its annual pride parade drew a crowd of 15,000 attendees last year. Additionally, local lawmakers have been pushing for anti-discrimination legislation since 2014.
Oklahoma City, OK
Oklahoma City is home to the NW 39th Street Enclave, a gayborhood that’s considered the biggest LGBTQ district in the Great Plains. It’s populated by bars, nightclubs, stores, restaurants, and apartment complexes that cater exclusively to the community. And NW 39th Street Enclave isn’t just for the locals – it attracts queer tourists from the South and Midwest.
Oklahoma City is also home to a large group of organizations that support the LGBTQ community, including Freedom Oklahoma, a statewide advocacy and education group, and queer publications like The Gayly.
Salt Lake City, UT
Despite its reputation as a religiously conservative city with a large Mormon population, Salt Lake City is gay-friendly and not in a “corporate speak way,” as its official website says. Utah Pride has taken place here since 1983. The Utah Pride Center, a community-based organization, is headquartered here. And LOVELOUD Fest takes place here each year, with ticket sales benefitting local and national LGBTQ charities.
Like many of the other cities on this list, Columbia has a thriving gay scene, but there’s more measurable change. The Columbia Police Department hired its first LGBTQ liaison in 2016, in an attempt to support the queer community and improve its relationship with the department. It is actions like these that helped Columbia score a perfect 100 on the Municipal Equality Index, a measure of how inclusive a city’s laws, policies, and services are.
Huntington also achieved a perfect MEI score. The city reestablished its Human Relations Commission in 2019, which was tasked with upholding a nondiscrimination ordinance. The Commission is also responsible for investigating violations of the ordinance. Additionally, Huntington has an Open for All campaign, through which businesses post stickers in their windows to show support and solidarity with LGBTQ residents. The city’s work has even been recognized by the Human Rights Campaign.
For many of us, packing up our things and taking off for New York City isn’t a viable option. But staying put in a red state doesn’t have to be a jail sentence. Look for the blue dots, and there’s still a chance that you’ll find community, acceptance, and legal protection. Regardless of the state you call home, you can still be your authentic self.
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