Every October, over one thousand spectators line the streets of downtown New Hope, Pennsylvania, to witness one of the most iconic events of the season: the annual High Heel Drag Race.
Wearing a drag outfit of their choice, and of course a set of high heels, participants of all genders sprint up a hill, decorate a pumpkin at the top, and return to the start line to complete the race.
The race, now in its 18th year, is a fundraiser for New Hope Celebrates, a local non-profit that “brings people together to share in a celebration of our history, diversity, and the inclusiveness of [New Hope],” according to their mission statement.
While the fastest racer wins, participants are more than welcome to jog, trot, or strut through the course, though every year a few brave sprinters risk their ankles to take the trophy.
“When you’re pretty, you don’t really have to run that fast,” explained a local drag queen who participated in the 2018 race in a video produced by Runner’s World magazine.
With events like the drag race and the annual PrideFest weekend drawing thousands of visitors to New Hope, the town of 2,500 residents sustains a dynamictourism industry that is partially based on attracting visitors from the LGBTQ+ community.
But although New Hope and towns like it work hard to attract tourists, its residents say that what makes it a great place for queer people to visit also makes it an ideal place for them to live.
Against the Grain
Although many think of urban enclaves like San Francisco’s Castro district, the Philadelphia ‘Gayborhood’ or New York’s Greenwich Village as the primary destinations for queer people to visit and live, there are a number of small towns scattered throughout the country that boast major attractions for queer visitors and residents.
The very existence of these towns contradicts one of the prevailing misconceptions about queer life in the United States—that LGBTQ people belong in cities. Instead, these vibrant small towns, and others like them, flip this narrative upside down, allowing the queer city-dwellers who visit them to imagine alternative rural lifestyles.
Located halfway between New York and Philadelphia, New Hope has intentionally maintained its bucolic surroundings and small-town feel. The community has long had the reputation of a haven for free-thinkers, artists, and black sheep of all sorts. Geri Delevich, who moved to New Hope in 1976 and served 18 years on the town council, attributes this legacy in part to the renowned Bucks County Playhouse.
“In 1939 the Bucks County playhouse opened up, and that attracted a very large group of people who were actors, and also creative writers and talent like that, and they were free-thinkers and open-minded to differences in life,” said Delevich, who has produced several documentaries on the history and inhabitants of New Hope. Famous residents of New Hope included writers James Mitchener and Pearl Buck, and architect and artist George Nakashima, one of the fathers of the American crafts movement.
From then onward, New Hope became a gathering place for queer people, as well as hippies, bikers, punks, and anyone who felt they didn’t quite fit in anywhere else. By the time Delevich moved to New Hope in 1976 in order to move in with her girlfriend at the time, it had already developed a reputation as a growingLGBTQ+ community.
“Absolutely—if you said you lived in New Hope, people thought you were gay, or certainly gay friendly,” Delevich said.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a town of around 2,400 people, enjoys a similar reputation. With an estimated 30% of the population identifying as LGBTQ, locals like to joke that “not even the streets are straight.”
Eureka Springs first developed as a tourist town at the end of the 19th century and was a popular destination for Gilded Age elites due to its scenic location and natural springs. It later became a haven for artists and hippies, and eventually attracted a thriving queer community.
Like New Hope, Eureka Springs hosts annual pride events that attract thousands of out-of-town visitors. An organization called Out in Eureka hosts three annual Diversity Weekends, which include drag shows, meet and greets, dances, bar-hops, and an event called PDA in the Park, where hundreds of people turn up to kiss their partners in public affirmation of their relationships.
These events have drawn people of all sexualities and gender expressions to Eureka Springs and New Hope, both as guests and permanent residents. But the sizable queer communities in both towns have led to more than just lively Pride celebrations and rainbow-decked streets.
Queer people in both communities have had remarkable influences on the towns, not only as residents and business owners but also as leaders of local institutions. As members of the town council, local historical society, chamber of commerce, school board, and more, queer residents have helped make Eureka Springs and New Hope regional trailblazers for LGBTQ rights over the past several decades.
In 2002, New Hope became the first borough in Pennsylvania to pass a comprehensive fairness ordinance that banned any kind of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. At the time, Delevich said, there were people in the town who questioned the need for the ordinance, given New Hope’s reputation and history as a queer-friendly community.
“People in the town were like, ‘why are we even bothering with this?’” Delevich said. “But our reasoning is that if we wouldn’t pass it, who would?”
Since then, a number of surrounding boroughs have adopted similar ordinances, proving the importance of New Hope’s leadership. These ordinances are especially important given that Pennsylvania has no state-wide protections in place for LGBTQ people.
Similarly, Eureka Springs was the first city in Arkansas to allow domestic partnerships and to pass a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance in 2015. And although that ordinance was later struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court, it remains the de facto norm of the town, according to Wilks. “In the mind’s eye of the people of Eureka Springs, that ordinance is still in effect. The city residents enforce it,” he said.
And when a judge struck down Arkansas’s same-sex marriage ban in 2014, couples flocked to Eureka Springs to get married immediately. Jay Wilks married his husband Keith at the Eureka Springs courthouse that same day, becoming the fourth same-sex couple in Arkansas to do so.
“We had people coming overnight from Missouri, overnight from Oklahoma, just because they knew the courthouse would be open,” he said.
This overwhelming culture of acceptance in New Hope and Eureka Springs influences everything from local school systems to medical care to public health and safety. For example, both Eureka Springs and New Hope take pride in their public-school systems, which enforce strict no-bullying policies and strive to be welcoming to diverse families and especially queer and trans youth.
And New Hope is home to the medical practice of Dr. Christine McGinn, an acclaimed plastic surgeon who specializes in gender reassignment surgery. In addition to providing gender-affirming care at the Papillon Gender Wellness Center, McGinn’s newest venture is a bed and breakfast for patients and visitors who wish to stay in New Hope during their transition.
For both queer and straight residents of New Hope and Eureka Springs, this inclusivity is fundamental to the towns’ identities.
As New Hope resident Geri Delevich said, she can’t imagine living anywhere else. “It’s just a great community. It’s open-minded to the differences in people, and hopefully it will always stay that way. There’s just something in the water.”