Editor's Note: Greg Near is a Salt Lake City-based PR/Marketing professional, published author and playwright. His play “The Mysterious, Happy Life of Brown Bag,” about tolerance and bullying in elementary schools, won Best Play and Best Production at Salt Lake City’s 2010 Page-To-Stage Festival and has been performed throughout Utah. His 2011 play, “Two Tables,” explores the struggles of contemporary gay dating. He has sung with the Salt Lake Men’s Choir and recently mentored a fiction writing group through the Salt Lake Community College Writing Center. He is single, but optimistic.
Is it possible for the reddest state in the country to have the pinkest city?
Yes, according to The Advocate. The magazine released its annual Gayest Cities in America list Monday and raised some eyebrows by putting Salt Lake City, Utah, on top. Resounding cries of “no way” were heard from anyone living in a more LGBT-friendly metropolis. Granted, The Advocate used slightly wonky calculations to compute gayness -- with criteria like nude yoga classes and International Mr. Leather competition semifinalists -- but for whatever they’re worth, I say the statistics gathered are accurate.
As a gay man who came to Salt Lake City 15 years ago, you might wonder if I was surprised by this hometown win. The answer? Yes, of course. Who would think the Mormon Mecca would be waving a rainbow flag? But truth is, there are plenty of non-wonky, real-life reasons to agree with the magazine's findings, and they're the same reasons I felt comfortable all those years ago settling down here.
When I first relocated from Arizona, I was surprised to discover that there actually was a vibrant, thriving gay community in Salt Lake, and it’s been exciting to see it grow over the years. In addition to that Mr. Leather semifinalist, the LGBT bookstore and even nude yoga classes (which, by the way, conjures up images as discomfiting as they are titillating), there are queer-friendly standards: the gay & lesbian bars, the hopping coffee shops and even a few "out" politicians.
But look beyond that and you find a unique, robust gay presence in the city. There is Q Salt Lake, a biweekly magazine for the queer community that is available free throughout Salt Lake County. There is the Utah Pride Festival that brings together the LGBT community every June with attendees from not only Utah, but the surrounding states as well. Last year was a record-breaking one for the event, with approximately 28,000 attendees; the entertaining Pride Parade is the second largest parade in the state (after the Pioneer Day Parade).
The Utah Pride Center opened in 1992 and provides a safe, welcoming gathering space. The city and surrounding county have established anti-discrimination protection for sexual orientation and, according to a poll by the Human Rights Campaign last year, 77 percent of Utahns support laws protecting our jobs and housing.
There’s a huge gay day at the amusement park Lagoon every summer. The Q Business Alliance supports gay-friendly small business owners. There’s even faith-based support in reconciling congregations that welcome gays and lesbians to church on Sunday (just don’t lump the LDS church in with that group.)
The queer arts scene here is also alive and well: The Salt Lake Men’s Choir (which I sang in for years) gives sold-out performances throughout the year. Plan-B Theatre Company consistently stages gay-themed plays, as do many other first-rate theater companies in town. Last October, Salt Lake even saw its first enormous Pink Dot event for National Coming Out Day, when hundreds gathered in the downtown ballpark -- only the second location in the world to host this event!
Time for the reality check, though: Do I feel as comfortable walking around downtown SLC holding hands with another man as I would in San Francisco or New York City? Don’t be silly -- of course not. It was just a couple of years ago that two men were aggressively arrested in Mormon Temple Square for simply giving each other an affectionate kiss.
But do I feel safe hugging my friends and being obviously out in public? Absolutely. Do I participate in all the gay-friendly events happening here? Wish I could say that I did -- but I know they’re available to me.
Yes, I’m part of a pink community in a red state, one that even struggles with separation of church and state. But my community is queer, we’re here and we’re Utahns. That might still raise my eyebrow, but then I remember the Big Gay Fun Bus is heading to Nevada this weekend for some gambling fun, and I’m not surprised at all.