When Mel Heifetz scans a copy of "The Gay Guide to Center City Philadelphia," a brochure and map put out a few years ago by the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, he notices that "just about every hotel is listed, including the big chains." What, wonders Heifetz, who is gay and owns the Alexander Inn, a small hotel in the heart of Philadelphia's gay neighborhood, qualifies those hotels as "gay-friendly?"
Not one to mince words, Heifetz charges that too many so-called gay-friendly hotels in Philadelphia and elsewhere "just want to get their hands on a piece of what they see as the lucrative gay travel market." Gays and lesbians are estimated to spend some $54 billion each year on travel globally.
Heifetz, who over the decades has owned three gay or lesbian bars--including Sisters, currently Philadelphia's only lesbian bar--remembers a time when gays and lesbians weren't seen as such a prized customer base. In 1959, when he opened Humoresque, a gay coffee shop where the Mattachine Society held clandestine meetings, police officers even harassed him for kickbacks, he says.
"Today, the major corporations see the gay and lesbian community as a desirable audience, and suddenly they're all calling themselves gay-friendly," Heifetz says. "But I wonder, if I went to a desk clerk at one of these places and asked [where to find] a couple gay bars, how many clerks would be able to tell me? Is it enough to take out an ad in a gay paper or gay guidebook and then magically call yourself gay-friendly?"
Just about everyone in the gay and lesbian travel industry seems to agree that it takes more to be truly gay-friendly than just to list a business as such. But what qualifies an establishment as gay-friendly--or what marks a place as a gay hotel as opposed to a gay-friendly one--is often fuzzy.
Mark Guzman, co-owner of Purple Roofs, a Web directory of gay and gay-friendly accommodations that has more than 3,500 listings, says he asks establishments that want to be listed as gay-friendly to provide a written policy stating that their company does not discriminate against gay and lesbian customers. "I can tell you, we get a lot of inquiries from the big chains, but when we ask for that simple requirement, we never hear back from about 90% of them," he says. He acknowledges, however, that some hotels listed as gay-friendly have policies that don't mention sexual orientation per se but "say something like, `We don't discriminate against anybody for any reason.'"
Robert Wilson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., offers a host of indicators that he says can help identify if a hotel is genuinely gay-friendly: a nondiscrimination policy for employees as well as guests; training for staff to be sensitive to the needs of gay and lesbian customers; sponsorship of community events; and membership in a gay travel organization, to name a few.
However, IGLTA does not evaluate its members based on any such set of criteria, Wilson says, "because travel is so personal. One person may want to be free enough to hold hands with his lover in the lobby. Another gay man might want the amenities of a five-star hotel--and just want to know he can request a king-size bed for him and his partner and not get a dirty look." Wilson adds that it's really up to gay travelers "to do some research" about the kinds of places they want to stay. Before booking a room, they should make sure a hotel meets all their requirements. Even when considering a hotel chain with a good record of gay-friendly policies, it's important to know how an individual hotel is run, travel experts say.
Faced with the lack of an objective rating system, the Travel Alternatives Group, an organization of about 250 gay and lesbian travel professionals, in 1998 began sending out surveys that asked hotels presenting themselves as gay-friendly a detailed list of questions. …