Salt Lake City is perhaps best known for being a gateway to the “greatest snow on Earth” and the global headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But some are surprised to learn Utah’s capital is also one of America’s queerest cities.
Even the group that works to attract tourists here knows Salt Lake City is not top of mind when it comes to LGBTQ inclusivity — or second or third place, for that matter, according to Visit Salt Lake.
“But almost any LGBTQ visitor who’s been here before, and nearly every LGBTQ local who calls the city home, will tell you, it’s an inclusive urban destination,” Visit Salt Lake states on its website, “with tons of super gay stuff going on.”
All that “gay stuff” landed midsize Salt Lake City on Advocate magazine’s 2016 list of “Ten Queerest Cities in America” — ranking even gayer that year than Los Angeles.
Here’s the catch: That ranking is about seven years old, and it relies on data about things like queer sports teams, movies and concerts. Salt Lake City also didn’t make the same list in 2017, the last time it was published.
The Salt Lake Tribune revisited some of those Advocate metrics, considered a few more scientific ones, and spoke with community members to try to understand how the city shapes up today.
The verdict: Salt Lake City is still pretty queer and inclusive, but there’s room for improvement, especially at the state level.
City’s inclusivity, diversity ‘sometimes surprising to people’
Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Salt Lake City’s inclusivity and diversity “is sometimes surprising to people in other parts of the country.”
But if people are shocked to learn that it’s among the nation’s queerest cities, Mendenhall said it’s because they’re influenced by stereotypes. That’s perhaps why Utah’s capital city has consistently made headlines for being so queer.
In addition to Advocate’s 2016 ranking, a 2015 Gallup survey found Salt Lake City had the seventh-highest LGBT population in the U.S. Two years earlier, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law said Salt Lake City had the nation’s highest percentage of same-sex parents.
Salt Lake City was also the second in the U.S. to designate a Harvey Milk Boulevard, named for California’s first openly gay elected public official, who was assassinated in 1978, said Troy Williams, Equality Utah’s executive director.
“San Diego had the first, albeit only one block. We have 20 (not that size always matters). And Portland followed a few years after us,” he wrote in an email.
The Pride parade that runs through downtown Salt Lake City is the second-largest parade in the state, according to Kaitlin Eskelson, Visit Salt Lake president and CEO — behind only the Days of ‘47 Parade that honors Latter-day Saint pioneers who immigrated to the state.
All that shows that Salt Lake City is a bastion for LGBTQ rights, even if being situated in a deeply conservative state presents challenges, Williams said.
“We have a vibrant, creative and passionate community that shines. We still have a lot of work ahead of us. There are big challenges,” Williams wrote in an email. “But I’m tremendously proud of all that our community has accomplished.”
Williams said he’s not familiar with the rubrics used to rank Salt Lake City as queer, or at least LGBTQ-friendly.
“But it’s fun to see Utah score so high,” he said.
How do residents feel?
Rankings from the Advocate and others have included the number of gay bars and Pride events a city has.
But having a great party and parade once a year, along with some safe spaces, isn’t a key metric for how queer a place is to Samantha Parmley, who chairs the board for the Utah LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce.
She said access to a supportive LGBTQ community — like having Stonewall Sports, a local nonprofit LGBTQ+ sports league, and seeing pride flags within just about any club or bar in the city — helps. But Parmley cares more about how she and others in the LGBTQ community feel as they go about their day-to-day lives.
Can she walk down the street while holding her wife’s hand without getting yelled at? Does she get strange looks at work when she mentions her wife? Do people assume she’s talking about a husband when she mentions her spouse?
Personally, Parmley has had to file a housing discrimination lawsuit here, and said she has faced employment discrimination. Sometimes, when she calls her child’s doctor and says she’s “Mom,” they say Mom just called.
She still considers Salt Lake City an especially queer city. But there’s a lot of room for improvement, she said.
The Tribune last week published a survey about the city’s ranking, asking readers if they felt that Salt Lake City really was one of America’s queerest cities, and LGBTQ friendly. Of the 104 people who had responded as of Wednesday morning, 41.3% said “sort of.” Another 29.8% said “yes,” and 28.8% said “no.”
Sage Evans, who is transgender and has split time living in Salt Lake City and Davis County, said that, of course, he prefers living in Salt Lake City.
“It was always the goal to be in Salt Lake and spend time in Salt Lake,” Evans said, noting that it’s the most liberal, accepting place in a state and region that isn’t always tolerant of LGBTQ people. “I knew I was queer from a very young age, and so I just felt more comfortable here.”
Being comfortable in a place doesn’t necessarily mean that place is ideal, though, and all the press about the city being so welcoming can be misleading, Evans said. The LDS Church’s influence in Salt Lake City is also “kind of hard to avoid,” he pointed out, whereas in other places, the predominant religion feels less omnipresent.
In Salt Lake County, hate crimes against LGBTQ people dropped from a high of 19 in 2018 to just three in 2020 — but numbers have risen since, even though hate crimes often are unreported and unprosecuted. Police reported 12 such hate crimes in the county in 2021 and 20 in 2022.
Across the state, law enforcement reported a jump in hate crimes in 2021, with an increase in June in particular — when many communities celebrate Pride.
And then there’s the state Legislature. Williams noted that Utah’s mostly conservative lawmakers have passed a number of pro-LGBTQ laws. Utah was the first red state to pass an LGBTQ non-discrimination law; the only red state to repeal a “Don’t Say Gay” law; the first red state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law; and the first red state to ban conversion therapy, he said.
But Utah legislators have also recently passed laws that advocates say harm the LGBTQ community, including a near-total ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender children.
The Human Rights Campaign rebuked Gov. Spencer Cox at the end of January for signing that bill, saying he “caved to anti-equality extremists.” The civil rights organization said it was the first anti-LGBTQ+ bill signed into law this year. Eighteen other states have since passed similar laws banning gender-care for youths, the group reported.
How Salt Lake City has improved since Advocate ranking
While some fear state policies may erode civil rights, Salt Lake City is working to enact more inclusive local policies to support the queer community.
In 2016, when The Advocate included Salt Lake City on its list, the city only scored a 69 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s municipal equality index score. That score is based on a place’s non-discrimination laws, whether or not a city equitably employs LGBTQ+ folk and if local leadership, including law enforcement, are supportive of LGBTQ+ equality.
Now, Salt Lake City scores a perfect 100 — higher than Boise and on par with other large western cities, including Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix and Portland.
No other city in Utah has a perfect score. The closest is Park City with a score of 70, and the rest fall between 36 and 58.
Just 20% or so of ranked cities get a score of 100, Mendenhall said, and it took work for Salt Lake City to get there.
The city’s score increased to 75 after her first year in office, when her administration added benefits for domestic partners and the city passed an ordinance requiring contractors to have non-discrimination policies.
Adding a police liaison for the LGBTQ+ community, transgender health care benefits for city employees and funding for community initiatives and programs helped the city reach 100.
“A welcoming and inclusive community is good for everyone,” Mendenhall said. “It’s good for every resident. It’s good for the economy.”
LGBTQ people face socioeconomic barriers, need support
Though the city has inclusive policies, locals who identify as LGBTQ+ still face more socioeconomic barriers than those who do not, based on data from the Williams Institute.
That institute used data from the Gallup Daily Tracking survey to provide population and demographic estimates of LGBTQ adults in the country’s 55 largest metropolitan statistical areas, including Salt Lake City.
The analysis found 4.7% of adults in Salt Lake City identify as LGBTQ+. That’s higher than Albuquerque and Phoenix, at 4.5% and 4.3%, respectively, and close to Denver’s 4.8%.
But the analysis also shows that in Salt Lake City and those comparison cities, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be unemployed and uninsured, experience food insecurity and make less than $24,000 a year.
In Salt Lake City specifically, members of the queer community are 125% more likely to be unemployed, 64% more likely to be uninsured, 120% more likely to experience food insecurity and 63% more likely to make less than $24,000 a year than those who don’t identify as LGBTQ, according to the Williams Institute data.
Still, the city bills itself as an inclusive destination, angling to capture some of the 7 to 10% of U.S. tourists who identify as LGBTQ.
“Research tells us that inclusivity, a welcoming atmosphere and diversity are highly important factors to groups considering bringing their business to Salt Lake or for individuals planning a vacation here,” Eskelson, with Visit Salt Lake, said in an email.
Parmley considers Salt Lake City a generally safe, welcoming place. But allies who live here shouldn’t pat themselves on the back, she said, and queer Utahns deserve more protections and more support.
She noted that the Human Rights Campaign recently issued a “travel advisory” for Florida, which warned that newly passed anti-LGBTQ polices could pose a risk to queer travelers. Utah isn’t that far behind, Parmely said.
“Don’t get complacent,” she said. “We need you to be speaking up.”
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