Lesbians Be Damned

When the locals talk about gay travel in SoFla, they mean men

A young man in a Speedo slices through crystal-blue waters, a pyramid of bubbles escaping from his nose and trailing half the length of his toned, swimmer's physique. Above his head, a prism of block printed letters reads "Rainbow Guide." Issued in June, this is the first travel brochure distributed by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau that lists gay-friendly beaches, bars, hotels, and activities.

But this effort at inclusion has left some South Floridians feeling more excluded than ever. "Where are the women? Where are the families? Do we not count?" asks lesbian activist Naomi Parker, a Wilton Manors resident. "That guide sends the message that this community is only about white gay men. That's a dangerous message to send. I think there are some members of this community who want a community that is all white and all gay male."

South Florida travel professionals recognize that gay and lesbian spending is critical to the local economy. Francine Mason, the visitors bureau's communications vice president, says that each year, the Fort Lauderdale area hosts about 670,000 gay and lesbian travelers, who spend more than $570 million in the community. And the 2001 "Tourism Opportunities in the Gay and Lesbian Market" survey compiled by San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. showed Fort Lauderdale to be the number three urban destination for gay and lesbian travelers. New York City and San Francisco finished first and second, respectively.

It's no surprise that the cash-strapped, post-September 11, Greater Fort Lauderdale tourism market wants to attract gay visitors. But it seems the publicly funded visitors bureau decidedly favors one gender: male. The Gayle Borden Real Estate Group is the only lesbian-owned business with an advertisement in the 32-page guide; Women in Network, an organization for professionals, is the single lesbian group listed; and but one innocuous, post-card-pretty picture shows two women sitting side-by-side in bathing suits.

So the war of the sexes transcends sexual orientation. For South Florida lesbians, the new Rainbow Guide is just the latest example of an ongoing problem: this is a gay male-dominated community with little concern for lesbian issues. The guide, it seems, is technicolor proof of their second-class status.

The bureau's Mason insists the omission of women was accidental -- or at least that it wasn't her fault. "Travelhost (a publisher of travel literature) created the guide, but we worked hand in hand with the gay and lesbian community here to produce it," Mason says. In the next breath, she adds, "However, as a whole, gay males travel more than lesbians. We primarily get gay male travelers here. The surveys we've seen and the guest lists for the hotels and guesthouses reflect that. That's not to say that lesbians don't come here, but gay males are the tourists who mostly come to this area." Mason also acknowledges that working "hand in hand" with the gay community means that the bureau consulted only Richard Gray, its gay liaison.

For lesbian activist Parker, the oversight is anything but accidental. "Of course the Rainbow Guide would only have pictures of white men. To them, that's what this community looks like: very male and very white." Parker says she stepped down from the board of South Florida's Gay and Lesbian Community Center in the spring of 2001 because women's concerns were not treated as seriously as men's. "I resigned from the board of the GLCC because comments were made that women didn't give as much financially to the center so it didn't make sense to plan activities for women," Parker says.

Parker's opinions are unfounded, says Gray, the bureau's gay liaison and also owner of the Royal Palms Resort near Fort Lauderdale beach. "That's so harsh, and it's just not true," he adds. "I'm white and I'm gay, but I'm also an inclusive person. This is an area that is so welcoming. We welcome everyone. It's an inclusive destination."

Gray says that he's tried in the past to bring more lesbian travelers to Fort Lauderdale but they are just not interested. "We have marketed specifically to lesbians and taken out ads directed at lesbians," he says. "For the Rainbow Guide, we approached Kick's, a lesbian bar, about advertising, and they said they were not interested. Fort Lauderdale is not like Provincetown or Santa Fe, where lesbians like to travel. They just travel differently than gay men."

Robert Wilson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, which is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, reinforces Gray's opinion. "Lesbians mostly travel mainstream," Wilson says. "They book with straight agencies and go to straight resorts. It's much easier for two lesbians to travel together than it is for two gay men. Society is accustomed to seeing two women together."

The IGLTA held its annual convention in Fort Lauderdale June 21-23, and more than 300 travel professionals specializing in gay and lesbian tourism attended. But the crowd for the convention was overwhelmingly male, which disappointed Christi Byrd, a travel agent from New Jersey and owner of Lezgo! That Way travel agency. Byrd says she had a good time but was frustrated by the lack of information presented for lesbian travelers. The only advice given for marketing to lesbians was "pass out brochures during the meetings of nonprofit organizations," she says.

This is indicative of the kind of thinking that hurts the gay and lesbian community, says Sandra Norton, the recently appointed executive director of the GLCC. "White gay men maybe are more aware of discrimination than white straight men, but that still doesn't mean they want to share the power," Norton says. "White men make decisions for everyone else, and that's true in the gay community too. It's a mirror image, with some distortions, of the straight community. A gay, male travel agent told me the other day that lesbians only want to backpack and go camping. Well, I don't."

Norton has lived in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, as well as other cities across the country. She says gay communities in other areas are not as splintered. "It's much different here than any other place I've lived. It's definitely a puzzle. Maybe this factionalization is a Florida thing. I lived in New England for a while and it's not like that there. I perceive real factions here."

A closer look at the 2001 Community Marketing Inc. survey that named Fort Lauderdale the number-three destination (and received huge press attention across the country), however, reveals that lack of concern for lesbian interests may be more widespread than Norton and others think. Only 89 of the 1,485 respondents were lesbian, casting doubt on the results' relevance to that market.

For Parker, the lack of attention to lesbian issues is particularly apparent in Fort Lauderdale, and she thinks it's intentional. "What makes me angry is the gender bias they exhibit," Parker says. "They think there are no women here. Come on, we have a multigendered community. It's not just men. Some of the male-led organizations won't even advertise in women's magazines. They feel like it's a waste of money."

Mauro Montoya, a board member of Pride of Greater Fort Lauderdale, admits that the community is divided. "For men, this is a place where they come to party -- they don't come here to settle down. Women here are more settled, Montoya says. You don't see the same party streak in women as you see in men. There's probably 25 men's bars and only three women's bars. Women do other things, though. They have their softball teams."

Responds Parker: "We can't expect the men to do things for us. We need to plant our feet and refuse to move. We need to say, 'This community is not just about you.'"

As for the Rainbow Guide, the bureau's Mason acknowledges that there is room for improvement. "Perhaps we can make the guide better next year, but we haven't heard any complaints here about it," she says. "It's only been out for a few weeks, and the hotels and guesthouses listed are already telling us that they're getting bookings off it."

But if the information in the Rainbow Guide is any indication, those bookings are most likely from gay men.

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