Illustration of a couple in the car entering Kentucky with rainbow and female symbol decorations hanging from rear view mirror

To Complete a Bucket List, I Needed to Go Where Queer Travelers Weren't Welcome

Kentucky's politics did not embrace me. Would its people be willing to?

It’s Pride Month! We’re kicking off this joyous, meaningful month with a collection of features completely dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers. Follow along on a gay writer’s thought-provoking Kentucky road trip and learn about the tropical honeymoon hotspot that embraces all genders. Then, find inspiration for your future trips with our guides to the ins and outs of gay cruising, charming LGBTQ+ bookstores you can support, and the world’s most vibrant gay villages. However you make your way through the features, we’re glad you’re here with us to celebrate the beauty and importance of inclusivity and representation within the travel space and beyond.

North Dakota, Minnesota, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Hawaii: These were the states I was yet to visit after three cross-country road trips and a month living in an Alaskan ghost town. My goal was to see all 50 states, and I was so close.

It felt like fate when I was accepted to a writing residency in Tennessee. It shared a border with Kentucky; I could drive to my residency and check the Bluegrass State off my bucket list. My wife and I made a plan: we'd drink bourbon, visit Mammoth Caves National Park, and wave goodbye to a state that hated people like us. 

Or so we thought.

Not long ago, in Rowan County, Kentucky, county clerk Kim Davis made national headlines by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoils my day on the regular by—to pick one recent example—blocking a Senate vote on the Equality Act, which would expand federal civil rights protections for LGBTQIA people.

From the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Louisville gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight. I took a deep breath, got back in the car, and crossed a bridge into Kentucky. We walked around downtown Louisville, taking photos with the world's largest bat—both the animal and a giant Louisville Slugger—and admiring the street art. Then we headed to Bourbons Bistro to toast our arrival with a flight. 

At Mammoth Caves, a self-guided tour explained the cave's past lives as a saltpeter mine, tuberculosis ward, and failed underground mushroom farm. Rangers, illuminated by a flashlight in the dark of the cave, mentioned indigenous petroglyphs and ghostly hauntings by former TB patients who drew their last breaths underground. The cave was quiet and peaceful; its dark walls stained white with gypsum. 

Mammoth Caves

Posnov / Getty Images

In nearby Cave City, Big Mike's Rock Shop sold rocks, crystals, geodes, ammonites, and minerals by the pound. Pawing through massive chunks of quartz, jasper, and calcite, abundant in the Mammoth Caves area, brought out the inner children in us. We left with a big bag of rocks and local minerals, including a Kentucky geode. 

Our Kentucky road trip wouldn't be complete without a distillery visit. At Maker's Mark, we learned about the experimental wheat trials currently underway to make better bourbon. Every bottle of Maker's Mark was aged onsite in white oak barrels made within county lines. Pre-pandemic, the local cooperage offered tours; we'd have to come back if we wanted to see the coopers in action. 

Was it the bourbon talking, or was that starting to seem like a not-terrible idea?

I had braced myself for uncomfortable stares or oppressive comments, but from tiny Cave City to Louisville and Lexington, our last stop, the people of Kentucky were warm. They went out of their way to share recommendations of favorite local spots. Their kindness made us feel welcome in a place where we were expecting to feel anything but welcome.

In 2022, 28 states have introduced anti-LGBTQ bills. Eight states have, so far, signed these bills into law. The most infamous may be Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, which re-popularized the nonsense idea that folks like me want to indoctrinate children into our "lifestyle."

Young queer people who've only known broad societal acceptance are understandably distressed by these laws, with a majority reporting adverse mental health alongside the rise in oppressive legislation. Those old enough to remember the Don't Ask, Don't Tell '90s are livid at the idea of losing hard-won rights. As travelers, we're unsure whether to reward states that take homophobic actions by spending our tourist dollars on a visit. 

Yes, we're going backwards right now. Progress always comes with a backlash. It hurts, and we persist. Laws can punish LGBTQ+ people and our allies, but they can't render us invisible. 

As queer travelers, we need to make our own decisions about where to go. LGBTQ-friendliness should play a factor, but we must remember that a destination's politics don't always speak for its people. By pitting red states against blue states, we keep ourselves safe at the expense of personal growth.

Laws can punish LGBTQ+ people and our allies, but they can’t render us invisible

I’m still no fan of Mitch McConnell, but now I know his bigotry isn’t representative of his constituents. Kentucky has a ways to go toward equality. Still, as the Movement Advancement Project reports, it’s doing better than other destinations that are widely marketed as queer-friendly, like Georgia and Louisiana. 

If we simply skip every place that isn’t 100-percent perfect, aren’t we showing the bigots we’re just like them?  

Queer travelers have the power to support the change we want to see when we visit places that are marching toward equality. We can learn about the issues beyond what’s reported in national media, explore local LGBTQ safe spaces, donate to progressive organizations that are active on the ground, and walk away with a nuanced understanding.

But my trip taught me that when we let politics dictate our travel plans, we’re the ones who miss out on incredible opportunities.