Salem’s True Colors?

You may not see it printed on our welcome signs or travel brochures, but Salem recently beat out Portland, New York and San Francisco for a national honor: one of the gayest cities in America.

The distinction came from The Advocate, the largest LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) publication in the U.S. It’s actually the second consecutive year Salem has appeared on their “Gayest Cities” list — last year we earned an honorable mention, and this time around, we ranked 14th. Eugene also made the list at number seven. Number one? Tacoma, Wash.

If you’re scratching your head at the news, you’re not the only one. No matter what local residents believe about Salem’s gay-friendliness, many seem a bit perplexed that we would end up on such a list. But that eyebrow-raising is by design, Advocate editor-in-chief Matthew Breen says.

“We were adamant about divining criteria that was not typical in any sense,” he says. “We saw very little point in producing a list that said New York or San Francisco was a gay-friendly city. That doesn’t tell anybody anything that they don’t know.

“This year we looked at a few factors that I think are very legitimate: marriage equality, number of LGBT elected officials, companies that scored 100 in the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) Corporate Equality Index. And then we looked at some off-the-wall stuff.”

Off-the-wall, indeed. Cities earned points for having roller derby leagues (“It’s not technically a gay thing, but in some cities, it’s very gay-friendly,” Breen says); gay rugby teams; fabulous shopping (defined as Whole Foods, West Elm or Pottery Barn stores); and concerts by Scissor Sisters, Uh Huh Her, Girl in a Coma and the cast of “Glee.”

Each city’s score was divided by its population — producing a list that included few metropolises and more mid-sized cities.

Salem racked up three points for LGBT elected officials, although they were all statewide office-holders: Secretary of State Kate Brown and Oregon Supreme Court Justices Rives Kistler and Virginia Linder.

We earned a big fat zero in six categories, including marriage equality, but we did pick up two points for our roller derby leagues and one for having transgender protections. The article accompanying our entry mentioned that Salem also has gay-friendly nightlife through the Southside Speakeasy, “more support groups than you can shake a cherry tree at,” and numerous LGBT-welcoming churches (it listed six, although we know of one other: Saint Mark Lutheran Church).

Breen admits that he’s not too familiar with Salem. “But when you start researching it, the LGBT-welcoming churches is one of the things that stands out,” he says. “That’s not the kind of thing you read in a nightlife listing, which is a lot of where we tend to think LGBT culture comes from. There are a lot of dimensions to LGBT life.”

Fine, but are we really one of the gayest cities in America? Or for that matter, is Tacoma?

“I realize that in some ways it’s absurd to call Tacoma the gayest city in the country,” Breen says. “That’s not lost on me. We get a lot of our readers going, ‘Are you insane?’ We hope that every year, people will see it’s meant to be humorous with some of the criteria we put together, but it’s not meant to be dismissed. I would love it if people looked at those lists and said there were probably a lot of LGBT factors in any city that go unnoticed. …

“Whether they think the list is ridiculous or not, people start talking about whether this is a gay-friendly place, and if not, they start talking about what they can do to change that.”

So do Salemites think our city is gay-friendly? We asked some of them — both gay and straight — and our two-part series explores their responses.


flag sign

Photo illustration by Sarah Evans and Frank Miller.

Part 1

hossner-100No gay metropolis, but accepting nonetheless

Salem native Scott Hossner says he has found a fulfilling gay community in the Cherry City.


churches830-100Salem is queer? More like cherry-picked data

Rob Owen, a relative newcomer to the city, questions The Advocate’s reporting — and its conclusion.


Part 2

echurches977-thumbLove, equally

In the middle of the largely non-religious state of Oregon, Salem has many churches that reach out to the gay community.

swaim-thumbLeave your bias at the door

In 2002, the Salem City Council voted to prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

derby_7721-100Come as you are

Salem’s roller derby teams are accepting of everyone, LGBT and otherwise.