As one of the country’s most progressive states, California has long been a haven for queer people. And when you factor in legal marijuana and an abundance of sunshine, spending the holidays there was a no brainer. Thankfully, I was able to build a comprehensive and accessible trip to three of the state’s most queer-friendly cities: San Francisco, West Hollywood, and Palm Springs.
But on my flight out of JFK, I found myself wondering: which of these cities was actually the most queer-friendly? While I’d spent plenty of time in LA, I hadn’t been to Palm Springs or San Francisco in years (not since I transitioned,) and I was curious how easy it would be to navigate those cities as a queer, trans woman. Which of California’s gay-friendly cities is actually the best for queer travel?
I hadn’t been to San Francisco since I was a tenager, and fuck has it changed. San Francisco is known as a queer haven, but as the tech companies have moved in queers have been priced out, leaving gay meccas like the Mission and the Castro full of Reformations and Everlanes. Thankfully there are still plenty of small queer-owned establishements to support, like the legendary Dog Eared Books on Valencia. While I was visiting I had some delicious meals — the 8-course tasting menu at Lord Stanley is an out of this world indulgence (especially if you like caviar), the lamb chops at John’s Grill are legendary, and the ranch trout at One Market Restaurant made me see Jesus.
But the homeless crisis in San Francisco is one thing to hear about and another to experience. As a New Yorker, I’m used to a certain amount of apathy when it comes to seeing human suffering on a daily basis, but the way people in San Francisco have desensitized themselves to the homeless was incredibly upsetting, especially during the holidays. The wealth disparity in San Francisco is unfathomable and inescapable, and it was devastating to watch holiday shoppers literally stepping over homeless folks.
On the upside, I listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell in SF and met some very cute twinks. San Francisco is still very queer — thanks its history, the sheer amount of gay bars, queer owned stores, and relative safety of being openly LGBTQ+ — but it’s capitalist identity crisis makes it a strange place to travel.
I spend a fair amount of time in Los Angeles, and specifically in West Hollywood, but I’d never really had time to explore the neighborhood. In case you hadn’t heard, WeHo is LA’s gay mecca, and you can’t swing a string of anal beads without hitting a Twitter gay. I stayed at the Kimpton La Peer, which was lovely and luxurious — my shower had a bathtub inside it, can you believe?
West Hollywood may be known for its bar-hopping opportunities — I entered Flaming Saddles during an early 2000s karaoke night and was immediately clocked for knowing every word to Hoku’s “Dumb Blonde” — but there’s plenty to do in the day as well. Roku has some of the freshest sushi I’ve ever tasted, and the vegan Mexican cuisine at Gracias Madre was killer (if you make it there and don’t order their cheesy cauliflower appetizer I will hunt you down and shame you) — it’s also a great place for celebrity sightings, Marc Jacobs and Michelle Visage had lunch at the table next to me! Walk off lunch with a stroll down Melrose to hit up Fred Segal or any of the amazing vintage boutiques — I bought a gorgeous sheer Vivienne Westwood skirt that I’ve taken approximately 69 selfies in.
If you’re gay and in LA, West Hollywood truly is the place to see and be seen. Just be warned that the cocktails are like, crazy expensive, and it’s definitely a neighborhood centered around gay men with money. That being said, I know many trans women who live there, and the Grindr trade is *chef’s kiss*.
In my rental Chevy Camaro convertible, I high-tailed it out to the desert on New Years Day to Palm Springs — after a quick stop at the Cabazon outlet mall. Palm Springs is known as a mecca for older queers and the boys who love them, and I felt right at home. The Movie Colony Hotel was a lovely little inn with a Melrose Place vibe, meaning there was a courtyard with a pool surrounded by two-story townhouses and lovely travelers hanging out in the hot tub at all hours.
Everyone I asked told me that the place to have dinner was Tropicale, a local favorite, and when my friends and I entered we could see why. It was packed wall-to-wall with mature gays and their boy toys (and like, five women), and the atmosphere was very Priscilla Queen of the Desert. After dinner, we stopped in at Toucans, a gay tiki lounge, which was hosting a karaoke night. What is it with California and karaoke? Every other song, some reasonably attractive young gay man would take the stage to sing something from Rent or A Star Is Born, and the middle aged host would tell them to take their shirt off — in my estimation, Palm Springs is 30% young gays and 70% older gays telling them to take their clothes off. That being said, almost everywhere I went I saw queer women and, most excitingly, queer families.
If you’re looking for a spa moment, the Estrella Spa at the Avalon Hotel is fantastic for massages, and the vibe is very “divorcee recovering from a nose job,” which is the biggest mood. Plus, anywhere you go in Palm Springs the view is gorgeous, both because of the people who live and vacation there and the desert.
Of all the California cities I visited, Palm Springs was hands down the gayest, and it’s lovingly retro aesthetic is kitschy in the best possible way. And while Palm Springs is largely known as a mecca for gay men, there were so many queer women and families there that it felt super welcoming, especially as a trans woman. If you’re planning a visit to California, I’d put Palm Springs at the top of your list.
Learn more at Visit California.