Jesse Walker grew up Mormon and gay in an Idaho town, so his visits to the nearest metropolis, Salt Lake City, offered him a glimpse of hope at a real future as an out man.
Walker left the church at 16 and shortly after high school moved to Salt Lake City, where “you can throw a dart and hit a gay person” who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because he or she didn’t feel accepted.
“There’s a large population here that have that exact same story,” said Walker, now 39. “That binds a lot of people together here.”
Part of that story for Walker is his ex-wife, whom he was living with in Salt Lake City when he came out to her at 24. He has now lived in the state’s capital for about two decades and has seen the LGBT population in the city explode, not just in numbers but also in visibility. As an artist and a DJ, Walker has been very connected to gay life in the city, he said, and the explosion of youth culture there has helped create an overall more accepting environment.
“We all feel connected despite our differences because we’re all part of the ‘other,’ if you might call it that,” said Walker.
With 4.7 percent of Salt Lake City’s adult population identifying as LGBT, the state capital now rates as one of the top 10 places where LGBT people live in the United States. Ranking between the Los Angeles and Boston metro areas, Salt Lake City comes in at No. 7 in population percentage on a list of top 50 U.S. metro areas for the LGBT community, according to a Gallup poll released Friday. San Francisco and Portland secured the No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively.
Salt Lake City’s LGBT population “is substantially more open and visible today, and the change in that visibility there is among the largest in the country,” said Gary Gates of UCLA’s The Williams Institute, who published a report on these comparisons. (In 1990, the city ranked 39th.)
While this may be due in part to the “regional draw” Salt Lake City has for LGBT individuals in the largely conservative state, it also demonstrates a substantial change in the comfort level of LGBT people to identify as such, said Gates. Historically, this feeling of social acceptance tends to precede legal equality, and Utah has made strides in both, noted Gates.
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