The Worst (And Best) Places to Be Gay in America

If the Trump administration won’t protect gay people, we’re at the mercy of our ZIP codes

Frank Bruni, The New York Times
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dennis Williams with his son, Elan, considers his neighborhood in Brooklyn a welcoming haven for gay parents like him
Dennis Williams with his son, Elan, considers his neighborhood in Brooklyn a welcoming haven for gay parents like himCredit: CHAD BATKA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Frank Bruni, The New York Times

All my life I’ve loved Texas: those big skies, big steaks and big attitudes. I’m there several times a year.

But Texas doesn’t love me back. Certainly its lawmakers don’t, and lately they’ve been hellbent on showing that.

In June the governor signed a bill allowing child welfare groups to refuse adoptions that contradict their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” They can turn away gay men like me.

That same month, the Texas Supreme Court approved a lawsuit challenging the city of Houston’s provision of equal benefits to all married employees, including those with same-sex spouses. Although the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, Texas bucks and balks.

Not New York. My state loves me something fierce. What it did in June was finalize the design of a monument to L.G.B.T. citizens in downtown Manhattan. New York legalized same-sex marriage back in 2011 without any federal nudge.

There’s no such thing as L.G.B.T. life in America, a country even more divided on this front than on others. There’s L.G.B.T. life in a group of essentially progressive places like New York, Maryland, Oregon and California, which bans government-funded travel to states it deems unduly discriminatory. Then there is L.G.B.T. life on that blacklist, which includes Texas, Kansas, Mississippi and South Dakota.

The differences between states — and between cities within states — are profound, and while that has long been true, it’s much more consequential since the advent of the Trump administration, a decidedly less ready ally of L.G.B.T. people than the Obama administration was.

The federal government under Donald Trump won’t be rushing in to help L.G.B.T. people whose local governments fail to give them equal rights, a sense of belonging or even a feeling of physical safety. Despite Trump’s happy campaign talk about how fond he was of gays (and, Trump being Trump, how fond they were of him), his record as president has been hurtful and hateful. Immediately after his inauguration, references to the L.G.B.T. community were scrubbed from many federal websites, including the White House’s and the Department of State’s.

Plenty of the people he pulled into his cabinet have long histories of pronounced opposition to gay rights. One of them, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, leads a Department of Justice that recently went out of its way to make clear, in court filings, that it did not consider L.G.B.T. people to be protected by a federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination. The Obama administration had taken the opposite view.

Without consulting or even alerting the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, Trump announced a reinstatement of the ban on transgender people in the military, and on Friday signed a directive that prevents transgender people from joining the armed services but leaves the fate of those already serving in doubt. His first Supreme Court appointment suggests that if he is able to ensconce several more, the same-sex-marriage ruling could well be revisited and changed.

But worry not! Ivanka Trump has our backs! She has tweeted as much, and I guess we’re supposed to find consolation in those crumbs.

We’re at the mercy of our ZIP codes: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are often affected most by their municipality, not their state. In Waco, Texas, the lone justice of the peace who presides over weddings recently admitted that she won’t do so for same-sex couples no matter the federal law. But Houston, just a three-hour drive away, has in instances been a pioneer: Annise Parker, its mayor from 2010 to 2016, is the only openly L.G.B.T. person ever elected to lead one of the nation’s 10 most populous cities. And Austin, the state’s capital, is practically Key West, Florida — minus the coconuts.

Our cities and our states often dictate how easily we can be our true selves at work, buy wedding cakes, construct families — even die. I asked Jon Davidson of Lambda Legal, an L.G.B.T. advocacy group, about current cases that illustrate just how repressive some corners of America remain. He told me about Picayune, Miss., where an 86-year-old gay man passed away last year, leaving behind his 82-year-old husband. They had been together for half a century.

Although prior arrangements had been made with a local funeral home, it refused even to pick up the dead man’s body when it learned of his same-sex marriage, according to a breach-of-contract lawsuit by his husband that hasn’t yet been resolved.

I told Davidson that I thought that such don’t-make-me-touch-it hysteria ended 25 years ago.

“Many parts of the country are 25 years ago,” he responded, drawing special attention to the southeastern quarter, from Texas to South Carolina, which, he said, may well generate more than half of the lawsuits that Lambda becomes involved in.

South Carolina: another state that I love, another state that doesn’t love me back, and the home of Tommy Starling, 45, and his husband, Jeff Littlefield, 61. Starling told me that they live there, in the coastal community of Pawleys Island, because of Littlefield’s job in the insurance business, but they dream constantly of moving somewhere that doesn’t cast them as provocative social experiments, somewhere that doesn’t put and keep them on edge.

They had trouble trying to adopt in South Carolina, so they turned to California and to surrogacy to have their 11-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. Starling said that his family stands out in Pawleys Island in a way that it wouldn’t in Brooklyn — or, for that matter, Atlanta — and disparaging, even menacing, remarks have come his way. To protect his kids from such ugliness, he has created, and works to preserve, a bubble of open-minded people around them.

“But it’s getting exhausting,” he said, adding that the family’s occasional travel sustains him. He recalled a trip not long ago to San Francisco, where his husband reached out to hold his hand in public and he reflexively tensed.

“He had to remind me that it was O.K. there,” Starling told me.

Holding hands. Such a small thing — and yet so incredibly big for many gay couples in conservative environments and even for some couples in more liberal areas that can nonetheless seem threatening. That came through poignantly in more than 1,000 responses that The Times received after asking L.G.B.T. readers to share their reflections on the freedoms and limitations of where they live.

Readers were acutely conscious of the absence or presence of employment-related anti-discrimination laws in their cities or states. (Only 22 states have such laws governing all gay and lesbian workers, in both the public and the private sectors, while only 20, including New York, have them for transgender workers as well.) Readers mentioned the vigor, or laxness, with which their local governments patrolled against and prosecuted hate crimes.

And one after another, readers said they wished that a modest public gesture of affection wasn’t a potent magnet for stares, slurs or worse.

From a 45-year-old lesbian in Laingsburg, Mich.: “Sometimes I fantasize about living in parts of N.Y.C. or Provincetown, where I would be able to feel comfortable walking down the street holding hands with my wife, but our roots are here.” From a 34-year-old lesbian in Lubbock, Tex.: “My fiancé and I get disgusted looks when we hold hands walking into places.”

I mentioned Brooklyn earlier when I was talking about climes unlike Pawleys Island because Dennis Williams, an executive with HBO who lives in the borough’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, was on my mind. He, too, is a gay dad, although unmarried. At 44, he’s just a year younger than Starling. But his experience is worlds apart.

He told me that if he draws looks from other parents when he’s out and about with his 3-year-old son, Elan, he’s pretty sure it’s because he’s a black man and there has been so much discussion about black children growing up with absent fathers. Acquaintances who learn or know that he’s gay don’t register any surprise or signal any disapproval.

“I don’t take this for granted,” he added, noting that he grew up in Kansas and knows gay men in cities less cosmopolitan than New York.

Of course there are enclaves in Kansas where Williams would find a warm welcome. The college town of Lawrence has a municipal ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, even though Kansas itself doesn’t. (In 2015, Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded one that covered only public employees.) And there are rural pockets of upstate New York that have none of Brooklyn’s progressivism or diversity.

On the state level, the yardsticks for measuring respect for L.G.B.T. people include, recently, restrictions on “conversion therapy,” which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. More and more mental health professionals are speaking out unequivocally about its dangers, and more and more state legislatures are outlawing it for minors. New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island and Connecticut did so in recent months; New Jersey, Vermont, Illinois, Oregon, California and the District of Columbia had previously done so. But that leaves 41 states without any such prohibition.

The geographic variations for transgender people may well be the starkest. Harper Jean Tobin, the policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, noted that there are states — Nevada, for one — where changing your designated gender on a government document requires only affidavits from people who know you. “It can be a medical provider, your therapist, your minister, your parent,” Tobin said. But other states, like Tennessee and Alabama, demand proof of surgery and a physician’s signature.

Ah, Alabama. In May, under the aegis of “religious freedom,” its governor signed a law that allowed taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to deny the placement of children in homes with gay parents. Patricia Todd, 62, who serves in the state’s House of Representatives, remembers the heated discussion there beforehand, because she played a special role. She’s openly lesbian — the only open L.G.B.T. person ever in the Alabama Legislature.

“I tried to stop the bill as best I could,” Representative Todd told me. “I practically had the sponsor in tears when we were debating this on the floor.” Why? “Because he really likes me. They all really like me. I said, ‘I want everyone to realize: If you vote in favor of this, you’re telling me that I’m not fit to be a parent. And I want you to look at me. You know me.’ ”

The Alabama House voted 60 to 14 in favor of the bill, after which the Alabama Senate voted 23 to 9.

Fifty years from now — heck, maybe just 20 — that kind of thing won’t happen. There’s only one long-term trajectory here. But in the meantime, it’s not O.K. for the federal government to be as cold to L.G.B.T. Americans as the one we have now is, because some of those Americans live in Alabama — or Texas. And those places don’t exactly brim with love.


Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?

Relatives mourn during the funeral of four teenage Palestinians from the Nijm family killed by an errant rocket in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7.

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op