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Click here for surprisingly LGBTQIA+ friendly summer travel hot spots

Across the U.S., warm welcomes await in unexpected places.


Mark Williams


As a queer traveler who has visited more than 50 countries, and co-author of Out in the World: An LGBTQIA+ (and Friends!) Travel Guide to More Than 100 Destinations Around the World, I appreciate and champion inclusive places. While I can visit a longtime welcoming spot like Provincetown a hundred times, I’m always looking for pleasant surprises to experience and share. Yet it can be hard to find them. Websites like Orbitz and Airbnb are great in that they use inclusive language and help queer travelers find welcoming accommodations and experiences, but first, we need to have a destination in mind.

The Sunshine State

Decades before widespread internet access and smartphones, I was 22, freshly out of the closet, and heading to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I chose the destination because flights and hotels were cheap in the middle of the summer. I never expected to find a beach filled with hot men laying arm in arm, get invited to naked pool parties, or kiss a few men on smoky patios. Being here made me feel sexy and free in a way I’d never experienced, not even living in New York City.

Twenty-five years later, queer travelers are boycotting Florida. I, too, have wondered why I would revisit a state where laws anger, depress, and terrify me. Would I feel as safe and comfortable as I once did

Thankfully, the answer is yes. It doesn’t represent all of Florida, but Fort Lauderdale remains very LGBTQIA+ welcoming. According to Visit Lauderdale, the city’s official motto is “Everyone Under the Sun” and it sees over 1.7 million LGBTQIA+ visitors every year. The city even highlighted its inclusivity with a float in the Rose Bowl, but queer travelers don’t have to look much further than the Visit Lauderdale website and the Greater Fort Lauderdale LGBT Chamber of Commerce for things to do, and welcoming places to eat and stay. 

Like Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg rolls out the rainbow carpet, earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s Municipal Equality Index for nine years in a row. It hosts Florida’s largest Pride celebration and puts the queer community front and center on the Visit St. Pete-Clearwater website. During a recent visit, I loved supporting queer-owned businesses such as Tombolo Books, Love Food Central, and COCKtail St. Pete (and there are dozens more I plan on hitting up when I return) and getting some beach time at the LGBTQIA+ popular Treasure Island. Other highlights included the Pride Street Mural, Dali Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, and Sunken Gardens. Based on my interactions, this did not feel like a place that agreed with Florida’s conservative politics.

With open arms

I had a similar experience visiting Kentucky. I appreciated having a welcoming pocket in a conservative state, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. So, I googled “LGBTQ+ Travelers Kentucky,” and the top hit was the state’s tourism website. I was glad to see an LGBTQ+ section and the phrase, “Kentucky Opens You With Open Arms.” Both convinced me to give Louisville a try. 

Photo via Mark Jason Williams
Photo via Mark Jason Williams

My first stop was the Speed Art Museum, where I stumbled upon a painting by Salmon Toor, a queer artist from Pakistan. Entitled “Three Friends,” it depicted men who were Brown and queer. I loved the representation, but I never expected to see a painting like this in Kentucky, even in an art museum. I took the Old Louisville History and Architecture Tour with owner David Domine, also a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. He told fascinating stories about beautiful mansions and was quick to point out queer-owned businesses in the area such as Old Louisville Coffee Co-op, a queer and BIPOC community hub serving up fresh coffee, tea, and pastries. Yet again, this was not the Kentucky I imagined. 

In the NULU neighborhood, I received a warm welcome at Hotel Genevieve, tasted bourbon at Angel’s Envy, and, walking along East Market Street, smiled as I saw Pride flag after Pride flag. I had a fantastic lunch at La Bodeguita De Mima Cuban Restaurant and Rum Bar, where the authentic flavors and decor heightened my dining experience. Kidding around, I asked our server what a great Cuban restaurant was doing in Louisville, and was surprised to learn that the city is home to over 30,000 Cuban people. In fact, according to the New York Times, Louisville has the fastest-growing Cuban population in the U.S

Across the street, I stopped in LOUaBull, a queer-owned boutique filled with Pride paraphernalia including tees, stationery, and gifts. If any store could make me smile, this was it. Later, I toured the utterly charming Inn at Woodhaven, where co-owner Jeremy Couture showed me around the warm, inviting space including lovely common areas and sumptuous guest suites. It was heartwarming and reassuring that this LGBTQIIA+-owned business has received a warm welcome and become a staple of the community. Outside of Louisville, I visited the city of Bowling Green and Mammoth Caves National Park and felt free to be myself in both places.

Photo via Mark Jason Williams
Photo via Mark Jason Williams

In my travels, I’ve had similar experiences in other places that I pre-judged as being less progressive. I didn’t expect to find so many Pride flags and queer-owned businesses in Salt Lake City but was glad for it. In conservative Ohio, I loved Cleveland’s strong LGBTQIA+ community and gathering spots like Studio West 117 and Twist Social Club, where even as an introvert I found it easy to make new friends. 

Where to travel is a personal choice, of course, and you should only go where you feel comfortable. But I love that queer travelers have more choices than ever and that destinations are including us on their websites and press materials. For me, LGBTQIA+ visibility and representation are always the key to finding safe, welcoming destinations, and I hope that we continue to see more of it around the world—both in person and online.

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