Innkeepers Offering Gays-Only Accommodations Find Equality Cuts Both Ways
British innkeepers offering accommodations to gays only might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, an government commission charged with safeguarding legal equality warned.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said that it was looking into businesses such as hotels and bed and breakfast inns that offered rooms to same-sex couples, but not to heterosexuals, reported British newspaper The Mirror on Feb. 21.
The Mirror article said that the Commission had not received any complaints from straights who had been turned away from establishments catering to gays. However, the Commission may take action against such inns even without receiving any such complaints.
The Mirror noted that a controversy erupted when a gay family was denied accommodation at a bed and breakfast run by a Christian couple who refused to allow the men to share a room with a single bed. The inn keepers claimed that the gay couple had set them up for a discrimination complaint.
The conflict arose in September of 2008, when Peter and Hazelmary Bull, proprietors of Chymorvah Private Hotel in Cornwall, refused to allow a same-sex couple, Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall, to share a double bed. The Christian couple said that their refusal had nothing to do with anti-gay sentiment, but rather was based in their belief that unmarried persons should not engage in sexual conduct. The Bulls claimed that if an unmarried heterosexual couple had arrived at their establishment, they, too, would have been denied a double bed.
Though British same-sex families are allowed to enter into civil unions, they are not granted full marriage equality. However, British law protects gays from discriminatory treatment in public accommodations, a statute that Christian innkeepers have said in previous cases constitutes an infringement on their religious freedoms.
The same-sex family took the Bulls to court, alleging illegal discriminatory treatment and seeking nearly $7,900 in damages. Bernie Quinn, an employee at the Bulls’ inn, told the court on Dec. 12 that he thought the gay couple had "set up" the Bulls, claiming that he had had a phone conversation with a "Mrs. Preddy" shortly before Mrs. Bull spoke with Mr. Preddy and booked a room with a double bed.
Mrs. Bull told the court that when she spoke with Mr. Preddy, she was under the weather. Due to her illness, she did not clarify in advance that the bed and breakfast had a policy regarding unmarried couples. Upon realizing her omission, Mrs. Bull said, "I said to Mr. Quinn that I had let a double room for tomorrow night and I had forgot to go through the policy with them and immediately Mr. Quinn reassured me that everything was going to be OK because of the previous phone call." Added Mrs. Bull, "I would have said immediately there is no way I would have let them make the journey to our door only to be disappointed."
Mrs. Bull also explained her and her husband’s religious beliefs to the court, saying, "We accept that the Bible is the holy living word of God and we endeavor to follow that." Part of the religious tradition to which the Bulls adhere includes a ban on premarital sex. For that reason, the Bulls’ lawyer told the court that their policy was "directed to sex and not sexual orientation and is lawful" because it treats heterosexuals and homosexuals the same.
Another piece of evidence offered by Quinn was a letter the inn had received from GLBT equality organization Stonewall about non-discrimination protections in the law. Stonewall told British GLBT news site Pink News that the letter had been sent not as a prelude to setting up the couple, but rather because Stonewall had received a complaint about the bed and breakfast due to its policies.
"Stonewall contacted the Chymorvah hotel in response to a complaint to our InfoLine from a caller about their discriminatory booking policy," said a Stonewall spokesperson. "We sent them a letter reminding them that the law had changed and what they were doing was illegal and offered to update them if necessary." Added the spokesperson, "The complaint to our InfoLine was unrelated and is entirely separate to the current court case."
The Bulls are being represented by The Christian Institute. Mike judge, who is with the Christian Institute, told the media, "This Christian couple are being put on trial for their beliefs. Equality laws are being used as a sword rather than a shield."
The country’s religious leaders also weighed in. "Mr. and Mrs. Bull’s understanding of marriage is the same as that of English law and the Christian Church," wrote the Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, and the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, both clerics with the Church of England, in a letter to the Telegraph. "Their guesthouse is also their home. Their policy may seem traditional but, of itself, there is nothing wrong with that." They added: "Liberty of conscience must not be confined to the mind. It is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to stand by our principles publicly."
There have been similar cases in which gay couples were turned away by inn keepers citing religious beliefs, most notably an incident one year ago in which Susanne Wilkinson, owner of the Swiss B&B, reportedly told Michael Black and his partner John Morgan that it was "against her convictions" to allow the men to share a room and refused them accommodations.
The two men, residents of Cambridgeshire, arrived at the Cookham B&B on March 19, only to be turned away. Black told the media, "[W]hen we got out of the car she was immediately distant and unfriendly and then she said, ’It’s a double room,’ and we said, ’Yes.’ She said, ’It’s a large double bed in a double room,’ and we said, ’Yes,’ and then she said it was against her convictions to let us stay."
The men protested being turned away and cited the anti-discrimination law, the article said. Wilkinson responded that the house was private property. "She said she was sorry and she was polite in a cold way and she was not abusive," said Black, "so we asked our money back and she gave it to us."
"They gave me no prior warning and I couldn’t offer them another room as I was fully booked," Wilkinson told the press, going on to add, "I don’t see why I should change my mind and my beliefs I’ve held for years just because the Government should force it on me."
"We were very shocked, and of course angry, that it happened," said Black. "Neither of us has ever experienced homophobia before and I have been out since 1974." Added Black, "We felt we were treated like lepers and not fit to be under the same roof as her." As for Wilkinson’s statement that she should have had "prior warning" that the men were a same-sex couple, Black said, "It would be like saying to someone who runs a guest house, ’I’m black or Muslim or blue-eyed,’ just in case they have a problem with it.
"There is no reason why we had to make it clear we were two men in this day and age," added Black. "We have stayed in plenty of guest houses in Britain and abroad and have never had a problem."
"In open-and-shut cases of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation the law’s quite clear," said Derek Munn, the director of public affairs for GLBT advocacy group Stonewall. "It’s illegal for businesses to turn away gay customers or discriminate against them when providing goods or services, and this can’t be overridden by personal prejudice."
"We are Christians and we believe our rights don’t have to be subordinated," said Wilkinson’s husband, Francis. "We have religious freedom and we are not judging that, but we are not prepared to have that sort of activity under our roof." Mr. Wilkinson said that he and his wife had "already been inundated with abusive calls and emails. It is really sad that people act like that."
Under Britain’s Equality Act of 2006, goods and services may not be denied on the basis of age, race, religion, or sexual orientation.
Gay resort hotels catering to gays may look to capitalize on the greater disposable income and the tendency to travel that some same-sex couples enjoy. In many instances, hotels that market to gays are up-front about their primary clientele, but do not turn away heterosexual families, thus side-stepping the issue of coming into conflict with anti-discrimination laws and allowing their guests to self-select.
One example is Hawaii’s Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort--so named, owner Chuck Spence told EDGE, "so that we don’t get heterosexuals staying with us by mistake." But those straights who do book accommodations at the resort, which is located in Kihei, on Maui, are as welcome as anyone else. Said Spence, "Our police is not to discriminate against men, against women, against transsexuals, against anyone. We just want people to come and enjoy the property as it is, and have a good time on their vacations being themselves." (The Sunseeker was featured in a recent EDGE column and travel item.)
Spence told EDGE that only about 3% of the Maui Sunseeker’s clientele are heterosexual. "We do occasionally get comments from guests who are upset because there are heterosexuals on the property," Spence acknowledged. However, he added, "It’s not like we go out of our way to market to [straight travelers], and in fact it’s quite the opposite: we state clearly that we are catering to the gay and lesbian clientele but welcome all."
But some heterosexual guests prefer the Sunseeker, and have their reasons for doing so. "We find that generally the straight couples that come to stay with us know that the rooms will be fastidiously clean and [that we offer] a relaxed environment with a good group of clientele that they’ll have fun with," said Spence.
What’s more, "Even those who [guests] classify themselves as heterosexual aren’t necessarily completely heterosexual," Spence told EDGE. "Sometimes they do turn out to be bisexual insterad, and don’t necessarily make that known at the beginning."
The Maui Sunseeker’s policies regarding a universally welcoming acceptance of all guests regardless of sexuality is in alignment with Hawaii state laws regarding anti-discrimination in public accommodations and services, but even if those laws did not exist the Sunseeker would not turn away heterosexual guests. "It’s more our policy" than a matter of conforming to statute, Spence said. "It’s our philosophy and our belief" that no one should be excluded because of sexual orientation, "and it makes us an interesting mix and a fascinating vacation time for a lot of people who end of being friends with other guests even once they’ve left."
Added Spence, "We do have one couple that spends every anniversary with us since we opened because they just love the clientele and the hotel itself." With Hawaii’s legislature having approved civil unions for gay and lesbian families--and the state’s reputation as a scenic backdrop for wedding celebrations--anniversaries, honeymoons, and other such occasions may well be a growing part of what brings guests of all persuasions to the resort--and just in time: Spence told EDGE that the Sunseeker is soon to complete renovations that will expand the 17-room establishment to a 31-room facility complete with restaurant, pool, and full-service spa.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.