SALT LAKE CITY — Here are three short paragraphs I never thought I would write. Ever.
Paragraph one: I was nursing a rum and Diet Coke at a gay bar in Salt Lake City when a thunderbolt of excitement hit the room. I was told that Michael Sanders, the reigning Mr. Leather Slut of Utah, had arrived!
Paragraph two: I walked into a tiny Salt Lake bar called Bodega — this one is not a gay bar — and a man in a tailored vest who looks like a refugee from Brooklyn escorted me downstairs to an expansive speakeasy and restaurant where diners were enjoying beer can chicken and beignets in a room that looked like a haunted museum of natural history.
Paragraph three: The once Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City is much gayer, and much cooler, than I ever expected.
By now you are likely scratching your head and thinking, “What in the name of Osmond is going on here?” I experienced the same reaction, although in my case I invoked the Romney moniker.
Regardless of your preferred interjection, a Gallup poll ranked Salt Lake as the seventh gayest city in the country. That means 4.7 percent of Salt Lake’s population identified as LGBT, making it slightly less gay than Boston (4.8 percent), but gayer than Los Angeles (4.6 percent). Salt Lake also made the top 10 list of Advocate magazine’s Queerest Cities in America in 2016. It missed the list this year, but I was assured that Salt Lake is still pretty darn gay. Brigham Young would probably have a panic attack if he saw all the rainbow flags.
“We have a really great gay community here in Salt Lake,” said city councilor Derek Kitchen. “I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I have a hunch. My feeling is that as the Mormons came through and dominated the region, it provided an opportunity for a strong counterculture to grow and thrive. And the LGBT community has always been a part of the counterculture.”
Kitchen and his now-husband were one of three couples that filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the District of Utah in 2013 seeking to declare the state’s prohibition of same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The court agreed, and in 2014 Utah began issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
In addition to two gay city councilors, Salt Lake also has a lesbian mayor, Jackie Biskupski. At the same time she married her fiance Betty Iverson last year, nearly 100 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints filed papers to remove their names from the church’s rolls to protest its stance toward LGBT members. The church’s latest policy is that you can be Mormon and gay — as long as you don’t have sex with members of the same sex. I haven’t heard of Salt Lake Celibacy Pride, so that policy may not be very popular.
Last month, Utah’s 42nd annual Pride march drew 40,000 people from across the state. The Salt Lake gay tide — yes, a lake can have a tide — even swept over Ty Burrell. The “Modern Family” actor lives half the year in Salt Lake and officiated a lesbian wedding at the bar he owns in there. It’s called Bar X, and for the record, Bar X is not a gay bar.
When I was sitting with Councilman Kitchen at the restaurant he owns with his husband, he explained that there are gay bars in Salt Lake, but like most of the country, the community there has gone post-gay. People go to whatever bar or restaurant they choose.
None of this is news to those who live in Utah or have spent any time here. But for me, and pretty much all my friends, it was a pleasant shock.
It’s also important to point out that Salt Lake City isn’t just getting gayer, it’s also getting cooler. I’m not saying it’s Austin or San Francisco, but there are signs of indie life emerging. Independent shops, art house theaters, restaurants, and cafes in neighborhoods such as 9 & 9th, Sugar House, and the Marmalade District, are drawing young, tattooed (and non-tattooed) denizens out on the town.
You can still find Chick-fil-A’s and Carl’s Jr. in the city center, but I’d recommend dining at the Copper Onion instead. There’s a Nordstrom Rack, but you might want to shop at local businesses such as Unhinged Boutique, where I found offerings from local artists and lots of vintage goodies. There’s a punk record store called Raunch Records, and, brace yourselves, a store that specializes in raw milk. If you’re not interested in shopping, eating, or drinking raw milk, you can linger in parks that dot the city and offer views of the majestic mountains.
There is a misconception about Salt Lake that needs to get cleared up, and that’s the booze situation. There was a time when you needed to belong to a private club in order to drink. That law was eliminated around the time of the 2002 Winter Olympics. One of the last remaining quirky liquor laws was abolished earlier this month when the so-called “Zion Curtains” were finally allowed to come down. These are walls that prevented patrons from seeing drinks being made in a restaurant. It was a law intended to protect children from seeing the heinous act of mixology.
Local distilleries and breweries have a sense of humor about it all. One poster for Brigham Rum reads “Support your local non-prophet.” Another for Five Wives Vodka gives a playful wink to Mormon polygamy doctrine of yore with five 19th century women coyly lifting their underpinnings.
Posters and polygamy aside, it feels like Salt Lake City is a destination waiting to happen. It has a booming culinary scene, opportunities to enjoy nature, a gorgeous new theater (with “Book of Mormon” opening soon) and, yes, a cool bar scene.
If you’re contemplating a visit, please don’t assume you need to be Mormon, gay, celibate, or enjoy raw milk to have a good time. I have a feeling that even the most heterosexual among you would still like it here.
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.