The 10 Best Cities to Live in for LGBTQ People
Not for fifty years, perhaps, have Bob Dylan’s words been as apt as they are now: ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’. This is especially the case in the global acceptance of sexual diversity. Since the 1990s, those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer have been able to identify as being LGBTQ – a blanket term that, although not comprehensive, serves its purpose of inclusivity as well as possible. And over the last 20 years in particular, a growing number of countries have been either opening up their doors to members of this group, or at least making current residents feel at home.
There are many things to consider when weighing up a city’s LGBTQ credentials. Legal protection is paramount, as are legal rights (which you can view across any US state on this equality map). Tied into this is the readiness of any city’s population to accept and embrace members of the LGBTQ community – social acceptance, in other words. But professional and economic opportunities are also important, not to mention the culture, the festivals, and, of course, the nightlife.
On the whole, the world has become a much more open place. But unfortunately, there are still those cities in the world where its inhabitants are more inclined to stone anyone of the LGBTQ community (or, at the very least, incarcerate them) than to welcome them into their society. And while it’s important that a city offers its thrills, there’s only so much you can reasonably be expected to take. So until Pyongyang, Tehran, Baghdad, Moscow, and Riyadh sort their acts out, here are the world’s 10 best cities to live in for LGBTQ people.
10Tel Aviv, Israel
It may come as a surprise that a Middle Eastern country has made it onto our list at all, given the pervasiveness of sexually discriminatory religious ideologies in the region. But Israel is remarkably advanced. At least in terms of LGBTQ rights, the Israelis have learned an important historical lesson: they have a duty, as victims of horrific persecution themselves, not to persecute others over their differences.
Israel’s record when it comes to LGBTQ rights is impressive. And, although the country as a whole may still be lagging behind its European and American counterparts, its second city is not. Regarded by some as the gayest city on earth, Tel Aviv is though to have an LGBTQ population of between 10 to 20 per cent. It has a thriving gay scene, culminating in the annual, weeklong Tel Aviv Pride event (this year between 4 – 9 June). And it’s no exaggeration to say that during this month it’s almost impossible to find a heterosexual male, much to the misery of heterosexual women throughout the city.
Tel Aviv would have ranked much higher on our list if it hadn’t been for one thing. It’s in Israel. Regrettably, the rest of the country doesn’t share Tel Aviv’s liberal outlook: a Pew Research Survey showing that only 40 per cent of the country views homosexuality as socially acceptable. Still, it’s an improvement on the rest of the Middle East. The second most LGBT-friendly city was Lebanon, with a woefully low 18 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, Canada scores much higher in its population’s social acceptance of homosexuality – doubling Israel with an impressive 80 per cent. Also unsurprisingly, given Canada’s well-deserved reputation for cultural liberalism and inclusivity, it ranks consistently highly among the world’s best LGBTQ cities.
The epicenter of Montreal’s LGBTQ scene is its Gay Village, a haven of cafés, boutiques, and restaurants, awash with all the colors of the rainbow and situated just a stone’s throw from the waterfront. It really gets going at night, with many bars and clubs staying open until 5am.
One thing to note, however, is that Montreal can feel oppressively geared towards French speakers. Not only does this limit you when it comes to chatting someone up (although sometimes who needs words…), but it can severely limit your work options. Still, if the city’s joie-de-vivre gets too much for the Anglophones (or ‘gaynglos’, as they’re called) among you, Toronto’s only an hour’s flight away. And besides, some say it’s better anyway.
For those of you who haven’t been to Montreal, you could describe it as a kind of Disneyland Paris. It’s quasi-European in terms of its café culture, its linguistic diversity and its architecture. But all you need to do is visit both Notre Dames, and you’ll see it can also seem forcedly artificial. Oh, and it gets brutally cold in the winter too. This isn’t me wanting to trash Montreal, but for those of you who don’t want the Disneyland version there’s always the real thing.
Having produced such world-famous cultural exports as Michael Foucault and Christian Dior, France can pride itself over its illustrious LGBTQ heritage. And nowhere is this heritage more on display than in the city’s capital. Sexual liberty (egalité, fraternité) is sown into the very fabric of the city: gay and lesbian subcultures being an integral – if unspoken – part of the city since the 18th century.
It wouldn’t be until the late 1990s and early 2000s that LGBTQ culture really became part of Paris’ mainstream. In 2001, the city elected its first openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë. Twelve years later, LGBTQ marriages were legalized (though not without protest among some sections of Parisian society). But overall the French are amongst the most tolerant in the world – 77 per cent viewing homosexuality as socially acceptable.
Turning to the city itself, even a short sojourn in the city of love will convince you of its LGBTQ credentials. Its most famous gayborhood, Marais, is actually straightening itself out, trading gay bars for boutiques and shopping centers to the dismay of some. But Gay Paree has infinitely more to offer than Marais. The city’s awash with monuments to its LGBTQ past: from the memorial to a gay couple burned to death in front of the Hotel de Ville in 1750 at the intersection of Rue Montorgueil and Rue Bachaumont, to the last gay urinal – meeting places for 19th century homosexuals and prostitutes – on the Boulevard Arago. There’s also a bakery in Marais that sells penis-shaped baguettes, naturally.
Anyone who’s seen the critically acclaimed movie “The Imitation Game” will know that, until quite recently, Britain was institutionally intolerant of homosexuality. The movie shows the British government’s treatment of Alan Turing: the man who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code, making perhaps the single biggest contribution to ending the war. What was his reward? Chemical castration – deemed the best ‘cure’ after he was tried and found guilty of consensual homosexual intercourse in 1952.
It wouldn’t be until 1967 – very much the twilight years of the ‘swinging sixties’ – that consensual sex between males in private was decriminalized. And this damning statistic wouldn’t be so damning if it weren’t for the sheer hypocrisy of the British ruling classes: they themselves having been raised on a diet of institutional buggary in the dormitories of Eton and Harrow.
Fortunately, times have moved on quite significantly. British society is now one that recognizes and embraces its LGBTQ community in legal terms. In 2013, former Prime Minister David Cameron passed his same sex marriage bill through parliament, legalizing civil unions in England and Wales (with Northern Ireland yet to follow suit). But it also goes beyond mere tolerance to genuinely celebrating the contribution LGBTQ people make to the country: something recognized annually during LGBT History Month which lasts throughout February.
The 2017 edition of London’s annual Gay Pride Festival will start on 24 June with the main events taking place on July 8. But all year round, you can find things to do in London’s two main gayborhoods: Soho and Earl’s Court.
6 Brussels, Belgium
No longer just a world leader for producing quality beer and chocolate (though these are unquestionably among the perks of living there), Belgium is now widely considered one of the top countries for LGBTQ people to live in. Same-sexual activity was legalized back in 1795, 35 years before the Belgium state even existed! In 2000, this politically progressive powerhouse of a country granted domestic partnerships to same-sex couples. Three years later it passed legislation legalizing gay and lesbian marriages (only the second country to have done so at the time), and in 2007 it allowed transsexuals to legally register under their preferred sex.
There are certainly financial reasons why Belgium is such a favorite. Not only does it offer a very high standard of living, it’s also recently been considered to be the third best European country for LGBT employment. But there’s more to life than money, and Belgium’s capital offers a vibrant, colorful, and year-round LGBTQ scene, particularly around the Grand Place, Rue du Marché au Charbon and Plattesteen.
And the scene extends well beyond Brussels. There’s really little to distinguish between Brussels and Antwerp. The latter has a slightly longer LGBTQ tradition, and enjoys a reputation as ‘an open-minded city, a real haven’ whereas the former has all a wealth of events, including the annual Gay and Lesbian Pride.
But regrettably Belgium may have had its heyday. Levels of acceptance may have been remarkably high 10 years ago, but recent waves of refugees from Syria and elsewhere seem to be sowing seeds of distrust among its population. The LGBTQ community holds pride of place; prized by its government; a shining example of liberalism for the rest of the world. The real test in future years will be how Belgium deals with extending such rights as those currently enjoyed by Belgium’s LGBTQ community to incoming groups who have no rights of their own.
Many other Latin countries could, and perhaps should, have made it onto our list. But in the end it had to be Barcelona. The Catalonian capital – and Spain as a whole – has a fantastic record in terms of its LGBTQ rights. Same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples have been granted since 2005, making Spain the third country in the world to grant these, after the Netherlands and Belgium. What makes this accomplishment perhaps more impressive is Spain’s ardent Catholicism – a religion not best inclined towards those who identify as LGBTQ.
Those identifying as transgender can change their legal gender without need of sex reassignment surgery sterilization. And there’s a good amount of legal protection: discriminatory laws protecting those of a different sexual orientation or gender identity since 1996.
In terms of the lifestyle, think any other city from this list but with better weather… better fashion… And, to be honest, sexier people… Architecturally, the city is exquisite, and its situation on the western shores of the Mediterranean means that it’s only a short flight to (or from) Italy, France, Germany, Croatia and North Africa.
And then there’s Barcelona’s Pride Parade. True, it may be lacking in size compared with some of those held by its distant South American relatives. But size isn’t everything, and Barcelona’s Pride stirs up its own exuberantly colorful motion in the ocean with its program of festivities running from June 8 – July 9. For the most up-to-date guide of what’s going happening on Barcelona’s LGBTQ scene, check out the Time Out guide.
If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, you’ll know the Dutch are pretty open about their sexuality. The Red Light District, the Sex Museum, the Erotic Museum (yes, they’re two different museums) have all become touristic hotspots deserving of at a visit, if nothing else. But these attractions are only the most famous and visible remnants of a historical legacy stretching back over 200 years.
The Netherlands was second only to France in decriminalizing homosexuality, and was the first to make gay marriages legal. And in terms of the Netherlands’ social acceptance of its LGBTQ population, the Dutch can boast that a staggering 93 per cent of their population believe in homosexuals being granted their freedom of lifestyle. This marks one of the many reasons why Amsterdam is considered not only the world’s most gay-friendly city, but also one of the best cities to live in for expats.
And the wealth of wonders the city has to offer its LGBQ community only confirms this. Take a stroll along the canal front at Westermarkt and you’ll find the Homomonument: the world’s first gay monument. Shaped like a triangle after the triangular patches Nazi POWs were made to wear, the monument points to three symbolic attractions. The first is the National War Museum at Dam Square. The second is the house of Anne Frank – a young teenage girl who was deported by the Nazis in 1944 to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (where she was killed) but who left us her heart-wrenching diary. The third point is directed towards the HQ of COC Nederland: the world’s oldest operating gay and lesbian rights organization.
3New York, USA
It’s with good reason that the Big Apple enjoys its well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s best cities for LGBTQ people. It is, after all, the cradle of gay rights movements and the home of Stonewall; the LGBTQ rights movement named after the inn from where it all started on June 28 1969.
It all began with police carrying out one of their routine raids on the Mafia-owned inn on Christopher Street, West Village. But this time they found that the inn’s patrons were sick of being regularly targeted and on the verge of revolution. The raid gave its LGBTQ clientele just the right excuse to fight back, and what started as a small-scale and spontaneous riot would escalate over the coming months to become a national and then a global movement. So much so that by the early 80s, Stonewall had inspired gay rights groups to form all over America, Canada, Australia and Western Europe.
Stonewall had a profound and lasting cultural legacy. But when it came to legalizing same-sex marriage, New York was relatively late to the party, only doing so in 2011. But that’s done nothing to stem the tide of LGBTQ culture in the city – where pride is viewed not so much as an event, but as a way of life.
Nowhere is this better expressed than in the city’s geography. New York has perhaps the world’s densest concentration of gayborhoods in the world. Chelsea undoubtedly occupies pride of place in Manhattan’s gay scene. But it’s not the only LGBTQ-rich area – Hell’s Kitchen, West Village, and Greenwich Village are similarly thriving, particularly the treasure trove of gay bars that line 8th Ave. and Christopher Street. An entire article could be dedicated to LGBTQ events and attractions in New York, but for those wanting a summary here’s a guide to what’s going in in the Big Gay Apple.
2 San Francisco, USA
Topping a recent list of the top LGBTQ-friendly cities in the US, San Francisco really does have it all. The State of California has been offering same sex marriage licenses since 2008 (though with a notable and lengthy hiatus between November 2008 and June 2013). And with 6.2 per cent of its current inhabitants identifying as LGBTQ, San Francisco lags only behind Tel Aviv when it comes to number crunching.
The “gay capital of the world” or “original gay-friendly city” as it’s been called in its time is home to the now universally recognizable rainbow flag. Commissioned by Harvey Milk – the first openly gay person elected to public offices, and a character since immortalized in the 2008 movie “Milk” – the flag was designed by Milk’s friend Gilbert Baker for San Francisco’s 1978 Pride parade. San Francisco’s LGBTQ roots run deep – so much so that there’s no clear-cut distinction between the city’s gay and straight culture and nightlife. That being said, the city does offer a multitude of rainbow-tinted events sure to suit every taste.
The Castro Street Fair, founded by Harvey Milk, has been running in the Castro district since 1974. It sees the gathering of hundreds of artisans, craftspeople and vendors mingling against a backdrop of live music and dance performances. There’s the Pink Saturday street party and the Dyke March – two coinciding events held annually the Saturday night before San Francisco Pride. And then there’s the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. With an annual attendance of around 60,000, this world-famous Bay Area event gives power to the audience, who vote for the best feature, best documentary and best short film to visualize and promote LGBTQ themes.
I don’t want to mention the war. I really don’t. But I’ve done it now, so here it goes: Germany has an abysmal historical legacy for its treatment of people who would now fall under the category of LGBTQ. The treatment of homosexuals in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust represents the pinnacle of human cruelty, persecution, and unbridled hatred. It’s also masked a much richer history that saw a broad toleration of Berlin’s LGBTQ community during the 1920s.
Germany’s has been a burdensome legacy. But it’s perhaps this legacy, and the drive of subsequent German generations to distance themselves from the atrocities of their forefathers, that make Germany – particularly its capital Berlin – what it is today.
Berlin is now universally regarded as the gay capital of Europe. It has the world’s largest selection of gay sites, including a gay museum and a gay memorial. The latter is particularly moving: recognizing its tainted history, the Federal Republic of Germany has monumentalized in writing its intent to safeguard the rights of gay men and lesbians, and to set a standard for the rest of the world.
But Berlin doesn’t just excel in its LGBTQ culture (though this seamlessly entwines with its hetero/cis culture). In its art, film, music, theater, you name it – Berlin is a cultural juggernaut. Its nightlife is possibly the best in the world. Spend an entire weekend raving at arguably the techno’s coolest club – Berghain in eastern Kreuzberg – and you’ll be hard pressed to disagree. So, with Berlin coming out top of our list, it seem that whichever way you look at it, it’s Deutschland Deutschland über alles.
There are many criteria for measuring a city’s LGBTQ credentials. Same-sex marriage is still a hot topic in today’s word, and a country’s choice to legalize it symbolically speaks volumes about their commitment to treating their citizens equally. But it’s not the only measure of a country’s progressiveness: adoption rights; the rights of transgender people to register under their preferred gender without need of surgery; the right to donate blood; the right to access IVF – all of these determine a country’s fitness to reside a proud LGBTQ community.
And to have such a community is a blessing. Research shows that countries that discriminate against the increasingly socially and economically mobile LGBTQ community discriminate against them comes at a cost – not just to families and small companies, but to national GDP. But, as we’ve said, it’s not about money. It’s about building bridges between people and communities, creating cohesion, and throwing down barriers. In short, it’s about creating the conditions for happiness, wealth, and prosperity. After all, if Bob Dylan’s words are anything to go by, we’re going to need this now more than ever.