How Did Tacoma, Wash., Get To Be America's 'Gayest City'?

Jan 19, 2013
Originally published on January 19, 2013 5:25 pm

Every year when The Advocate magazine publishes its list of the "Gayest Cities in America" it comes with a few surprises. This year was no different.

At the top of the list for 2013: Tacoma, Wash.

To Tacoma resident Ellen Cohen, the superlative was unexpected.

"In all of Tacoma coming out as No. 1 in anything would surprise me," she said.

Sweet Pea Flaherty, owner of King's Books in Tacoma, says he was pleasantly surprised, but that there was a certain logic to it.

"There's a lot of public support [for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community], and we've had nondiscrimination laws for a long time here," he said.

"Tacoma was the right blend of the right size and had the factors we looked for in the criteria," Matthew Breen, editor of the The Advocate and the man behind this year's list, told weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.

Those factors include more serious criteria like the number of LGBT elected officials and whether a city has legal protections for people who are transgender and bisexual resource centers. Then the magazine adds in some tongue-in-cheek factors: concerts by Glee cast members, roller derby and gay rugby teams, and "fabulous" shopping — measured by the number of Whole Foods, West Elm and Pottery Barn stores.

"We start with a baseline of cities that have 150,000 people or more and we take all of our criteria," Breen says. "Then we divide by the number of people and we get a per-capita gay-ness."

Joining Tacoma on the list of America's gayest cities is Spokane, Wash. The two cities were helped by the fact that the state legalized same-sex marriage in last year's election.

"We weighted marriage-equality states pretty heavily this year," Breen says.

Some of the newly minted gay cities surprised even Breen. Colorado Springs, Colo., for example, is home to the anti-gay organization Focus on the Family but also ranked 13th on The Advocate's list (beating out both San Francisco and Long Beach, Calif.). In Salem, Ore. — No. 14 — Breen says editors were surprised by the number of LGBT-friendly churches.

Also notable are the cities not on the list. New York didn't make the cut. Neither did Palm Springs or any other city in Southern California.

"We know that the metropolitan areas have a draw for a lot of LGBT people, but a lot of people stay in their hometown or move to small towns or prefer a medium-sized city life," Breen says. "There are places that people would prefer to raise their families."

Breen says cities have used the list — which The Advocate has published for the last four years — to attract tourists, and he's heard mostly positive things from city leaders.

"The Salt Lake City mayor tweeted out that he's sorry they lost their top spot, which I thought was hilarious," Breen says. The city was bumped to No. 6.

Although the list is a bit cheeky, Breen says, it's also important because it starts a dialogue about what being a gay-friendly city means.

"People start having a conversation about whether their city is LGBT-friendly," he says. "They get to look at dimensions to their city that they maybe didn't consider in the past. The conversation is what I'm after here, and I'm just finding it happen all over the place every year, so I'm really excited about that."

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Where would those two cowboys from "Brokeback Mountain" live if they could choose any place to be together in connubial bliss today? Every year, The Advocate magazine publishes their list of the gayest cities in America. At the top of the list this year: Tacoma, Washington.

That struck us as a tad surprising, so we called up a few Tacomans.



LYDEN: And we asked them to describe their city in just a few words.

JACKSON: Family-oriented.

SWEET PEA FLAHERTY: Working class.



COHEN: Tacoma is rain.

LINDA HOWELL: Tacoma has everything you need to have a happy life.

LYDEN: But Tacoma as the gayest city in the country?

HOWELL: I never heard such a thing.

COHEN: Yeah. Wow. They picked Tacoma to be the gay city, huh? Wow.


HOWELL: That's fine with me. I don't care.

FLAHERTY: Does it surprise me? No. It's not like it's like: What? Yeah. There's all sorts of reasons.

LYDEN: The voices of Tacoma residents: Margaret Jackson, Ellen Cohen, Linda Howell and Sweet Pea Flaherty. Advocate editor Matthew Breen put together this year's list of America's gayest cities, and he stopped by our studio to tell us how Tacoma ended up at the top of the list.

MATTHEW BREEN: Tacoma was the right blend of the right size and had the factors that we looked for in the criteria, like whether a city has LGBT elected officials, whether this city has transgender protections and things like marriage equality, of course. Washington with marriage equality this year; we kind of heavily weighted marriage-equality states.

LYDEN: You're not, for example, looking at restaurants or places to vacation or nightlife among other things.

BREEN: We know that a list that said New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco are gay-friendly places would be rather obvious.

LYDEN: Would be old news?

BREEN: Yes. It wouldn't be particularly interesting. I don't know why people would be excited about reading that list. And so we take a sidelong look at criteria. We start with a baseline with what constitutes a city. We looked at a population of 150,000 or more.


BREEN: Then we add in the sort of serious criteria that I mentioned. And then we take a look at criteria that are a little off-the-wall. This year, we looked at whether a city has a gay rugby team, whether a city has fabulous shopping, cities that had concerts by the Scissor Sisters, Uh Huh Her and Girl in a Coma, and then, of course, cities that had a concert with the Glee cast, which is just such a gay - popular gay-friendly show.

LYDEN: So I don't think Tacoma has - did it have a concert by Glee cast members?

BREEN: No. Tacoma in particular had roller derby teams. It had the benefit of Washington state's marriage-equality laws. And the state has three LGBT elected officials. So we divide all of that by the population and you get a per-capita gayness, which put Tacoma way at the top of the list.

LYDEN: So one of the things you're saying is, look, there isn't a magic city where people who are LGBT might live. They live everywhere because they're your friends and neighbors.

BREEN: We do indeed live everywhere. We're in all parts of this country. We know that the metropolitan areas are - have a draw for a lot of LGBT people, but a lot of people stay in their hometowns or move to small towns or prefer a, you know, a medium-sized city life. You know, there are a lot of LGBT-friendly churches that we looked at in Salem, Oregon. You know, there are places where people would prefer to raise their families than in a large metropolitan area.

LYDEN: So I just have to ask, Matthew Breen, did you call any city officials in - or the Chamber of Commerce in Tacoma to announce the Advocate's results?

BREEN: We didn't call them specifically, but we do send out, you know, press release when the story goes up online. We see instant response. Cities across the country have been really excited about being named on a list. There are a lot of cities and residents who have been very confused by having been on the list.

Last year, for example, Salt Lake City was the top of the list. You know, the Salt Lake City mayor tweeted out that they're sorry to have lost their top spot, which I thought was hilarious. I'm delighted to see that people really take an interest in it.

LYDEN: Matthew, this is so much fun. But why do you think this list is important?

BREEN: We realize the list is tongue-in-cheek to a degree. But the most important thing that comes out of this list each year, people start having a conversation about whether their city is actually LGBT-friendly. If it's not, they want to talk about why that is. The dialogue really opens up immediately. If it is an LGBT-friendly place that people just have not thought was so, they get to maybe look at dimensions to that city that they hadn't considered in the past. The conversation is really what I'm after here, and I'm just finding it happen, you know, all over the place every year, so I'm really excited about that.

LYDEN: Matthew Breen is the editor of The Advocate magazine, which is based in L.A. Every year, The Advocate puts together a list of the gayest cities in America. Matthew, thank you.

BREEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.