Back in February, U.S. News & World Report released its annual “Best Places to Live” list, which ranks the United States’ 100 most populous cities based on metrics like “affordability, job prospects and quality of life.” Nashville scored the number 13 spot, a meteoric rise over its 22nd place in 2016 that confirmed the city’s star is still on the rise. Nashville’s profile on U.S. News describes Nashville as “home to a community fiercely driven by a desire to create,” and provides a more in-depth look at how the city was ranked.
Any such ranking is, of course, subject to dispute, but overall Nashville fares well when compared to peer cities, beating out Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dallas, Texas. Still Nashville has its downsides from certain perspectives. Despite its increasing cultural relevance and powerhouse tech and healthcare industries, as well as its firmly Democratic leanings, Nashville is a blue hub in a sea of red, and each year Tennessee’s supermajority Republican legislators seem intent on competing for “Most anti-LGBT.”
Here at O&AN, this made us wonder how Nashville’s “livability” rating translates for its LGBT citizens, in particular the thousands who move to the city each year because of its ever-increasing reputation and job prospects.
When LGBT transplants arrive, expecting to find a bustling, growing metropolis, how do they find the city, which not too long ago was barely more than a large town? What drew them here, and did they find Nashville to be a cool oasis of promise, a disappointing mirage, or just an enigma? I asked a few recent transplants to provide some feedback about their experiences of our emerging “it city.”
The New Transplant
Cover model Brandon Ybarra is the most recent transplant we spoke with, having just moved to Nashville in the last month. He came here from Wichita, Kansas, where he was a manager for Target, and was definitely drawn by Nashville’s reputation as a hip, up-and-coming city.
“Long story short,” Brandon said, “I moved because Kansas just didn’t have what I needed. It had no culture, not much of an art scene, and a lot of closed minds.”
So far, he has found what he’s looking for in his new city. “Nashville is everything I’ve been looking for, a melting pot of everything I love: music, art, people, and night life,” he said. When asked about his favorite places in Nashville, though, he was hard pressed to answer, explaining, “Yes, I am overwhelmed by Nashville after being here for only a few weeks.”
Brandon is still in his honeymoon phase with the city: “Nashville has endless things to do, from just enjoying live music to finding one of the many hidden cafes or restaurants. It’s everything I wanted it to be and more.”
Brandon also believes that the culture of Nashville is conducive to his longer-term goals. “I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a kid. That being a part of who I am I’m soaking up the culture and art of the city as much as I can,” he said. “I feel like there are endless opportunities for an artist in this city. I think I have a opportunity to become an openly gay tattoo artist here more than any other city I could have moved to.”
This doesn’t mean he’s in love with everything. Like many long-time residents, he points to traffic as one of his major cons. “It’s something I’m still getting used to,” he said. “Back in Kansas I could get anywhere in 10 mins or less. Here it is drastically different. Plus, finding my way around has been an interesting challenge. Thank God for GPS.”
The Non-Profit Employee
Jeff Tordiff moved to Nashville from Oxford, Mississippi (where he had moved from Little Rock, Arkansas). “I was taking a break from working to try and find a job that I was truly passionate about,” he explained of his time in Oxford.
It was Nashville’s fruitful job market that brought him here. “I ended up moving to Nashville,” he explained, “because I was offered an opportunity to work in a field I was passionate about, and didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.”
Jeff was very familiar with Nashville before moving here though. “I absolutely would have considered Nashville a desirable city to live in before I moved here. I had been here several times in college for Pride,” he said, “and I loved the diversity the city provided.” Living here has only enhanced that opinion. “Nashville is growing every day, and all kinds of new things are happening here. I truly think that Nashville could be the new it-place to live.”
After living here for over a year, Jeff still appreciates that Nashville has the charm of a smaller Southern city but the amenities of a large city. “My favorite thing to do in Nashville is to catch the shows that come through: there is always something happening here.” But like Brandon, he pointed to traffic, and the lack of a real public transportation system, as the city’s major drawback.
Quinton Walker lived in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as a school administrator for two different institutions, for almost twelve years before moving to Nashville. While still living in Atlanta, Quinton began his doctoral work at Vanderbilt, and when he finished his program and began looking at job opportunities, it was Nashville that held the best offer.
“Ultimately, I began looking for a job and Nashville chose me,” Quinton said, “as I was invited to become the Head of the High School at University School of Nashville. It’s a fantastic community and I couldn’t say no.”
Unlike Jeff and Brandon, however, Quinton, was not entirely sure Nashville was a good fit. “I was a bit hesitant about making the move here,” he added, “given the size of the city and my preconceptions around Nashville being a southern city.”
There is much Quinton appreciates about Nashville though. “I love the distinctive neighborhoods that Nashville has to offer. Each one has its own vibe and feel—exploring those places has been nice. I enjoy that the city’s food and drink scene is bustling,” he said. “Given my work, I don’t have a great deal of time to really get out and explore too much… When I do get the time, I love exploring the food and music scene, and trying to become a ‘regular’ at any of the places in Germantown. It’s a work in progress.”
Comparing Nashville to Other Cities
But perspective is everything. For Quinton, traffic was one of Nashville’s positive attributes. Coming from traffic-snarled Atlanta, he has found Nashville traffic to be a relief! “I’m loving the relative lack of traffic and ease of moving around the city.”
So while Quinton can see the immediate appeal that Nashville would hold for others, he could not echo Jeff and Brandon’s unequivocal affirmation of the city’s appeal. “The size of the city felt small and the lack of diversity in the city seemed to be a concern, as did the lack of a robust gay community like the one I had come to know and appreciate in Atlanta.”
Nashville’s LGBT Community
Again, perspective: Quinton’s Atlanta has one of the country’s most robust LGBT communities. For Brandon, who was from a much more repressed Wichita, Nashville seemed like an LGBT oasis.
“Being LGBT in Kansas was something I felt I had to hide,” Brandon said. “Even being 100% out of the closet, I still didn’t feel comfortable enough in my own skin. And I didn’t feel like I really had a place I could go to be around more LGBT people. Nashville makes me feel like I can truly be myself. I feel like I could walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and not have to worry so much.”
Jeff also said that one of the pros of living in Nashville was “that there is such a large community here, and the city is truly embracing of the LGBT community. We have protections and security here to rival many other large cities.”
Brandon admitted, he’s still exploring the gay community in Nashville but so far he likes what he’s found. “I’ve been to Church Street and experienced Tribe and Play and couldn’t be happier with my time there. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. Southern hospitality really is a thing, and it’s something I hope to spread.”
“I have yet to face many challenges being gay in Nashville,” Brandon added. “Like I said, coming from Kansas I don’t see it being a problem here. But I’m still single, so maybe when I start dating more and I am in public more with my partner, I will see how the city responds.”
Jeff sees community cohesiveness as a big challenge facing the LGBT community in Nashville. “Even though there is such a large community and a wide variety of bars and groups, there isn’t a lot of coordination between them,” he said, and that can make it hard to connect with groups as a newcomer and encourages in-group behavior.
Quinton’s experience is very different from Brandon’s and reflects Jeff’s observation. After “several months, many things that I thought about Nashville have proven to be true,” Quinton said. “Though I know that the city is growing, it has its challenges. It’s been tough to break into the gay community, beyond the social scene along Church Street. Being in my mid-30s, I looked forward to having other opportunities to plug into Nashville and have yet to really find them.”
Race in the LGBT Community
Racial issues in Nashville also impact Quinton’s experience of both the city and its LGBT scene. “I think race has been a significant factor in my difficulties with adjusting to LGBT Nashville. I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed to the South versus Nashville proper, but it’s been a noticeable thing for me.”
“Thus far, [Nashville’s LGBT community] feels pretty segregated, at least in the social spaces anyway. And that segregation is along racial and generational lines. Perhaps as an LGBT person of color, I’m more use to it, or at least looking for it. But it’s been interesting not seeing or finding a vibrant queer community of color.”
“I’m finding that guys in Nashville are reluctant to reach out and make connections with new people,” he added. “I’ve also been asked on numerous occasions why I’d leave Atlanta as if it seems to be the mecca of gay life in the South.
As Nashville’s star continues to rise, it will increasingly attract newcomers, including or maybe even especially LGBT newcomers. For some, especially those from other parts of the Bible belt, it may prove to be a welcoming, affirming place conducive to their LGBT identities, and thus warrant the status of one of the best places “for us” to live.
But for those of us who find Nashville, and its LGBT community, unconditionally welcoming, the challenge is in recognizing when, where and how it isn’t welcoming to others, and to open our arms, doors, and communities to those who don’t feel like they have a place here. Otherwise we’re just a Bible-belt town, draped for show with a rainbow flag, holding out a promise we can’t deliver.
Do you believe in Nashville? Have you been let down by Nashville? Do you have a newcomer’s tale to tell? Reach out to [email protected] and share it!
For more about Nashville’s booming real estate market, check out Emily Benedict’s series!