Gay-friendly towns in red states draw LGBTQ tourists: 'We're here to be normal for a weekend'

Northwest Arkansas is one of many regions in red states trying to build an oasis for LGBTQ visitors from rural America.
A "Love is Love, Happy Pride sign"  at 2018 Pride in Fayetteville, Arkansas
A sign at 2018 Pride in Fayetteville, Arkansas.Courtesy Vincent Griffin
By Ben Kesslen

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — On the count of three, about 50 gay couples kissed their partners in the public square of a small town in the Ozark Mountains.

Jay Wilks, the event’s organizer, told the crowd to do it over.

“With more passion this time!” he shouted into the microphone.

Wilks counted down again, and queer and trans people embraced their partners, now with the gusto he demanded. The couples, decked out in so much pride gear that despite the day’s clear weather rainbows abounded, held each other, laughed and, most important, kissed.

It was PDA in the Park, the signature event of early April’s Spring Diversity Weekend in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Eureka is a rural, hilly town of about 2,000 people where locals say over 30 percent of residents are LGBTQ and playfully remark their town has “no straight streets.”

Amber Clark, 36, who has rainbow-dyed hair, drove in for the weekend from Carthage, Missouri, a city of less than 15,000 where you’d be hard-pressed to find 100 queer people making out in the small downtown. She came with what she characterized as “a group of loud, out, queer women.”

“We’re here to be normal for a weekend,” she said, “and to kiss in the park.”

About 2.9 to 3.8 million LGBTQ people live in rural America, and they are increasingly finding that they don’t need to travel to a big city or the coasts to find a place to be themselves and unwind on vacation.

Public imagination renders LGBTQ people as city dwellers, and the dominant narrative says anyone queer or trans living in rural America yearns for escape. There is some truth in that, and for good reason — a recent survey found that Arkansas residents were the least supportive of measures to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, compared to residents of other states. But in Eureka Springs, Wilks, who runs Out in Eureka, an LGBTQ event and information organization, is working to create what he sees as an oasis: a space for LGBTQ people to explore a quaint Southern town while being welcomed exactly as they are.

Other cities and towns in red states have also begun courting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer tourists, as a way of showing their openness and because there’s money to be made. (It’s difficult to determine the economic impact of LGBTQ travelers, but by using population data, the United Nations World Tourism Association estimates they generate more than $50 billion in annual revenue in the U.S.)

Performers and attendees at Diversity Weekend in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.Ludwig Hurtado / NBC News

Salt Lake City is so dedicated to making sure people know it’s LGBTQ-friendly that it has an explainer on its tourism website that begins, “Yes, Salt Lake IS a great place for the LGBTQ Community.”

Oklahoma City tries to entice LGBTQ tourists with its annual Memorial Day gay rodeo and its small but thriving gayborhood.

Forty miles southwest of Eureka Springs, Fayetteville is on a similar mission, trying to appeal to LGBTQ people in Arkansas and neighboring states, for whom going on vacation to a major city is cost prohibitive — or not at all desirable. People who are rural and queer, or Southern and queer, often feel like they need to give up one of those identities, but city leaders in Fayetteville and Eureka Springs are marketing their towns as a place where visitors and residents alike can have it all, even if the state’s politics are not as progressive.

“Our focus is not to become a San Francisco or a Fort Lauderdale,” Wilks, 51, a former flight attendant, said. “Fire Island is fun,” he added of the gay destination east of New York City, but Wilks wants to remain “true to who Eureka is” — a small town that’s wooded, Southern and super gay.

‘DO THEY REALLY WANT US HERE?’

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Fayetteville recently became the first city in Arkansas to join the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, which provides free resources, travel suggestions and safety tips to LGBTQ travelers. The city of about 85,000 has always had a reputation for being progressive, especially within its own state, partly because it’s a college town that votes blue. Since 2014, Fayetteville fought to get an LGBTQ nondiscrimination law on its books, but the state supreme court struck it down in January.

That put Molly Rawn, executive director of Experience Fayetteville, the city’s tourism office, in a bit of a bind. How do you convince LGBTQ people to come to your city, which prides itself on inclusivity, when the state sends a different message?

One way Rawn does it is by being clear in her message to LGBTQ folks: “We want you here,” she said.

A Pride participant in Fayetteville in 2018.Courtesy Vincent Griffin

Experience Fayetteville takes out ads in gay newspapers in nearby cities and neighboring states touting its attractions and making sure queer and trans folks know they can visit without worry.

“In my experience, you only have to get them here once, and then they come back,” Rawn said. A lifelong Arkansan, she knows she’s fighting an uphill battle — while she loves the state, she acknowledges that it isn’t always a great place to be LGBTQ, with a lack of workplace discrimination protections and scant health care for trans people.

Still, Fayetteville Pride, the biggest gay event of the year, has flourished, drawing visitors from all over the region. The first parade in 2005 drew about 200 attendees; last year, it had over 15,000.

John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, was thrilled when Fayetteville wanted to be promoted by his organization. But some travel writers and tourists wrote to his organization and asked: “Is it really somewhere welcoming?” and “Do they really want us there?”

His answer: “Yes.”

Tanzella said that in recent years, gay tourism has “evolved from a one-size-fits model to all these different niches.” No longer just cruises and bed-and-breakfasts in Provincetown, Massachusetts, LGBTQ tourism has grown as diverse as the community itself. One of those niches is LGBTQ people who live in the South or the Midwest, and aren’t itching for big city life — they just want a place to be themselves.

Still, the impulse to court LGBTQ tourists doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Brody Parrish, a queer, trans and nonbinary Fayetteville resident, said the effort to draw LGBTQ visitors feels like a “misappropriation of resources.”

Parrish believes Northwest Arkansas should focus on allocating resources to its LGBTQ residents by increasing health care access and opening spaces like community drop-in centers were queer and trans people can congregate. Progressive cities like Fayetteville should “really be putting in the work to make it a safe space for everyone to exist here.”

“I would love to meet random LGBT people that come to this area to visit,” Parrish added, but at the same time, “What are you doing to support those people that are in your town, versus trying to bring people from other areas?”

‘IT FEELS LIKE HOME’

Melodye Purdy moved to Eureka Springs about 15 years ago from Memphis, Tennessee. She and her partner chose Eureka mostly because “there is no other place on Earth like it.”

“Being a woman and being a lesbian, it was very important to find a sense of security and safety,” Purdy, 53, said. Some “gay-friendly” places she and her partner considered seemed to cater only to men, while others, like Key West and Provincetown, felt too far from her home in the South. “I did think that I had to leave the South to be a lesbian,” she said. But in Eureka, among the curvy streets, she found home. “I was wrong.”

Melodye PurdyLudwig Hurtado / NBC News

Eureka’s reputation as an LGBTQ haven isn’t new — at least for Northwest Arkansas residents. It started as a hippie town in the ’70s, and slowly, queer and trans people began moving there. The picturesque town features old saloons with rainbow flags, a haunted hotel, and dozens of other gay-owned shops, restaurants and businesses. Every bar in Eureka, residents like to say, is a gay bar.

Ashley Buckmaster, 36, makes the two-hour drive from her home in Carthage, Missouri, to Eureka Springs a couple times a year. “It’s not scary to go places here,” Buckmaster, who is queer, said at Diversity Weekend. On her visits, she’s met and made lifelong friends. “It feels like home.”

That is exactly why Wilks organizes Diversity Weekend.

“With the cost of travelling to some of the major cities, it’s not something that everyone can just up and do,” he said. “Gay affluence” is a largely a myth, and transgender people often face structural hurdles to finding work and housing. Eureka, Wilks and others hope, can provide an affordable and safe refuge.

‘WE’RE MOVING’

Preparing for his first trip to Eureka Springs a year ago, Ethan Avanzino, 30, said he took out a lot of cash.

“My initial thought of Arkansas was like: ‘Do they take credit cards? Can we barter?'” Avanzino, a gay trans man who grew up on the West Coast and currently lives in Dallas, said. He’s been back four times since then, making the six-to-seven-hour drive with his husband.

On Diversity Weekend this April, he returned to enjoy the festivities and to lead a “Transgender 101” workshop for visitors and community members.

Ethan AvanzinoLudwig Hurtado / NBC News

In the town’s public library, people asked Avanzino about they/them pronouns, what it means to be intersex and how best to support the trans people in their lives. Outside the library window, if you looked east, you could see a 66-foot white statue of Jesus called “Christ of the Ozarks” towering over the hills.

In Dallas, Avanzino is out and does media production for a Fortune 500 company; things are pretty good. But there’s something about Eureka that he feels like he can’t get elsewhere. “The inclusivity in the South is what captured me,” he said. “I like to disconnect and be out in the middle of the wilderness and not have cell reception.”

“Our first weekend in Eureka, I was like, ‘This is the place,’” Avanzino added. It will take him and his husband a few years to uproot their lives, but there’s one thing the two know for sure: “We’re moving.”

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Ludwig Hurtado contributed.