Friday, April 2, 2010

What does being "gay friendly" mean?

Recently, two news reports of gay travellers being refused accommodation by bed and breakfast owners, got me thinking about the subject of gay friendliness in the hospitality industry.

Years ago, a new B & B owner in Vancouver contacted me in order to introduce herself and her business and ask me for some tips on successful innkeeping. Over coffee and reciprocal visits to each other's guesthouses, she told me that she did not understand why I mentioned the word "gay" in describing Nelson House B & B. She said that Canadian society was moving beyond such labels. Surely no one had to worry over outright prejudice and wasn't one's sexual orientation just a private thing?

I hesitated as I didn't know her very well but I figured an honest question deserved an honest answer. First, I said that like most people(meaning the majority of heterosexuals) in the world, I would prefer that my sexual orientation remained a private and personal matter. However, now that I had opened my home to the public as a hospitality and accommodation business, I saw the need to flag sexual orientation to potential customers who might, for their own reasons, prefer to stay elsewhere. And also, I wanted to indicate to gay(and read lesbian too) travellers that no one at Nelson House B & B would blink an eye at an adult, same-sex couple wishing to share a bed.

My new innkeeper friend was too new in the business then to realize that gays form a loyal and highly desirable portion of the travel industry's client base. Even though she was a Jewish woman and probably knew something about prejudice and discrimination, she still found it very difficult to put herself in the shoes of someone suffering discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

All of this came to mind this week when the UK press gave national prominence on the BBC, newspapers and the internet to the denial of accommodation to a gay male couple once the innkeeper realized that the guests were actually a same sex couple. Simultaneously, here in Canada, an almost identical denial of service occurred in Kelowna, BC. The difference in the Canadian case is that the innkeepers defended their actions based on their evangelical Christian beliefs. In both England and Canada(and 50 other countries), national laws are in place to protect all citizens against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Incidentally, the United States is NOT one of those countries. Police in England decided not to press criminal charges and it is up to the English gay couple to pursue possible civil damages. According to media reports of the Canadian case, the couple chose to file a complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. This interesting clash of rights will be decided by early next month.

Now lawsuits and heavily reported civil rights cases are not the reason anyone goes into the bed and breakfast business. In the ten years since I advised my new innkeeper friend, much of the mainstream hotel industry has discovered the reportedly lucrative "pink dollar" and most now trumpet their gay friendliness. Tourism Vancouver and many other cities, states and provinces now dedicate portions of their websites and other marketing campaigns to bragging on their non-discriminatory practices. A go-getter, gay-owned marketing company out of San Francisco has made a bundle by certifying the gay friendliness of corporate hotel chains with little icons of gay approval in the form of luggage tags. Many other PR executives have cleverly inserted a rainbow flag somewhere on their website to reassure and attract gay customers.

I now look back on twenty years of successful innkeeping and look forward to many more ahead. To me, even though times have changed, I know not everyone has changed with the times. As the gay owner of Nelson House B & B, of course I understand and genuinely welcome gay and lesbian travellers. As a man who believes in treating everyone with dignity, fairness and respect, I have long since dubbed our brand of hospitality as people-friendly!


  1. This is a very interesting topic.

    I remember living in Wichita, Kansas as a B&B completely refurbished an old "castle" - one of the most famous houses in town, and proceeded to charge a small fortune for a night there.

    All my friends were abuzz. About a year after opening, a couple of friends planned to have a civil ceremony (no marriages for gays in the States of course). Our group of friends decided, among other things, to go together and buy a weekend for the happy couple at the "new" B&B.

    When I called the B&B to arrange things I was told flatly that "Two men sharing a bed are simply not welcome here". When I asked why, there was no hesitation in the voice which told me that the other guests would be uncomfortable with the situation, and that there would never be accommodation for gays and lesbians in their house.

    Of course it is their right to decide who to let into their home, and who to keep out... I can really understand that. What I don't understand is why should we summarily dismiss an entire group of possible customers. Let's face it, as you said, the "Pink Dollar" is a sizable chunk of change.

    More interesting was the fact that the interior designer they used for the remodel was none other than the most famous gay man in town.

    Either way, not long after I came back with a negative answer to the group, the local gay press interviewed me about the situation. There were no boycotts or anything, but it became widely known that they were not gay-friendly and thus were avoided for just this fact.

    Shame, because they had a lovely dining room and garden which would have been the perfect setting for things like gay weddings.

  2. Hi Snooker,

    Thanks for the great Bed and Breakfast story!

    I wish I could tell you how the clash of human rights ended up in the BC B & B tale but the BC Human Rights Tribunal has deferred its hearing until sometime this month.

    In the meantime, the evangelical B & B owners have closed their business to protect themselves from any more charges of discrimination. A "Christian" ciies in banner headline that "Homosexuals Terrorize Christian BC B & B Owners", which sounds to me like a very bad horror flick;) More mainstream commentary on CBC and newspaper websites has wildly debated private property rights vs. equality vs. Taliban beliefs and "what we are fighting for in Afghanistan". All very interesting.

    For me, I can say that we are not in Kansas anymore. Here in 21st century Canada, we do have legislated protections of human rights, including sexual orientation. I agree with a spokesperson for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who said that the incident appears to be a straightforward case of discrimination.

    David Eby, Association Executive said: "It doesn't matter whether you are running a home-based business or the Hotel Vancouver. As soon as someone opens to the public, they have to provide that service without discrimination, that is, without preventing people from accessing the service based on race, religion or sexual orientation."

    I think that still leaves me plenty of room to be discriminating, when the health, the welfare of myself, my guests and my property requires it.

    Stay tuned!


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