By Matthew Link
In June 2011, gays and lesbians and straights jammed the streets of Manhattan for an impromptu street celebration as New York became the sixth U.S. state (in addition to Washington, D.C.) to fully legalize same-sex marriage. It now stands alongside Massachusetts (passed in 2004), Connecticut (in 2008), Iowa (in 2009), Vermont (in 2009), New Hampshire (in 2010), and Washington D.C. (in 2010) as the natural spots for gays and lesbians to plan their weddings and/or honeymoons.
With so much changing month to month in the gay marriage world, we spotlight which states and countries actually have full gay marriage (as opposed to the 50-plus places that just civil unions or domestic partnerships), and what the gay scene is like in each place for travelers.
U.S. states where gay marriage is legal
Connecticut gets short-changed by gay travelers on their rush to other parts of New England. The second U.S. state to grant same-sex marriages, it’s particularly known for gay-friendly New Haven, the headquarters of lively Yale University. Once-downtrodden, New Haven is now the region’s comeback kid, with fabulous restaurant, theater, and museum scenes. The capital of Hartford is full of grand edifices, and the state’s long and scenic coastline celebrates its nautical history – particularly the old whaling town of Mystic, with its fascinating reconstructed seaport and vintage ships.
In April of 2009, the unthinkable happened in America’s Heartland: The rural corn-fed state of Iowa became the third state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriages. Iowa’s largest city and capital, Des Moines, has a rather impressive art scene, and many LGBT travelers b-line it to the leafy and gently hilly college town of Iowa City, full of progressives and queer residents. Dubuque along the Mississippi River is another eye-opener, with a revived downtown Old Main District and urbane eateries and bars. Iowa’s nature is another draw, from autumn leaf-peeping to bald eagle spotting.
It’s not surprising that the liberal state which gave rise to Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank would be the first in the nation to pass same-sex marriage in 2004. Although Boston may seem stuffy at times, it has a sizeable gay and lesbian population, especially in the traditional gayborhood of the South End, as well as funky Jamaica Plain and energetic Cambridge (home of Harvard University). Gay life thrives elsewhere in the state, too: The picture-perfect village of Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod is one of the gayest beach resorts in the world, and the college town of Northampton in Western Massachusetts has been rightly dubbed “Lesbianville, USA.”
New Hampshire in 2010 became the fifth U.S. state to pass full-fledged gay marriage, and it’s said to have one of the highest concentrations of LGBT residents in the U.S. The state’s live-and-let-live attitude extends many freedoms and rights to gays. The revitalized historic mill town of Manchester is northern New England’s largest city, but with a manageable population of just over 100,000. Many small towns throughout New Hampshire enjoy cozy queer (and especially lesbian) social scenes, particularly in the historic seaport of Portsmouth and the mountain-y Monadnock region.
After a hard-fought battle, New York became the most recent U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriages in June, 2011. Manhattan is one of the gayest cities in the world with multiple LGBT enclaves including Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, the East Village, and the West (Greenwich) Village, the latter which has attracted gays and bohemians for generations. In New York City’s outer boroughs you’ll find young queer hipsters in Williamsburg, lesbian couples in Park Slope, Greek gays in Astoria, and Latin and African-American LGBTers in the multi-ethnic enclave of Jackson Heights. And don’t forget the gayest isle in the world, Fire Island, is just off Long Island. Although it may seem like the rest of the picturesque, leafy state is devoid of gays, you will upon closer inspection find gay life Upstate with lesbians bars in Buffalo, gay dance clubs in Syracuse, and even a nine-day LGBT film festival in Rochester.
Vermont has been no stranger to gay and lesbian tourism: Same-sex couples have been flocking here since 2000, when the state was the first to pass a civil marriage law, which became gay marriage in 2009. And what better place to get married, among the neon-green countryside dotted with cozy hamlets and the snow-capped peaks of the Green Mountains? Vermont hosts both a summertime and wintertime pride festival, a great gay ski week, and even a bear film festival. Alternative and hip Burlington, the state’s capital, basks in its perch on the shores of shimmering Lake Champlain.
March, 2010, saw the nation’s capital join five states in issuing gay marriage licenses. Despite its reputation as a businesslike and button-down town, D.C. is one of gayest destinations on the East Coast. The traditionally queer neighborhood of Dupont Circle is conveniently close to major attractions like the White House. The city offers a full calendar of LGBT events, from film festivals to leather prides to gay political organization dinners. D.C. is a museum hound’s wet dream, with museums (often free) to suit any mood, from the National Museum of the American Indian to the National Museum of Women in the Arts to the International Spy Museum.
Countries with same-sex marriage
Once-conservative Argentina legalized gay marriage in July, 2010, becoming the first country in Latin America and the second in the Americas to do so. Buenos Aires, known as “The Paris of South America,” is one of the gayest cities on the continent with a populace so sophisticated and fashionable that you’ll have a hard time telling the models from the commoners, and the homosexuals from the metrosexuals. LGBT clubs pump through the night and you’ll even find gay tango lessons. (Tango, after all, was originally danced between men.) Beyond Buenos Aires is the Andean wine capital of Mendoza, the central plains of the pampas (where gaucho cowboy culture still thrives), and unending, sparsely-populated Patagonia in the south.
More than just waffles and chocolates, little Belgium is at the nexus of the New Europe, playing host to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. It became the second country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2003. Brussels is a city laced with Art Nouveau architectural masterpieces, and exudes an interesting confluence of French and Dutch cultures. The LGBT scene in Brussels is friendlier and cozier than Paris or Amsterdam, and is sprinkled with French karaoke bars and old-fashioned Continental cabarets. Hip, fashion-forward Antwerp in the Flanders region of northern Belgium will host the World Outgames in 2013.
The world’s second largest country in size is also the Western Hemisphere’s most pro-gay nation, eclipsing even parts of Europe in its tolerance and acceptance. Canada was the first Western Hemisphere country to pass gay marriage (in 2005), and has a wide variety of gay cities to choose from. Towering Toronto and French-flavored Montreal have huge, over-the-top LGBT scenes that would make even New Yorkers or Londoners blush. Scenic, lesbian-popular Vancouver mirrors West Coast ideals of healthy living, and the remote and potentially “red state” cities of Winnipeg and Edmonton present openly gay scenes. Even conservative, oil-rich Calgary proudly hosts the Canadian Rockies International Rodeo, one of the largest gay rodeos in the world.
Despite currency collapses and erupting volcanoes, Iceland is a mellow, quiet getaway complete with the Scandinavian tradition of legalized same-sex marriage (passed in June of 2010). Half the population lives in the low-rise capital of Reykjavik, where a small handful of queer bars burst at the seams on weekends, and where everything from lesbian volleyball tournaments to bear festivals have been held. To its south is the famous Blue Lagoon, a steaming man-made thermal lake now developed into luxuriously healing baths. Rugged Iceland is tailor-made for the adventurer, with glacier sledding, volcano climbing, and white river rafting beneath giant waterfalls.
The first country in the world to legalize gay marriages in 2001, The Netherlands has always been at the forefront of open-mindedness. Amsterdam, one of the gay capitals of the world and a major leather destination, feels more like a large scenic neighborhood once you get past the tourist sex clubs and marijuana shops. Major gay events and dance parties for every queer subgroup happen year-round. Rotterdam has a happening gay nightlife and music scene as well, and in summertime, everyone suns their buns along the nudist beaches of the North Sea.
Norway’s gays are so integrated into society, there is little that separates its gay scene from its straight life. In 1981, it was the first country in the world to enact anti-gay discrimination laws, and in 2009 legalized gay marriage. Oslo has a polished arts and cultural life, and is full of avant-garde office buildings and hotels. But even here, Norway’s main attraction – its stunning outdoors – is the real star, with virgin mountain forests and great skiing just minutes away by tram. With over 1,500 miles of jagged coastline drama from north to south, you won’t find any lack of spectacular fjords, narrows, valleys, and straits. The bright summers see robust gay Pride festivals even in the smaller cities of Stavanger, Trondheim, and Bergen.
In June, 2010, Portugal passed same-sex marriage as their neighbors Spain had done in 2005. It’s impressive considering the deeply conservative Catholic country didn’t even have a Pride festival until 1997. But LGBT rights in Portugal have seen a meteoric rise after 2004 when it became the first country in Europe (and the fourth in the world) to constitutionally prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Gay life is squarely centered in Lisbon with a smattering of a scene in the historic wine city of Porto and the beachy, tourist-popular Algarve region in the south.
South Africa, the first country on the continent to legalize gay rights and gay marriage (in 2006), revels in a Western-style LGBT scene. Centered around gorgeous Cape Town, the gay community in South Africa is huge with many fun bars, beaches, festivals, and parties. Wealthy Johannesburg also has a happening gay life, and add on wildlife safaris, mountainous regions like Kruger National Park, a rainbow of ethnic cultures, and amazingly friendly people, and you’ve got one of the world’s great gay getaways.
Spain surprised the Catholic world by passing same-sex marriage in 2005, which underscores the fact that this sun-baked country is one of the world’s gayest. Madrid enjoys one the most active and organized LGBT scenes in Europe, mainly concentrated in the Chueca neighborhood. But gay hot spots thrive all over Spain, from artsy Barcelona and its nearby gay beach resort of Sitges, to the party-thumping isle of Ibiza and the gay nude beaches and sexy bars of The Canary Islands off the coast of North Africa.
It’s evident that the country that gave birth to ABBA, Garbo, H&M, and Ikea must be queer, and Sweden happily lives up to its ultra-liberal reputation. It passed gay marriage in 2009, and The Swedish Federation for Lesbian and Gay Rights was founded as early as 1950. Elegant Stockholm, Scandinavia’s largest city, has a fun if decentralized gay scene and plays host to the region’s largest pride festival every July. Beyond the cities, you’ll find much to explore: medieval towns, untamed wilderness, even pretty nudist beaches.
Matthew Link is the Editor At Large for The Out Traveler magazine, as well as a contributor to Newsweek. Having been to more than 60 countries and all 7 continents doesn’t keep him from getting on the next plane away from his home in New York City.