Asheville is a gay-friendly small city. Period.
According to the latest United States census, the Asheville area has 83% more lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) identified people than the typical American city or town. Another study, in 2011, also based on the latest official census results, found that Buncombe County (with 15.5 same sex couples per 1,000) and Asheville (19.7 per 1,000) are the most gay-friendly county and city in the state of North Carolina, on a per-capita basis well ahead of places like Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro. In 2010, the gay-oriented publication, The Advocate, ranked Asheville as the “12th gayest city in America.” Atlanta was ranked #1.
LGBT visitors increasingly are discovering Asheville, with its great natural beauty, innovative dining and drinking gigs, heavy-duty gallery, arts and crafts scene, interesting shops and numerous gay-owned or gay-welcoming B&Bs and inns and businesses. You are likely to see a number of openly lesbian and gay couples around town, especially Downtown and in West Asheville.
Downtown Asheville has several LGBT bars, including O. Henry’s (one of the oldest gay bars in the state, perhaps the oldest), which also operates The Underground, billed as an alternative industrial bar.
Scandals, which dates to 1982 and is believed to be the largest LGBTQ club in the state, has three music/dance/bar spaces: Scandals Nightclub, Club Eleven on Grove and Boiler Room Asheville. Scandals has drag shows regularly. The Odditorium, a music venue in West Asheville, attracts a mixed audience, not just gays, but has occasional drag shows. Sadly, the long-running Smokey's After Dark on Broadway in Downtown has closed due to redevelopment in the area. (See Clubs and Nightlife section for more information.)
Nearly all the many B&Bs and small inns in the Asheville area are welcoming to gays, and more than a dozen local B&Bs are gay-owned. Of course, the major hotels are welcoming to LGBTQ folks. (See Lodging section for more information.)
Asheville has become a major destination for LGBTQ weddings, and the first local LGBTQ Wedding Expo was held in 2016.
Many businesses in Asheville are LGBT-owned. GayAshevilleNC (www.gayashevillenc.com) maintains a listing of LGBTQ-owned and gay-friendly accommodations, businesses, groups and resources in the area. One of the best known is the lesbian-owned Malaprop’s bookstore, one of the top independent bookstores in the South.
Blue Ridge Pride (www.blueridgepride.com) is an umbrella organization promoting gay pride. It holds a variety of events and meet-and-greets year-round, including a gay pride parade and event in late September or October that draws more than 150 vendors and 10,000 attendees.
Among local lesbian organizations are the Association of Lesbian Professionals, bringing together Asheville’s lesbian professionals. Other groups include Lesbians in the Mountains, Asheville Lesbian Social Club (with more than 1,600 members) and Asphalt Sisters, an all-female motorcycle group.
The Miss Gay Latina Asheville pageant, held at Diana Wortham Theatre (www.missgaylatinaasheville.com), in its 11th year in 2018, attracts visitors from all over the South, and it always sells out.
Asheville has no one gay residential neighborhood or “gayborhood.” Downtown, Montford, North Asheville and West Asheville are all popular with LGBT residents, but you may just as easily find LGBT couples living in a rural mountain cove.
The City of Asheville has offered domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples since 2011, and Buncombe County began doing so in 2013. Mission Hospital, by far the largest employer in the region, has offered same-sex domestic partner benefits to its employees since 2012.
Buncombe County, where Asheville is located, in 2016 elected its first openly lesbian county commissioner, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. Also in 2016, Tammy Hooper became the first female Asheville police chief; she is a lesbian married to a woman. She has since left office.
North Carolina as a whole is not as LGBT-friendly as cities like Asheville. In 2012, about 61% of state voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage solely as being a union between a man and a woman. The amendment won due to a coalition of conservatives and churches, including large numbers of African-American churches. However, Asheville and Buncombe County citizens voted against the anti-same sex marriage amendment.
In 2016, the Republican-dominated NC state legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, HB-2. The so-called “bathroom bill” that attempted to control access to public restrooms by transgender individuals created a national backlash against North Carolina. A number of companies canceled new investment in the state. Parts of the bill were repealed in 2017, in a compromise between the state’s Democratic governor and the Republican legislature.
In October 2014, same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina, thanks to a ruling by U.S. Federal District Court Judge Max Cogburn in Asheville. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally.
Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, whose office is responsible for marriage licenses, led the way in granting same-sex marriage licenses for LGBT couples. Reisinger was the first government official in the South to take this action after the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
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