Editor's Letter: Exploring the Hidden Gayness of Our Cities

By Matthew Breen

Originally published on Advocate.com January 06 2014 5:00 AM ET

Moving is the worst. In December I moved back to New York from Los Angeles (again) for a total of three cross-country moves in seven years. Packing your life into boxes, jettisoning the junk, packing a truck, hoping it arrives intact, and unpacking (especially into a tiny Manhattan apartment) — that’s exhausting. And I’m no more expert at it now than I was three moves ago. But this time, I chose to put everything into a trailer and tow it across country. All 3,433 miles.

The upside is that on the drive, my husband and I were able to visit parts of the country I’d never set foot in before. And this country has some unparalleled beauty. Los Angeles to St. George, Utah, has lots of solemn, meditative desert expanses. The drive to Albuquerque, around the north rim of the Grand Canyon, is all alpine climbs, snow-capped peaks, stunning red rock mesas, and puffy white clouds.

From there to Dallas on Route 66, after endless prairies (and some kitschy diners in virtual ghost towns) one feels the change in climate, the thickening forests, the increase in humidity. Dallas to New Orleans to Atlanta means driving over beautiful bayous, through giant flat vistas of tangled swampland branches, and past gator ranch signs. We saw fall leaves and felt the crisp air on the way to Winston-Salem, N.C., and then fog and rain on the final stretch into the New York area.

As we traveled, I was editing our next cover article on Russia by Chadwick Moore, and was struck by the contrasts. Is being openly gay in Russia anything at all like being afraid to say “my husband” in some of those tiny, remote gas stations in Alabama where my California plates sat cheek-to-jowl with Mack truck mudflaps? I don’t know. Russia seems orders of magnitude more strange to me now than it did before.

Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Arlington, Va., New Orleans and Las Vegas, were all on our route, and all appear on the Gayest Cities in America. Our schedule allowed us some time to check out a nightclub in Dallas (Saturday night line dancing at Roundup Saloon); we visited Bourbon Street in New Orleans (although it was a sleepy Sunday night we saw some great drag at Oz); and went to Swinging Richard’s in Atlanta.

Those cities have an undeniable appeal to LGBT residents and visitors. Some of the other cities on the list will baffle or enrage readers. I can almost hear the comments now: “How could you include that city? What about [New York City, Fort Lauderdale? Palm Springs?] What kind of criteria is women’s colleges or concerts by Jonas Brothers?

Here’s the dirty little secret about the list: The point isn’t really to pick the gayest cities. We know New York and Palm Springs are gay and exceptionally LGBT- friendly. Who doesn’t? But if you dismiss the list out of hand, you risk missing the whole point.

(RELATED: Gayest Cities in America for 2014)

The very day Knoxville, Tenn., and Grand Rapids, Mich., made the top 15, local TV news crews went down to the only gay bar and the most gay-inclusive church in those respective cities, to discuss whether we were correct, or out of our collective tree. People started talking.

The point isn’t just accuracy (though we do try to be as precise as possible assessing points via the changing criteria we select). The real goal is discussion, the conversations that happens in each of these places, and across our beautiful and incredibly varied country.

The list is an opportunity to talk about the hidden factors in a city that many people may not be aware of (e.g., gay-friendly churches), and more importantly we talk about whether a city isn’t nearly as LGBT-friendly as its ranking suggests, and what could be done to make improvements. And isn’t that where the work begins?