This gem of the South, nestled along the Southeastern coast, is truly a unique city. Also known as the Lowcountry, Charleston draws visitors from all over the world. From the southern cuisine and charm to pastel colored homes and beaches, we love every minute we spend in this city. Charleston was recently named “Top City in the United States” in the Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards. You go, Charleston! Grab a glass of ice cold sweet tea, and you’ll fit right in!
The queer community in Charleston, while small, is on the rise. The city has a mix of hipster/artsy folks, Southern belles, and northern transplants. While Charleston might not compare to larger, more queer established cities such as NYC or San Francisco, we have our own community here that feels like home to us.
Jennifer Stevens – I’ve lived in the Charleston area for the last 14 years. I earned my BA from the University of South Carolina and recently finished my MBA at The Citadel. My interests include drinking tea, writing, traveling, brunch, and playing tourist in Charleston. On a Friday night, you’ll typically find me sipping on a PBR outside of The Recovery Room.
Paige Anderson – Raised overseas in Singapore and Beijing, I moved to Charleston to go to college at the College of Charleston. Moving to the South was definitely a culture shock, especially since I’d been living in Asia for the last 18 years, but it grew on me and soon enough I was saying y’all with the rest of the locals. Charleston isn’t the easiest place to live for a gay lady, but after 5 years I’ve managed to make a home out this beautiful city. I’m usually found cuddling with my cat Mao, but when I’m not being a crazy cat lady I’m hanging out with friends, discussing the finer things in life.
Beck Schillizzi – I’m a southern raised femmey transboy who makes his money as a boirista and his well being as an organizer of Girls Rock Charleston and Southerners on New Ground. In my spare time, I like to draw, pick flowers, and cut queer hair.
Nightlife/Dating – After Hours
Like any coastal city, Charleston is a hub for tourists, especially during the summer months when the beaches and warm weather draw the crowds. There are three main areas of downtown Charleston when it comes to eating and drinking. King Street, one of the best shopping streets in the country, is also where you’ll find a majority of the locals and college students after the sun goes down. Market Street is full of sorority girls and tourists and we would recommend avoiding the area at night… unless you’re into that sort of thing! East Bay has some upscale bars and restaurants, and draws a mixed crowd.
Upper Deck Tavern (353 King Street)
In the 2012 Charleston City Paper “Best Of” issue, Upper Deck was named the bar where you’re most likely to see two women making out. While the bar has attempted to incorporate a lesbian night on Mondays, you can find members of the queer community there any night of the week. Enjoy bingo night on Wednesdays or karaoke on Sundays.
The Recovery Room (685 King Street)
Located on upper King Street, The Recovery Room, known simply as “Rec Room,” is one of the most popular dive bars in the area. Grab a PBR and take a seat at a table out front. If outdoor people watching isn’t your thing, hang out inside and enjoy the jukebox, pool table, or the pinball machines. Rec Room attracts a high concentration of hipsters. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
De’Ja Vu II (4628 Spruill Ave)
Located in the more racially diverse North Charleston, this club is where you’re more likely to find the queer POC sweeties. With beautiful queens, hot dykes, and outrageously attractive lesbian “DJ Romeo,” this club has everything you need to make you swoon. This bar is currently the only lesbian owned gay bar in the Charleston area, although unfortunately not POC owned.
Pantheon (28 Ann Street)
The Pantheon is Charleston’s only “gay club” and so if you’re looking for somewhere to dance while being assaulted by gay men and sorority girls alike then this is the club for you! Pantheon can be a whole lot of fun and while it is the only gay club in town it is mostly frequented by the male population. Catch the midnight drag show on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Dudley’s, which is owned by the same people who own Pantheon and located right up the street from it, is the only “gay bar” in Charleston. Like the Pantheon, Dudley’s is mostly filled with gay men so it’s rare to spot your local lesbian in this establishment. However, if you want to go to a bar where you can grope and make out with your lady freely and without stares of horror then Dudley’s is the place to do it.
Closed for Business (453 King Street)
More upscale than the other bars mentioned in this guide, Closed for Business is a great place for the grown-up “mature” hipster. In addition to serving a large selection of craft beer on tap, CFB has some of the most delicious bar food you’ll find in Charleston. Crispy green beans, anyone?
Big Gun Burger Shop (137 Calhoun Street)
Big Gun has been around the Charleston area for a few years now. By day, the restaurant serves up some of the most unique burgers in town. Make sure you make happy hour, Monday through Friday, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. for half priced burgers. Wash everything down with a tall boy PBR. After hours, Big Gun becomes a popular stop for college students and hipsters alike. Monday night is karaoke night, while Wednesday night is open mic night for anyone wanting to demonstrate their stand up skills. Big Gun also hosts local bands, typically on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Rarebit (474 King Street)
A new addition to upper King Street, The Rarebit has a retro diner atmosphere. Don’t let the term “retro diner,” fool you. The bar serves some phenomenal cocktails (and breakfast all day). Try their Moscow Mule, a refreshing gingery beverage served out of a copper mug.
College Life – Holler at a Scholar
While Charleston isn’t considered a “college” town, there are a handful of colleges and universities in the area. Downtown Charleston is home to the College of Charleston, The Citadel, and MUSC – the Medical University of South Carolina. Beyond the Peninsula you can find Charleston Southern University and Trident Technical College.
College of Charleston is public liberal arts college located right in the middle of the city, so it’s pretty hard to avoid the 10,000 students that attend the school from August to May. Although it’s a southern university, CofC has a very liberal student body and is fairly accepting of its LGBTQ students. The “Cougars” who attend the school are given a choice of 53 majors and 73 minors to pursue. In 2006/2007 the faculty and students tried to establish a LGBTQ minor, but the public school system in Charleston is very conservative and so the whole project fell through. As a result, a lot of the College’s LGBTQ community have found an outlet in the Women’s and Gender Studies department, which offers numerous opportunities for queer studies. Even better, in 2010 the Women’s and Gender Studies department officially became a major at the College of Charleston!
The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, has a rich history rooted in Charleston. While the institution started as an all male military college in 1842, preparing men for war, the school has since become a leading liberal arts college in the Southeast. The first women entered the Corps of Cadets in 1996. The Citadel also has a graduate college, offering 27 degree programs.
Not located in the downtown area, Charleston Southern University was voted one of America’s best Christian Colleges. But more importantly, it was voted one of Charleston’s most homophobic colleges by our queer Charleston friends. While religion and queerness are not mutually exclusive, CSU is not a conducive environment for out members of the community. For those of you visiting Charleston, we recommend avoiding this stop on your tour.
The Medical University of South Carolina is also located in Downtown Charleston. Not only one of the best medical universities in the South, MUSC is nationally known and in 2012 was named one of America’s best hospitals. The school also has a really kick-ass Gay Straight Alliance and like CofC is very queer friendly.
Located in North Charleston, Trident is a technical college that offers a variety of programs like nursing, culinary arts, and journalism. Trident does have a Gay Straight Alliance on campus, so we can only guess that it also offers some safe spaces for the queer community.
Sports – Let’s Get Physical
Any lesbian/queer sports section would not be complete without mentioning the local roller derby league. Formed in 2008, the Low Country High Rollers are Charleston’s local derby team, but that’s not all. The league consists of two travel teams, a junior league, a recreational league AND three home teams: The Swamp Foxes, The Ashley Riverdolls and the Holy City Heartbreakers. The games are super queer friendly and surprisingly family friendly if you’re into that. Bouts are held at the Citadel, so if you have time, make your way over and check out some kick-ass derby girls doing their thing on the track!
They practice every Tuesday from 7:00 to 8:30 and they’re always looking for new members. No experience is required! And they even have their own sexy calendar that features all the players. How perfect!
There is also a rugby team at the College of Charleston and the Citadel and many of the girls on those teams move on to join the Hurricanes after graduating. Unfortunately the college team doesn’t have their own calendar.
You can find anything from Softball to Kickball (and even Dodgeball). If you’re looking for athletics and you’re over 21 you should definitely look into joining one of the many leagues the CSSC has to offer! You do have the option to create your own team, which is a fantastic opportunity to get get a group of all your queer sports-playing friends together and form Team Homo-Normative! (Or Team Unicorn)
Restaurants/Cafes – Eating Out
While there are no “queer” restaurants or cafes, Charleston is home to some excellent establishments. The coffee shops in the area are some of the best places to relax and potentially meet some nice girls.
Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer (4 Vanderhorst Street)
This is one of our favorite coffee shops in the area. Kudu features some of the best lattes (and latte art) in Charleston. If you’re in the mood for a drink, grab a local brew on tap and take a seat inside or in their private courtyard.
Black Tap Coffee (70 ½ Beaufain Street)
With every cup brewed to order, Black Tap is the place to go for some of the freshest coffee you will ever have. Tea is served by the cup or pot, and the large glass windows provide some excellent natural lighting.
Brown’s Court Bakery (199 St. Philip Street)
A newer shop in Charleston, Brown’s Court features coffee and tea in addition to some amazing baked goods – from cookies and scones to baguettes and pretzel rolls. Get there early if you want to grab some fresh bread to bring home!
Sugar Bakeshop (59 ½ Cannon Street)
Sugar Bakeshop serves some of the most delicious cupcakes you will find in Charleston (or anywhere else, for that matter). They also bake tarts and cookies. The almond cupcakes are stellar! Bonus: the shop is owned by a lovely gay couple.
Five Loaves Cafe (43 Cannon Street)
Looking for a good place to take your lady friend out for a first date? Look no further than Five Loaves Café. The restaurant is dedicated to serving healthy, fresh, and vegetarian-friendly foods. With a focus on sustainable and locally grown foods, Five Loaves offers delicious sandwiches, soups, pasta dishes, etc. Enjoy half price bottles of wine every Wednesday and Saturday night. Don’t be afraid to try their gluten-free bread or flight of soups!
Dell’z Deli (1A Cannon Street)
For all of you vegans and vegetarians, Dell’z Deli will be your jam. Wraps on wraps on wraps. Try The Hummer, a black bean hummus wrap with cilantro, salsa, tomatoes, sprouts, and other greens, or try a Bean & Rice Bowl. If you want something refreshing to drink, head around the corner to Dell’z Vibes, a smoothie and juice bar also owned by Dell! Dell also recently opened Dell’z Uptown, a completely vegan/vegetarian restaurant!
Saffron (333 East Bay Street)
Saffron is a combination of a cafe, bakery and Middle-Eastern/Southern restaurant, aka the best cluster fuck ever. According to Beck they have the BEST vegan chocolate cake ever. Like better then normal cake, which is a serious feat for vegans everywhere (call in advance for the cake, as it runs out quick!). Saffron is a very queer friendly space and our local Girls Rock Camp has held 3 annual fundraising benefits there. So if you’re craving lamb, friend chicken or vegan chocolate cake then head on over to Saffron, this is your place!
Since you’re in the South, it’s only fitting that you enjoy some true Southern cuisine. For deliciously rich foods, we recommend Hominy Grill, Poogan’s Porch, and 82 Queen. If you’re looking for a little ethnic flair, try Xiao Bao Biscuit (Chinese), Basil (Thai), Co (Vietnamese), or O-Ku (Japanese). For cuisine South of the border, try Taco Boy or Santi’s.
Health Services – For Your Health!
Besides the giant medical university located in the center of downtown Charleston, this city has a few extra health service centers that you can go to without making an appointment. There are also a handful of queer-friendly spaces that are fantastic in what they do and offer for the local LGBTQ population.
YWCA (106 Coming Street)
Right down the street from the College of Charleston library, the YWCA offers a variety of services for the women of Charleston. While the YWCA isn’t specifically focused on LGBT health, it does do a lot of work fighting for racial justice and empowering women. Among the programs that come out of the YWCA are the Stand Against Racism Diversity Campaign and the Stop the Violence program, which works to resolve domestic abuse.
Planned Parenthood (200 Rutledge Avenue)
Also located in the downtown area, Planned Parenthood has so many services to choose from and is definitely the place to go for all your health needs. You can go to Planned Parenthood for HIV testing, birth control, abortion referral, LGBTQ services and so much more! Although you’ll see the occasional picketers standing outside (and by picketers we mean the most non-threatening old ladies you’ve ever seen) the people who work INSIDE are super friendly! And they have so many brochures and pamphlets. The guidance counselor in Glee would be proud! Brochures aside, you can count on Planned Parenthood to have your back when it comes to health and LGBTQ support.
Center for Women (129 Cannon Street)
The Center for Women is the only comprehensive women’s development organization in the state of South Carolina. Programs at the Center for Women include the Women’s Writers Forum, which focuses on the “art and business of writing” and the Women’s Leadership Institute, which helps women develop the skills of an effective leader. They also offer job search assistance and have their own micro-loaning program to help female small business owners. So although the Center is not a health service for women and LGBTQ individuals, it is one of the few places in the South that works to help women succeed professionally and personally. Yay progress!
We Are Family (29 Leinbach Drive, Suite D-3)
WAF is the local LGBTQQI support group for youth ages 11-23. This is a great space for young queerbies to come into their identity and find like-minded folks. This group also acts as a support hub for local high school and college GSAs. Many high school GSAs in the Lowcountry area exist because of the support of We Are Family.
CATS: Charleston Area Transgender Society Let’s be real, y’all. Being transgender in the south is a pretty hardcore experience. Lucky for us trans* Charlestonians, Amy Leigh Garbati exists. Amy and her wife Nancy have been at the forefront of the battle for transgender equality in Charleston and in South Carolina generally. They lead a monthly support group known as CATS for Trans*, gender variant, questioning, and allied folks.
Activism/Feminism – Out in Charleston
Girls Rock Charleston is a locally operated feminist non-profit organization that empowers girls and transgender youth through music education, DIY media and creative collaboration. GRC offers after school programming and a weeklong summer day camp in order to cultivate a Charleston in which girls and trans* youth trust and support each other and are safe and encouraged to explore their identities. Needless to say, GRC is super queer friendly and has strong queer and trans* leadership. Besides offering excellent youth programming, Girls Rock Charleston also hosts several fundraising events every year that are pretty much guaranteed to be the queerest thing happening in Charleston. Check the News & Events section of their website for any upcoming events!
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is probably the most epic southern queer organization ever. SONG envisions a sustainable South that embodies the best of its freedom traditions and works towards the transformation of our economic, social, spiritual, and political relationships. SONG envisions a multi-issue southern justice movement that unites us across class, age, race, ability, gender, immigration status, and sexuality; a movement in which LGBTQ people — poor and working class, immigrant, people of color, rural — take our rightful place as leaders shaping our region’s legacy and future. Recently, SONG has begun to grow and do work in Charleston through community events and direct political actions.
AFFA, Alliance for Full Acceptance (29 Leinbach Drive)
“A social justice organization achieving equality and acceptance for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” AFFA is probably the largest LGBTQ organization in Charleston and is mostly headed by white gay males. Nonetheless, the presence of such an organization proves that Charleston is one of the more accepting cities in the South. Their work with Marriage Equality in SC and the Pride Festival are just some of the things they include on their resume of LGBTQ activism.
Neighborhood/Community/Cost of Living – Downtown Chucktown
Overall, the cost of living in Charleston ranges from affordable to outrageously expensive. From million dollar homes near The Battery to modestly priced single family homes in Wagener Terrace, you can find a place to live that fits your financial means. Downtown Charleston is comprised of several neighborhoods, each with their pros and cons.
While there is no designated “gayborhood,” queers tend to flock to Park Circle, the historic downtown section of North Charleston. Located off of the peninsula, Park Circle features an eclectic blend of restaurants and bars, parks, and other family-friendly activities.
Hair/Body Mod/Tattoos/Nails – Looking Fresh
For a while South Carolina required anyone under the age of 21 to have their parent’s permission to get a tattoo, but in 2010 that all changed! Now anyone over the age of 18 can get a tattoo of Rachel Maddow’s face on their thigh without any okay from the parental units! Yay!
Broken Lantern Tattoo (1856 Belgrade Avenue Unit B4)
Broken Lantern does phenomenal work and is our number one pick when it comes to getting tattooed in the Lowcountry. There are two main artists that work in the shop, Glen Collins and Joe Perez, and while their tattoo skills are amazing, they both are fantastic artists on paper as well.
Lava Salon (811 Savannah HWY)
Probably the only place in Charleston that you can get a true alternative haircut. Just walking in, you can tell the staff knows what they’re doing. Lava Salon is not located downtown, but it is definitely worth the drive. Check out their virtual tour on their website!
Amanda Rose, who used to work for Lava Salon (she now works for Johnny Cosmetics), is proof that this place can do magical things to your hair. According to Amanda, “Hair tells people whether you’re laid back or structured, classic or progressive, edgy or effortless. When so much of our identity is predetermined, it is empowering to choose a hairstyle that represents how you feel.” Who doesn’t agree with that kind of hair-philosophy?
Stella Nova (292 King Street)
While Charleston doesn’t have any specific hair salon/barbershop for queers, Stella Nova is a pretty fantastic place to get your hair cut! Located on King Street and right next to the College, all the employees are extremely friendly and accepting of any hairstyle you present them with. Every queer cut Paige has ever had has been at Stella Nova and her hair looks pretty damn good.
Anytime, anywhere! Why pay for a haircut when you can do it yourself? Regardless of salon options, many girls around the area take shears (or razors) to their own hair. So if you’re looking for the perfect hairstyle for your beautiful queer persona call a friend who has a good pair of scissors and get to cutting! Our contributing author Beck Schillizzi knows how to wield a pair of shears and is the king of DIY haircuts. So hit him up if you’re in Charleston!
Books – Book Worms
Blue Bicycle Books (420 King Street)
The only thing that could make this cozy used book store better is if they had the most adorable and fluffiest store cat… which they do. I would like to say that I love books and therefore it was inevitable for me to find my way to Blue Bicycle, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the cat was a huge part in what drew me in. Store cat aside, Blue Bicycle Books is an experience. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable about the literature they carry and reading in the store is almost like reading in your own personal library. While known as a used book store, Blue Bicycle also carries newer books written by local authors. We highly recommend making a trip to the best used bookstore in the South, if not for the phenomenal book selection, at least for Purdy the store cat.
Arts – Arts Scene
The arts have a heavy presence in Charleston. From galleries and studio spaces, to theatres and performances, there is always something to do/see/experience. On the first Friday of every month, galleries around Charleston open their doors to locals and visitors. From 5-8pm, socialize and gallery hop around the French Quarter, between East Bay and Meeting Street near Broad Street. The openings typically include free wine and a great atmosphere. Free wine and great art? Treat yourself.
A few places you should check out include:
Theatre 99 (280 Meeting Street)
With only 99 seats in the house, the appropriately named Theatre 99 is Charleston’s home for improv comedy. Grab a drink or snack from the bar and catch a show for just $5 on Wednesday night, or $10 on Friday or Saturday. Want to improve your improv? Theatre 99 offers a training program for up and coming comedians in the Charleston area! Get there early if you want one of the 99 seats!
Redux Contemporary Art Center (136 St. Philip Street)
Redux is a nonprofit organization that fosters creativity and the development of contemporary art through exhibitions, studio spaces, and workshops. If you’ve ever wanted to take a painting, screen printing, or photography class, Redux is the place for you! If you’re already an artist, Redux offers studio spaces for rent, as well as a dark room for you analog photographers. One of the most unique features of Redux is its ever changing exterior. Every few months, the building gets a fresh new mural courtesy of an artist in residence.
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (161 Calhoun Street)
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is run by the School of the Arts at the College of Charleston. The Halsey hosts traveling exhibitions throughout the year, including some site specific installations. Exhibit opening nights typically include live music, light hors d’oeuvres and wine! The Institute also displays student work at the annual Young Contemporaries event.
Spoleto Festival USA (Various locations)
Each year, Charleston hosts Spotelo Festival USA, a two-week arts festival, bringing acts from all around the country (and world). We recommend Spoleto if you want to experience both performing and visual arts. Our favorite part about Spoleto is Piccolo Spoleto, Charleston’s sister festival that runs during Spoleto Festival USA. Unlike Spoleto, Piccolo Spoleto features artists and musicians from Charleston and surrounding cities in South Carolina!
The Music Farm (32 Anne Street)
The Music Farm is one of the most well-known venues in the Charleston area. The concert space has hosted artists such as Brandi Carlile, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, City and Colour, Beach House, and many, many more. The best part? Tickets rarely cost over $30, so you can listen to some amazing musicians in an intimate setting without breaking your budget. In addition to being a fun, laid back music venue, the Music Farm is also an excellent date venue. While there are a few seats in the house, it’s majority standing room.
The annual Pride festival in Charleston takes place during the summer months, and draws residents from all over South Carolina (and beyond!). The parade is followed by a rally, featuring guest speakers, inspirational figures in the community, and other entertainment. The rally typically includes tents/vendors, promoting local organizations or selling rainbow everything.
Pride is now held in Downtown Charleston! The decision to move the parade from Park Circle in North Charleston to the Downtown area was a big one. The Charleston LGBTQ community has never been so out in the open and with this kind of visibility we can only hope that more progress will come. There are a few other events that will be going on before the actual pride parade. Just to name a few, there is the annual Charleston Rainbow Run, a 5k run, walk or bike benefitting Pride, the Star Spangled Pride Pageant at the Pantheon on the 4th of July, and then finally during the week of Pride there will be a rally in North Charleston called Takeover Charleston. It’s going to be a spectacular celebration this year and for any of you visiting, you’ll finally understand the true meaning of southern hospitality!