LGBT Guide to Iowa City Gay Culture

photo by Andrew Collins

A liberal-minded college community that's become increasingly popular as a weekend vacation getaway, Iowa City is also the most progressive community in an otherwise moderate to conservative state. Nevertheless, Iowa surprised many onlookers when it became the region's first state to legalize gay marriage (albeit by a controversial court ruling).

Leafy and gently hilly Iowa City has plenty going for it in an age when many travelers seek urbanity and culture but want to avoid the high costs, pesky inconveniences, and perceived safety threats of some larger municipalities. This city of nearly 72,000 is relatively affordable, easy to navigate, and quite secure. It's within an afternoon's drive of Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and it has one of the most visible gay scenes of any city its size.

The presence of the prestigious University of Iowa (U of I) accounts in part for the city's vital arts scene and decidedly intellectual demeanor. The campus blends almost imperceptibly with downtown, but unlike some communities anchored by a major educational institution, Iowa City is much more than a college town.

Many gays and lesbians have moved here to take advantage of the city's high quality of life and enduring community spirit - the city outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians in the mid-1970s, and each year thousands attend the Iowa City Pride celebration in June and the acclaimed Iowa Women's Music Festival in September. The University of Iowa Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Resource Center, formerly, GLBTAU and founded in 1970, welcomes friends and visitors of all ages, regardless of sexual orientation, to its many gatherings, from movies to dances to political conferences. Moreover, according to a recent census, Iowa City ranks 13th in the nation among Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the "percentage of coupled households that are gay or lesbian."

Whether you're a student or a civilian, a visitor or a local, social activities in Iowa City revolve heavily around the University of Iowa and its verdant, leafy campus punctuated by stately old academic halls and striking contemporary buildings. The U of I is most famous for its stellar medical facilities and for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where such literary icons as John Irving, John Cheever, Rita Dove, Jane Smiley, Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Penn Warren have either taught or been educated. A young Tennessee Williams also studied theater here.

To get a feel for the campus, and perhaps grab a bite to eat, stop by the university's anchor of student life, the lively Iowa Memorial Union, which is open to the general public. It contains several restaurants and shops as well as a hotel. Be sure to check what's playing at the union's Bijou Cinema , an art-house theater that often screens queer-themed movies. Campus attractions include the U of I Museum of Natural History - the oldest museum west of the Mississippi River - which contains extensive displays of mammals and birds and exhibits tracing 500 million years of geological history in Iowa.​

Another popular stop is the U of I Museum of Art, whose galleries survey several centuries of African, Southwest Native American, Pre-Columbian, European, and American art. You can view works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and gay modernist Marsden Hartley. Learn about Iowa City's term as the state capital (1840-1857) at the Old Capitol Museum, which occupies the ornate domed building that originally housed the Iowa legislature.​

The university has a number of performance venues that host both local and international talents, the most notable being Hancher Auditorium, which books big-name musical acts and touring theatrical shows. U of I's Mainstage Theatre stages both traditional and avant-garde dramatic productions, as do three first-rate professional theaters downtown: the Dreamwell Theatre presents some of the region's most provocative works, Riverside Theatre has produced several queer plays over the years, and the Iowa City Community Theatre is another notable venue.

More than a few visitors come here with shopping on their mind - Iowa City has many art galleries, funky boutiques, and cool music stores and booksellers. Fans of the arts should be sure to check out the Iowa Artisans Gallery, which has been carrying the works of talented regional artists for more than 25 years. The city's largest independent bookstore, Prairie Lights, has an extensive lesbian and gay section plus a wealth of newspapers and community resources. A coffeehouse on the second floor is a great place for cerebral cruising.

Downtown also abounds with gay-friendly nightspots, restaurants, and cafés - check out the Iowa City Gay Bars and Restaurants Guide for recommendations.

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