A recent study looked at several U.S. cities to find the one that is most LGBT-friendly. Seattle —dubbed by local drag queen and season 6 contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race Ben de la Crème as “the city that never dries” — ranked first, edging out the nation’s gay mecca San Francisco to second place. Seattle queers raised their eco-friendly mugs of Starbucks venti lattés to toast this honor. Bi Magazine set out to explore whether and how Seattle is a friendly place for bisexuals. After all, Seattle is home to Dan Savage who is notorious for making several ignorant remarks about bisexuality over the years.
“We are a proud community here,” remarked Alexia, a bisexual woman in her 20s, when asked whether she was surprised by the results of this study. She has found Seattle to be more welcoming in general than her native Orange County, California. She is careful to add that it also depends on the circumstances. “I don’t really discuss my orientation with heterosexuals,” she says. “The few times that I have, they got very confused especially when I’m with my partner Dave.”
But even within some LGBT circles, Alexia has had challenges explaining her orientation. When she goes to social events without her partner and discloses her orientation, other women will sometimes hit on her but they don’t understand why she won’t reciprocate. “They cannot wrap their heads around the fact that I am in a long-term relationship with a male partner,” Alexia laments.
William, a bisexual man in his 40s, remembers the time when Seattle used to have a LGBT community center. “Bi-Net Seattle had regular meetings there, back when the center was around,” he says. “They charged us the same fees as any other group and their library even had a section for bi-themed books.” Others of his generation wistfully remember Seattle’s LGBT community center located in Capitol Hill, what was then a predominantly queer neighborhood anchored by Broadway Avenue as Seattle’s equivalent of Castro Street. The community center in Seattle closed its doors almost a decade ago as funding became harder to sustain.
So how does a city that doesn’t even have a LGBT community center rate higher than San Francisco (2nd place) and Atlanta (3rd place) with strong, active community centers of their own? The criteria for this study may reflect the changing political face of the LGBT community. One also wonders whether the criteria fairly and accurately represent the lived experiences of bisexuals.
The study first looked at percentage of same-sex households from the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. “I don’t think that is necessarily helpful,” says Gloria, a bisexual woman in her 50s. “There’s no way of knowing if one or both partners is bisexual. I think there’s the assumption that all same-sex couples are gay or lesbian.” Seattle ranked higher than San Francisco by only 0.1 percent.
Second, the survey incorporated the Human Right Campaign’s (HRC) 2013 Municipal Equality Index that looks at LGBT-friendly laws and opportunities. The Fortune 500 companies that Seattle is most well-known for — Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Boeing, Costco, Microsoft, Nordstrom, and Starbucks — all have LGBT inclusive policies in their employment and benefits practices. City of Seattle agencies and contractors, major universities, and hospitals have similar policies. It is not uncommon to meet LGBT people in everyday life at cafes, restaurants, libraries, and grocery stores. But Seattle’s infamous live-and-let-live attitude also means that not everyone feels compelled to be out to their employers, co-workers, neighbors, or even their primary care physicians.
William works as an aide providing home health care for the disabled. He said that he hasn’t had any opportunities to discuss his orientation but he feels that, if it came up, it wouldn’t be a big deal judging from the liberal opinions of his clients from other conversations. “I certainly don’t tell everyone about my bisexuality,” says Gloria, “But I feel much more comfortable sharing that aspect of my life than I did maybe a decade ago. For instance, on International Coming Out Day last year, I came out on Facebook, as well as to my chiropractor. I received nothing but positive comments and lots of support. I’m also out to my doctor as bisexual and polyamorous.” Seattle got a perfect score of 100 on the Municipal Equality Index but so did seven of the top ten cities that made the list.
The final criteria – LGBT safety and tolerance – puts Seattle ahead of San Francisco and Minneapolis but far behind the other seven cities in the top ten list. The study used FBI hate-crimes statistics from 2011, which is misleading, as most recently, in 2012, there was a sharp rise in bias-related crimes in Seattle.
William is tall and athletic. He thinks this probably makes people think twice before saying negative comments to him directly. Gloria finds Seattle to be very safe but admits that it may be a sign of the times. “I couldn’t have said that about 1980s Portland, when I first began to identify as bisexual,” she says. “I was constantly told that I needed to make up my mind. I have never run into that in Seattle, though I very well could have if I lived in Seattle in the 1980s. I’ve gone to some lesbian events over the last 3-4 years and even though I wasn’t completely comfortable discussing my boyfriends, the women didn’t seem offended by the fact that I wasn’t a lesbian.”
For Alexia, safety and tolerance are more than just about hate crime statistics. She often wonders how tolerant gay men and lesbians are toward bisexuals. She used to volunteer with a social justice non-profit organization for LGBT youth. Most of her peers there identified as gay or lesbian and were single or same-sex partnered. “I felt like my eligibility to belong in this group was questioned pretty regularly because I was in a relationship with a man,” she says. On the other hand, Alexia has met a few transgender people in Seattle that identify as bisexual and she finds that encouraging. “But,” she says, “I don’t really feel like I have a home here yet in terms of my queer identity.”
LGBT people do not live in a vacuum where only queer-specific metrics can be used to determine a city’s ability to provide a safe and livable haven for us. Like in many U.S. cities, Seattle’s LGBT community is extremely segregated. Rising rents and an epidemic of gentrification is driving out many queers, especially low-income or racial minority queers who often lean more radical and progressive in their political views. And meaningful progress is slow to come because of Seattle’s insistence on pleasing everyone through a process of committee and consensus.
However dubious the results of this study, Seattle’s bi-friendliness depends on who you talk to. Seattle bisexuals are long past the “bisexuality is a phase” nonsense spoon fed by Savage to his flock. But, by all accounts, they are a less visible and out group than their gay and lesbian counterparts. Regardless of your orientation, Seattle culture is such that if you are an introvert who loves the outdoors, have a good job or the ability to get one on the strength of your advanced degrees, love your coffee strong and dark, have a dog, confuse the difference between debate and confrontation, and always begin your sentences with “sorry”, then it is indeed the most friendly city in the nation.
Photo and graphics by Anil Vora