It’s 2 A.M. on a Thursday night, and I’m at Nowhere (1133 Bardstown Rd. Tel: 502451-0466. www.nowherelouisville.com) in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood. It’s ironic, though, because “Nowhere” feels decidedly “somewhere”—particularly in today’s gay landscape. I’m struck by the LGBT diversity: genders and sexual identities, along with race and age, seem to have fallen by the wayside. I wonder if it may be my Bourbon-colored glasses that are tinting my impression of Derby City. Cocktails flow freely around nearly every corner, and Bourbon culture is deeply embedded in the city’s roots. But so are equal rights and corporate citizenship, which have positioned Louisville as a go-to destination with Southern charm and progressive values.
Named after France’s Louis XVI for his support of the fledgling US during the Revolutionary War, Louisville has been ahead of the curve since its founding in 1778. It was the nation’s first city to introduce the secret ballot to deter voter fraud, served as an important military hub for the Union Army during the Civil War, and was Kentucky’s first state to implement zoning laws to strategically shape urban growth. Today, Louisville is the state’s only city to achieve a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s municipal equality index that rates LGBT laws, policies, and services.
Much of the recent momentum stems from Mayor Greg Fischer, whose stalwart support of the LGBT community has rippled through Louisville’s residents. “A compassionate city is an inclusive, diverse, and tolerant city—period. You don’t turn people away; you embrace the diversity,” says Mayor Fischer, who has held the position since 2011. “We’re proud of our 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Index for the second year in a row, because we know that to maintain our forward momentum as a city, we need to work to ensure that everyone—everyone!—has the ability to reach their full human potential.”
That potential is also being realized in the next generation of Louisville’s LGBT influencers. The University of Louisville (www.louisville.edu/lgbt) was the first in the state to offer an LGBTQ minor through the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and in 2014 it became the country’s first university to open a staffed LGBT office in a medical school, which is now a leader in competency training through its eQuality Project. Led by Executive Director Brian Buford, the university’s LGBT Center celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
For locals and visitors from around the world, Louisville has not one but two Pride festivals. Kentuckiana Pride (www.kypride.com), held each June, dates back to 2001, while The Louisville Pride Festival (www.louisvillepride.com) takes over Bardstown Road each September. The Louisville Pride Festival celebrated its third anniversary on September 17 with two entertainment-packed stages, a “dance dome,” and plenty of local food vendors, but it is the organization’s mission that epitomizes Pride.
“As an openly gay man, I’ve been supported in my personal and professional goals by my family and friends [who never] secondguessed my abilities or value as a human because of my sexuality. I, however, know this is not the experience for many in the LGBTQ community,” reflects Louisville Pride Foundation Board Member Todd Mercier. “Many in the Louisville community acknowledge the importance of educating both young and old, straight or gay about support services and outreach programs that are available to the LGBTQ members in and around the Louisville area. The Louisville Pride Foundation and its annual festival are products of this mission. Though the festival itself is a celebration of our community’s diversity and unity, it also is a platform for many organizations, health providers, and businesses to let the festivalgoers know who they are, what they do, and how they are here to support them.”
Whether you’re rolling into town for Pride, the legendary Kentucky Derby Festival (www.kdf.org), which has expanded the world’s most famous horse race into a month of events), or other special happenings, Louisville’s hotel accommodations rival cities twice its size with unique style.
Conceived by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Louisville (700 West Main St. Tel: 502-217-6300. www.21cmuseumhotels.com/louisville) combines five 19th-century buildings on Main Street into a spectacular 24/7 contemporary art museum and 91room hotel. The hotel features reclaimed wood floors, exposed brick, and other historical details plus 9,000 square feet of exhibition space. It is the art collection, which begins at 21c’s outdoor corner with a massive golden sculpture titled David (inspired by Michelangelo), that truly delivers the wow factor. Overseen by Museum Director and Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites, the rotating collection includes paintings, digital art, sculpture, and more. For those looking for a more immersive experience, Asleep in the Cyclone (by artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe) is an artist-designed room with geodesic designs, a curated record collection by the artists, custom-built furniture, and small sculptures throughout.
21c’s public galleries are open to the public year-round, and it’s not unusual to see inquisitive passersby popping into the space to check out the unique surroundings. Guests and visitors alike often find themselves at the hotel’s signature restaurant Proof on Main (www.proofonmain.com) where Executive Chef Mike Wajda delivers modern interpretations of Southern cuisine with dishes like a Kentucky bento box with chicken tinga, grits, and herb salad, or the robust duo of heritage pork with plancha greens.
Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood is seeing revitalization with the recent opening of the gay-owned Vu Guesthouse (822 South Floyd St. Tel: 502-785-0815. www.vuguesthouselouisville.com) in a former tobacco warehouse. The 34-room boutique hotel could serve as the setting for the next Liberace biopic with deeply saturated accent colors of hot pink and tangerine, studded wingback chairs, ornate headboards, polished chrome fixtures, and an array of quirkily configured rooms and suites with walkthrough showers and other flashy floorplans. The venture is the latest by Ed Lewis and George Stinson, who have been gay nightlife entrepreneurs for nearly three decades.
Vu Guesthouse sits adjacent to Vapor (227 East Breckinridge St. Tel: 502-785-0818. www.vaporspa.com), Louisville’s men’s spa, fitness center, and bathhouse. Their big plan for the block has been dubbed “The Village” (not very original, but iconic nonetheless) and includes C2 Event Center that can host up to 1,400 revelers, Muffy’s Diner (opening later this year) and other entertainment and retail venues.
Big hotels will also be making their mark on Louisville’s skyline as the city jockeys its position for large conventions, festivals, and other big-draw events. Scheduled to open in spring 2018, the LEED-certified Omni Louisville Hotel (400 South 2nd St. Tel: 502-656-7220, www.omnihotels.com/hotels/louisville) will boast more than 600 rooms with direct access to the newly renovated convention center.
Nestled on the Ohio River, with Indiana, Ohio, and even Tennessee within striking distance, Louisville’s food culture draws influence from its Southern and Midwestern neighbors, but it also includes many local iconic favorites that should be added to any foodie’s bucket list. The historic Brown Hotel (335 West Broadway. Tel: 502-2097346. www.brownhotel.com/dining) offers the Hot Brown, a sizzling openfaced turkey sandwich layered with bacon, tomato, and a creamy Mornay sauce.
Those with a sweet tooth can partake of Louisville’s confectionary rivalry to determine who makes the best Bourbon balls— chocolate truffles infused with the city’s signature libation. Top contenders include Art Eatables (Multiple locations. Tel: 502-5890210, www.arteatables.com), which offers more than 50 small-batch varieties; and Cellar Door Chocolates (Multiple locations. Tel: 502-561-2940. www.cellardoorchocolates.com), whose colorful Bourbon Ball Museum Box packs a wallop of boozy goodness in each of its 16 selections. Skewer a reservation in any direction, and Louisville’s diverse neighborhoods will yield up-and-comers and well as old favorites. NuLu (www.nulu.org) represents “New Louisville” and its central artery, Market Street, was once a hub for livestock. All the more reason for Feast BBQ (909 East Market St. Tel: 502-749-9900. www.feastbbq.com) to throw down the gauntlet with baby-back pork ribs, brisket (opt for sliced), pulled pork, and chopped chicken.
Just down the street is the newly opened Royals Hot Chicken (736 East Market St. Tel: 502-919-7068. www.royalshotchicken.com), that’s found a loyal following thanks to local restaurateur Ryan Rogers (the meat man also behind Feast BBQ). Crispy chicken tenders are doused in hot sauce of varying degrees of spiciness, with optional dipping sauces like Kentucky honey mustard or Alabama white BBQ on the side. What to drink? A frozen rum slushie, of course.
Nearby Butchertown, a neighborhood dating back to the late 19th century, is home to Butchertown Grocery (1076 East Washington St. Tel: 502-742-8315, www.butchertowngrocery.com). Chef/owner Bobby Benjamin’s culinary playground with a hodgepodge of Euro-American dishes ranging from housemade pastas and charcuterie to heavy hitters like the Berkshire porchetta— a crispy-skinned pork roast served with radish salad and charred romesco sauce. Pastry chef Barbara Turner pays homage to Southern favorites with a mint-julep sundae, banana-bread pudding, and freshfrom-the-fryer beignets dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
No visit to Louisville is complete without a Bourbon immersion. Dubbed “America’s Official Native Spirit,” Bourbon has been a part of Kentucky’s commerce since the mid-18th century and was an integral part of settling our nation’s post-Revolutionary War debt thanks to an alcohol tax recommended by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Transportation and technology advancements put the liquor on the global map and further regulations (including 51 percent corn mash and aging in new charred oak barrels, among others) defined Bourbon whiskey. Prohibition put a damper on things, but since its 1933 repeal, Bourbon has reclaimed its iconic stature.
Louisville-based Brown-Forman (www.brown-forman.com) has been at the forefront of the spirits industry since its founding in 1870. Recognizable Bourbons in its portfolio include Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Coopers’ Craft, but it is the company’s longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion that’s worth raising a glass.
“Brown-Forman is especially proud to have received a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index every year since 2010. This 100 score is a reflection of our commitment to workplace policies and practices that ensure LGBTQ employees can bring their best selves to work every day,” says BrownForman’s Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Kirsten Hawley. Employees recently participated in Louisville’s Equality March for Unity and Pride as well as the Kentuckiana Pride Parade.
Beyond Bourbon, booze, and boys, Louisville has plenty of culture to offer, anchored by the newly expanded Speed Art Museum (2035 South Third St. Tel: 502-634-2700. www.speedmuseum.org). The vast collection includes a wide breadth of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and installations, as well as temporary exhibitions.
Also not to be missed is a performance at Actors Theatre of Louisville (316 Main St. Tel: 502-584-1205. www.actorstheatre.org) that features unique theatrical productions throughout the year. From February 28–April 8, 2018, they will produce groundbreaking plays in a nationally renowned celebration of some of the most talented voices in American theatre at the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Whether it’s a museum visit, a night at the theatre, a Bourbon crawl followed by latenight bites, or just hanging out in the newly reimagined Parklands of Floyd Park (www.theparklands.org), Louisville has reinvented itself as an accessible and welcoming destination for the 21st century. “Though a tight-woven community, we are quick to say hello to a new face, welcome them and introduce them to others. Of this I am so proud and do not always experience when I travel to other cities in our great country,” says Todd Mercier. “Over this past decade, I know many who have moved here from Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and over time have realized how unique and special Louisville, Kentucky has become to them. I’ve spent extensive time in larger cities with wonderful LGBTQ communities, but I will say with full conviction I am always happy to come home to Louisville.”