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The Metro Areas With the Largest, and Smallest, Gay Populations

Published: 03/20/2015
The New York Times -- The Census Bureau asks Americans about subjects as varied as race, age, annual income and even their source of home heating. But there is one glaring demographic omission: The census does not ask people about their sexual orientation. As a result, there has long been a shroud of uncertainty around the geography of gay and lesbian Americans.

A new analysis of Gallup survey data offers the most detailed estimates yet about where people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender live.

The Gallup analysis finds the largest concentrations in the West — and not just in the expected places like San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Denver and Salt Lake City are also in the top 10. How could Salt Lake be there, given its well-known social conservatism? It seems to be a kind of regional capital of gay life, attracting people from other parts of Utah and the Mormon West.

On the other hand, some of the East Coast places with famous gay neighborhoods, including in New York, Miami and Washington, have a smaller percentage of their population who identify as gay — roughly average for a big metropolitan area. The least gay urban areas are in the Midwest and South.

Significant as these differences are, the similarities are just as notable. Gay America, rather than being confined to a few places, spreads across every major region of the country. Nationwide, Gallup says, 3.6 percent of adults consider themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And even the parts of the country outside the 50 biggest metropolitan areas have a gay population (about 3 percent) not so different from some big metropolitan areas. It’s a reflection in part of increasing tolerance and of social connections made possible by the Internet.

Frank Newport, the editor in chief of Gallup, notes that the regional variation in sexual orientation and identity is much smaller than the variation in many other categories. The share of San Francisco’s population that’s gay is only two and a half times larger than the share outside major metro areas. The regional gaps in political attitudes, religion and ethnic makeup are often much wider.

“For a generation, they all remember the moment they walked through their first gay bar,” said Paul Boneberg, executive director of the G.L.B.T. Historical Society in San Francisco. “But now they come out for the first time online, and that changes, for some people, the need to leave.”

Salt Lake City

It might seem surprising at first that the city most associated with the Mormon Church — which believes that sex and marriage should occur between only a man and a woman — has the seventh-highest share of L.G.B.T. people, at 4.7 percent.

But another aspect of the Mormon culture — the importance of community and family — goes a long way toward explaining the pattern, people in Salt Lake City say.

Though many gay people who were raised Mormon (or L.D.S., an acronym for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) describe feeling expelled from the community, a large number still choose to stay close to their families and culture. “If you grow up L.D.S. like I did, you still have these deep Mormon values that are embedded in your DNA,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an L.G.B.T. advocacy group.

That connection has helped the gay community and the church find common ground. This month, Utah passed a law, with the support of the church, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment and housing. Salt Lake City also appears to have attracted L.G.B.T. people from nearby conservative states — like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — that don’t have cities that are as big or welcoming.

“There are certain cities that are going to pop up not because they’re a national draw,” Mr. Gates said, “but because they’re in areas where social acceptance is so vastly different in cities than in outlying areas that the cities become a regional draw.”

List of top 10 largest metro areas, along with Gallup’s estimate of the L.G.B.T. population in each:

San Francisco, 6.2 percent
Portland, Ore., 5.4
Austin, Tex., 5.3
New Orleans, 5.1
Seattle, 4.8
Boston, 4.8
Salt Lake City, 4.7
Los Angeles, 4.6
Denver, 4.6
Hartford, 4.6