Salem is queer? More like cherry-picked data

Saint Mark

Saint Mark Lutheran Church. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

The headline on the tweet from The Advocate made me chuckle: something about “America’s Gayest Cities.”

Listicles (re: list-articles) like this one are the perfect bait for a news organization to draw web surfers to its site. I’m no more immune to the listicle siren song than the next trivia lover.

I clicked on the link, recognizing my complicity in falling for The Advocate’s scheme to troll for hits. I also briefly pondered the preposterous possibility that my town of Salem could be listed.

But the laugh turned to, “What?” when I saw that Salem was indeed on the list, and I was baffled further when the short article touted gay-welcoming churches as one of the reasons for Salem’s inclusion. Shock turned to annoyance when I noticed that the list of churches failed to include my congregation, Saint Mark Lutheran Church. Then the pieces began to fall in place.

I moved to Salem in June 2010 after my partner landed a job with the state. On paper, Oregon is a welcoming place for gay people given its gay-friendly protections and the availability of domestic partnerships. But it’s also the only place where I’ve had “fag” yelled at me in public.

Two summers ago, my partner and I were walking home from shopping at the Safeway on Center Street — not holding hands or doing anything other than carrying groceries and heading down the street beside each other. A truck roared by, and someone inside shouted, “Fags!” and hurled a soda at us. It was like an episode of “Glee” where the unpopular kids get slushied. I don’t blame Salem for that — I blame the ignoramuses who did the soda tossing — but it does color one’s impression of a place and the people who call it home.

On paper, Oregon is a welcoming place for gay people … But it’s also the only place where I’ve had “fag” yelled at me in public.

If there’s one thing I miss most in Salem that I’ve found in other, larger American cities, it’s a group of gay friends. Not that I make it easy on myself to find them. I’m not a barfly (I’ve never been to the Southside Speakeasy), and we’re not looking to “play with a third” on Grindr. But it would be nice to have some gay friends to laugh with, hike with, bike with, etc.

Since college, I’ve generally found my social circle centered at church, which makes me particularly old-fashioned and out of the hip, unholier-than-thou mainstream of unchurched Oregon. I was pleased to find Saint Mark Lutheran had already begun the process of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation when we joined in mid-2011 (RIC is Lutheran-speak for gay-welcoming, gay-affirming). Saint Mark, which strikes me as a socially conscious congregation, voted overwhelmingly to adopt RIC status in October 2011, an event chronicled by the Statesman Journal.

Shortly after the vote, I began asking SalemPride.com, a website of local LGBT resources, to add Saint Mark to its list of gay-welcoming churches. I sent request after request to the site’s webmaster via a link included on their page. I received no response, but I kept asking until I gave up after four or five unanswered requests.

Then The Advocate story came out, listing all those LGBT-friendly churches but omitting Saint Mark. Lo and behold, the churches in The Advocate article are the same as those listed at SalemPride. I’m convinced The Advocate piece was a cut-and-paste job. (SalemPride.com finally added Saint Mark when I asked again after The Advocate article was published. The Advocate editor said he’d try to add Saint Mark to the web article after I pointed out the oversight, but he never did.)

Salem was not included in The Advocate list of “gayest cities” based on any real research; it was included in an attempt to be purposefully contrary to conventional wisdom. If the writers/editors had engaged in actual reporting, they would have mentioned a local gay youth group, Rainbow Youth; they would have found and added Saint Mark; and they may have mentioned the disappointing development that another Lutheran church, Our Savior’s in South Salem, recently divorced itself from the largest, most mainstream American Lutheran body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, over the ELCA’s gay-affirming, equality advances.

Looking at the comments on the story, not just about Salem but about many of the smaller cities on the list, it’s clear The Advocate accomplished its mission. Shamefully, that mission was not about newsgathering and reporting, but about stirring folks up, provoking a reaction and, probably most importantly, drawing increased web traffic.

Setting aside semantics (can a city really be gay or straight?), the real question should be, is Salem one of the nation’s most gay-friendly cities? It’s a subjective, perhaps deeply personal question. But to qualify, in addition to legal rights, churches and a bar, Salem needs prosperous, involved, responsive gay civic leaders and organizations. If those exist, I haven’t found them. Even the Salem chapter of PFLAG disbanded in 2012 (several chapters remain in the Portland area and in Eugene and Corvallis; it’s hard to believe Salem doesn’t need such a resource but more progressive Portland does). Taken together, these are not the attributes of one of America’s gayest cities.

Rob Owen is a Salem-based, freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter (@RobOwenTV) or Facebook, or contact him via email: RobOwenTV@gmail.com.

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