Thrillist Travel -- Don't let the sea of red on the 2016 presidential electoral map fool you. The arc of American history is long, and it's rainbow-colored.
Last November 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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.
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.
In choosing cities to recognize, we looked often to the HRC's most recent Municipal Quality Index, which scores cities' LGBTQ legal protections on a 100-point scale. We also wanted chill places with an LGBTQ 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.
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."
Utah: Salt Lake City
A former political warzone is changing with the times
Bona fides: They’ve elected a lesbian mayor and two out city council members.
We know what you're thinking: Isn't that 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 made it through a Republican super-majority in the state legislature. (Utah is the only state to ever pull this off.)
Salt Lake City meanwhile just cranks right along. It has rechristened 20 city blocks as Harvey Milk Blvd (between Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks Streets). There's a gay bar called Triangles and a dance club called Club Jam. "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 City, Park City, Provo, West Jordan, West Valley City