While cities on both coasts like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles boast the largest LGBTQ+ populations in the country, many smaller cities still provide a welcome refuge for the community. While it differs based on state parameters, smaller cities are typically classified by a population of less than 100,000, while mid-size cities have populations of half a million or less.
All the cities featured on this list scored at least a 95 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. The MEI index rates cities “based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ+ equality.”
While some cities have more queer nightlife or LGBTQ+-owned businesses than others, these 8 cities offer a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ individuals, families and tourists alike.
Population numbers are rounded to reflect ever-changing demographics.
Bloomington, Indiana (population 80,000)
This college town in Southern Indiana has an abundant LGBTQ+ scene and it’s not just for students. B-Town, as it’s known to locals, hosts an annual Pride Fest and Pride Film Festival. Queer bar The Backdoor is open daily, has a calendar of year-round events and a little food truck called The Munch Box for hungry revelers. The Kinsey Institute, founded by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey based on his research into human sexuality and relationships, is housed on Indiana State’s campus.
Iowa City, Iowa (population 74,000)
Located in Eastern Iowa and home to the University of Iowa, Iowa City has long been an epicenter for Midwestern LGBTQ+ activism. In 1970, the university’s chapter of Gay Liberation Front became the first college group in the country to be recognized by its university. The small city has also been a leader in LGBTQ+ civil rights and policies, including passing the state’s first “anti-discrimination ordinance to include sexual preference” in 1977. The city has been celebrating an annual Pride event since 1975 and is home to many LGBTQ+-owned businesses, including The Haunted Bookshop, Ten Thousand Villages and Studio 13.
Decatur, Georgia (population 24,000)
A suburb of Atlanta, Decatur is making a name as a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people and families. After scoring less than favorable ratings on the MEI, the city made an about-face in 2019 when it adopted a clear anti-discrimination ordinance. Private women’s college Agnes Scott calls Decatur home, as does one of the country’s remaining feminist and queer bookstores, Charis Books and More. Queer-owned Café Lily, with its Mediterranean-influenced menu, has the goods to rival restaurants in Atlanta proper.
Ferndale, Michigan (population 19,000)
This extremely LGBTQ+-friendly city borders Detroit and Pleasant Ridge, offering several LGBTQ+-friendly and focused spots in its Downtown strip along 9 Mile Road. It’s home to Affirmations, the LGBTQ+ center opened in 1989 and is now housed in a “three-level, sixteen thousand square foot facility” in the heart of Ferndale. The city is also host to Ferndale Pride and is in the process of building an affordable housing development for LGBTQ+ seniors. Queer-owned businesses like Not Sorry Goods, SOHO and Blumz showcase the diverse and creative LGBTQ+ community of Ferndale.
Madison, Wisconsin (population 269,000)
The largest of the cities profiled here, Madison is located on the shore of Lake Mendota and houses the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Besides the large and progressive college community, the city boasts over three dozen LGBTQ+-owned businesses, including the longtime Downtown fixture, A Room of One’s Own Bookstore. StageQ, an LGBTQ+ theater company, puts on queer and trans-focused shows like the upcoming “The Secretaries” by Five Lesbian Brothers and Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song.” OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center and its predecessors have been offering services for the LGBTQ+ community for nearly 50 years.
Salem, Massachusetts (population 44,000)
Salem may have a population of less than 50,000 but the small city welcomes over 1 million tourists annually, especially during September and October. Once (and still) notorious for its Salem Witch Trials in the early 1690s, Salem has embraced its past and offers many witchy and spiritual spots. The North Shore Alliance for GLBTQ Youth provides year-round programming and events for the area’s youth population, including fairs with gender-affirming health care providers, holiday parties and numerous clubs. Stop by Salem Flea Marketplace or Hive and Forge for queer-owned and LGBTQ+-friendly shopping experiences.
State College, Pennsylvania (population 40,000)
If there were an exact middle of Pennsylvania, State College would be about as close as you can get. Home to Penn State University, which scores five stars from Campus Pride, the city also offers an essential resource in Centre LGBT+, a community-founded organization “committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.” The center just opened its first brick-and-mortar location this fall. Chumley’s, State College’s beloved queer bar since 1984, welcomes Penn State students (21 and up, of course), locals and tourists alike for drinks and camaraderie.
Wilton Manors, Florida (population 11,000)
Yes, the conversation about LGBTQ+ rights and Florida is a complicated one in the current landscape. However, the small town of Wilton Manors has long been a linchpin of the LGBTQ+ community in Florida. In 2018, Wilton Manors was just the second city in the U.S. to have an all LGBTQ+ city council and mayor. It’s also home to The Pride Center at Equality Park, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The Center offers free services and hosts weekly events like “Coffee and Conversation” with members of the community and significant citywide events like the annual “Wicked Manors” on Halloween. Take a stroll down Wilton Manors Drive and you’ll encounter dozens of LGBTQ+-owned businesses and safe spaces for queer and trans folks of all ages.
Do you live in a small or mid-sized city you want us to check out? Email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.