I polled my audience of Instagram followers and asked them what they thought were the gayest places in the world. All of the responses were destinations that fit the ‘giant LGBT mecca’ reputation – Berlin, Sydney, London, New York City. Palm Springs, California didn’t even make the list.
Despite not being at the top of mind for my Instagram audience, it’s true – Palm Springs is one of the gayest cities in the world, even with less than 50,000 residents. But how did this happen? This is a city with mostly gated retirement communities and golf courses, surrounded by desert that reaches temperatures of well over 110 degrees in the summer. Those characteristics alone would scare off most queer folks.
Palm Springs has been the getaway of choice for famous LGBT people for over 100 years
This dusty town, two hours from Los Angeles has done more for queer history than some of its larger neighbors. This is because of its roots as the playground for rich and famous LGBT stars. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the old movie studios owned the contracts for most entertainers. They were hyper protective of their stars and had dozens of requirements for employment, including morality clauses and requiring them to remain within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles.
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Palm Springs was at the outer limit of where they could travel and so became a private oasis for actors looking for a little downtime. Many famous LGBT actors journeyed to Palm Springs to protect themselves from being outed and losing their careers. As a result, the area became the pseudo “what happens in Vegas” destination of the Golden Hollywood era.
It’s home to the world’s largest lesbian event
Dinah Shore Weekend is a huge lesbian festival event. It’s held in Palm Springs in April every year. The festival’s namesake was a singer and actress who started a women’s golf tournament in 1972. Palm Springs already had a large population of lesbians but even more flocked to the city to take part in the competition. After the golf tournament, private parties would spring up across the area, until eventually, “are you going to Dinah Shore?” became a tongue-in-cheek identifier within the lesbian community.
Founder and entrepreneur Mariah Hanson capitalized on this and created the lesbian pool party and music festival we know today. This is no small potatoes event – Lizzo, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Iggy Azalea, Kesha and Meghan Trainor have all performed at Dinah. Nearly 30 years later, Dinah Shore is still one of the only spaces of its kind for queer women in the world.
And the spot for gay retirement
Palm Springs became the retirement community of choice for entertainers leaving the stage and heading towards a quieter life. By the 1970s and 1980s it had developed a strong reputation as an LGBT-friendly destination. It was also a cheaper alternative to San Francisco or New York City, resulting in many LGBT people choosing the desert city as a base for their elderly years. Today, around 50% of the residents of Palm Springs over 55 identify as LGBT.
Palm Springs elected an entirely LGBT government
Palm Springs’ gay community has always been politically active and LGBT members have consistently been part of their local government. But in 2018 they elected the first all-LGBT government, where every member of the city council is a member of the LGBT community.
The five-member council has three gay men, a queer woman, and a transgender woman. One of the most interesting parts of the election happened a month after the council was appointed. They were asked about their role in LGBT history and there was a complete lack of excitement. Lisa Middleton, the newly elected transgender council member joked: “There is no gender associated with potholes.” Which just speaks to their dedication to improving the lives of their citizens regardless of identity.
It achieved a perfect equality score
The Human Rights Campaign releases their Municipal Equality Index every year, which is a ranking of all the policies localities have put together and their positions for LGBT people. Palm Springs has a perfect score – going as far as protecting transgender and gender nonconforming residency with gender-neutral restrooms.