Find out how several same sex couple families approach family travel and learn about some LGBT family travel resources.
Like many families, the Steinman-Iacullo clan of Staten Island enjoy an annual Labor Day weekend road trip. Yet one morning while cruising through Virginia, one parent at the wheel, the other in back playing with 4-year-old daughter Hope, they were stopped by state police on suspicion of kidnapping. “We were just too complacent,” laments Wayne Steinman more than a dozen years later. “We weren’t traveling with her adoption papers.”
As an officer watched one parent, the other was interrogated at a roadside restaurant. “We were freaking out,” he recalls, until the Virginia state police asked the toddler about her traveling companions. “This is Daddy Wayne,” Hope replied proudly, “and this is Daddy Sal,” she added, winning over the troopers’ hearts and minds.
While the war for acceptance is still being waged on many fronts, there are signs that the travel and tourism industry is drawing gays into the mainstream. For several years, travel innovators have courted the homosexual market. Although this group is estimated to comprise only 4% to 6% of the U.S. population – a relative drop in the bucket travelwise – in marketing terms it’s a prosperous demographic. Gay households boast a higher than average disposable income and those who choose to spend it on travel have created a $54.1 billion market. The Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, a pioneer in marketing to this audience, estimates that in 2003, over 830,000 gay and lesbian visitors contributed $810 million to the local economy.
Not until early 2004, when same-sex marriages hit the headlines with wedding photos of couples and their kids, did America’s “family values” population get to see these “other” families. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, which counted 594,000 households run by same-sex partners, 27% or 162,000 households have children under 18 at home. Most experts agree that official counts are too low. A private marketing study done in 2002 by Witeck-Combs Communications estimated the gay family niche-within-a-niche at 2.6 million households. And the New York Times estimates that New York City alone is home to more than 26,000 same-sex couples.
Whatever its size, today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender households, collectively known as LGBT or less politically correct “gay families,” are served by support groups, print and online publications and only recently, the mainstream travel industry. For many gay parents interviewed, it’s just the start.
Gay Family Travel
“Most gay travel is for singles or couples, with the emphasis on dining or partying,” laments Steve, financial auditor for a large multi-national firm based in New York City. “There is nothing that is offered for alternative family travel.”
To meet this need and capitalize on growing public acceptance of alternative lifestyles, Rosie O’Donnell and partner Kelli launched R Family Vacations (866/732-6822). Their company caters to this alternative family niche with cruise vacations in different parts of the world.
The R Family Vacations cruise features discussion groups on adoption, surrogacy and gay parenting run by the Family Equality Council (formerly the Family Pride Coalition), the grandaddy of all gay family services, while playing down the late night party scene. “Unfortunately, we are not in a time where everyone in this country is accepting of gays and lesbians and their families. A cruise like ours gives people a week on vacation free from this hate,” claims Gregg Kaminsky, founding partner of R Family Vacations.
For the past few years, the privately chartered Norwegian Dawn has pulled out of New York harbor with the O’Donnells, their four children, and a few thousand clients on its way to Florida and the Bahamas. (The maiden voyage was documented in the HBO film All Aboard!) Kaminsky, who chose Norwegian Cruise Line because of their quality facilities and experience with gay and lesbian charters, brings a few hundred children under 18 aboard for R Family’s customized programming, special entertainment and enhanced kids programs. The fledgling travel company now offers other cruise itineraries and land-based programs for what they view as a “huge growth opportunity” in serving both gay and lesbian parent families.
Relatively new to the gay and lesbian scene, the gay-owned and operated Attitude Hotels boasts Premier, Comfort, and Value hotels along with a selection of inns and B&B’s. Accommodations can be found throughout Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, and many other locales with plans to expand worldwide. The hotel primarily focuses on providing a unique experience for the gay and lesbian community to bond in a welcoming environment. And because they tote themselves as “straight-friendly”, the hotels set the standard for diversity. The Attitude brand also welcomes children, but each hotel differs in location, design, and amenities, so inquire about your needs in advance by contacting Attitude through their website.
The Gay/Lesbian Divide
By most accounts, lesbians have less trouble traveling with children than gay men. “People never question women being with children and are less likely to attribute a couples relationship to two women than to two men,” agrees Aimee Gelnaw, who has traveled frequently and is former executive director of the Family Equality Council.
Ann Sweeney and Kathy Cantwell often travel from their New Jersey home with Grace (4 years) and Jack (13 months), sometimes with other families and sometimes with Ms. Sweeney’s mother, so that three generations can spend time together. “Our focus is kid-friendly primarily: restaurants, parks and playgrounds, places to visit like beaches, activities for kids,” says Sweeney. Since her family hasn’t experienced any discrimination in their travels, they don’t steer towards a gay or lesbian-friendly resort. Adds Sweeney, “Almost no one gives negative vibes to women with kids.”
Travel industry veterans say there are greater social and cultural differences between gays and lesbians that make resorts least likely to benefit from the burgeoning same-sex couple family market. Richard Gray is proprietor of Florida’s Royal Palms Resort and Gay Liaison to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. In his international marketing work, he segments the growing homosexual traveler niche into gay couples, who typically enjoy dual incomes and want to spend them on luxuries and fine food when they travel; and conservative-spending lesbian couples, considered “nesters.” In his business, the family market is of little consequence.
Ft. Lauderdale, a typical seaside resort long popular with families, is also considered the second largest gay marketplace outside San Francisco, with over 100 gay-owned businesses including hotels and inns. In addition to the many full service resorts that already cater to families, some gay innkeepers insist their smaller properties welcome straight or same-sex couples with children. Not everyone agrees.
“Not all predominantly male properties have a high sexual climate, but there is often a lot of nudity at gay and lesbian resorts,” says Gray. “My gay friends with children would stay at the Sheraton Yankee Trader on Ft. Lauderdale Beach, so if they want to go out to dinner and enjoy the nightlife, the hotel can provide a nanny to look after the kids.”
Although gay and lesbian parents may research travel online with Foremost Gay Hotels or PlanetOut.com to find like-minded guests, Gray is quick to point out that the mainstream hospitality chains have also become “more savvy and more sensitive” to the LGBT market.
Bridging the Divide
For the past 25 years, the non-profit Family Equality Council has supported LGBT families by organizing parenting groups, educational workshops, social events and Family Pride Weeks. As same-sex families increase in number and visibility, a surge in interest has enabled the group to expand their organized events beyond yearly Family Weeks in Provincetown, Massachusetts to more local programs and regional camping trips.
Gelnaw refers to her organization’s major travel event as the “one week of the year that same-sex couple families are not a minority.” Family Pride Weeks were begun nine years ago in Provincetown so families could get to know each other and explore the social, cultural, school and legal issues common to all of them.
Now, with more than 400 families each year providing the second busiest tourist period after Independence Day, Family Pride Week and its myriad attendees are supported by the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, the Provincetown Business Guild, local merchants and townspeople. In cooperation with their “offspring,” a children’s advocacy group named COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), these events provide organized activity programs for children of all ages with specific social, support and educational programs for youth ages 9 and older. There are also community-building events for parents and family-together picnics and parties.
Many families value the community experience Family Pride offers. “I absolutely think it’s necessary for families who do not have much of a gay-parented-family social network at home, plus there are few places more beautiful than Provincetown in the summer,” says Sweeney. “As our kids grow up, I think it will be great for them to be connected to a large community of kids like them.” Aimee Gelnaw, who has taken her two children (now 19 and 8) to both the Anaheim and Orlando Disney resorts, as well as to Legoland and San Diego, agrees. “At Family Week, our kids grow up with the same kids each summer, then IM each other all year. We don’t yet know the long-term ramifications of these annual gatherings, but when our kids have their own kids, we’ll finally see how important it was to them.”
Gay-Friendly vs. Family-Friendly
Is same-sex family-friendly the same thing as family-friendly? Travel agent Lauren Goldenberg, also known as The Family Traveler, believes that any gay family client would want “comfortable accommodations, great kids clubs, good food and family-friendly entertainment — and all for a good price — same as other parents.” In her experience, all families, gay or not, are currently receiving special attention from the trade. A spokesperson for the Caribbean resort group Sandals, which manages the popular Beaches family brand comments: “We see the growing trend of non-nuclear family travel and also recognize that some families have specific travel considerations. Beaches Resorts has dedicated its resources to becoming the symbolic vacation experience for all families.”
Gay family consumers are very aware that some major brands, including Delta, United, Starwood Hotels and Orbitz.com, court them directly. Other brands include them within the more general market of family travel. At Disney Corp., one of the first major corporations to provide same-sex partner benefits to its employees, “We believe our family-friendly message and broad marketing efforts currently are effectively capturing same-sex families,” says Walt Disney World spokesperson Veronica Clemons. “No one feels like they’re not welcome here.”
That’s the politically correct response from all of the mainstream family-friendly resorts interviewed, where staff are trained to work with children and handle any of their special needs with care. However, because sexual discrimination is illegal, it’s tough to discern how welcoming certain destinations, let alone individual properties, will be to same-sex partners and their children.
Some gay and lesbian parents say they are most concerned about their kids interacting with other guests at gay-friendly establishments. Bill Hindman, owner/manager of the Villa David Guesthouse in Puerto Vallarta, understands this concern all too well. “We actually never brought the kids to Puerto Vallarta. It is pretty adult-oriented and I wouldn’t have wanted to expose the children to some of the things that go on around here.” A staffer interviewed at the award-winning Big Ruby’s Guesthouse in Key West, Florida, described the property as “clothing optional” and cited this as the reason he refers gays to the Casa Marina Resort or Reach Resort when they’re traveling to Key West with children.
Another reality for same-sex couples is that in some countries where children are adored, gay and lesbian travelers are not welcome. Several travel professionals acknowledge, for example, that homosexuality is culturally taboo in many Caribbean societies. “We know that not everyone understands the makeup of our family, especially in the islands,” says one gay dad, who frequently travels to Trinidad with his partner so their daughter can see her grandparents.
Gay families would certainly enjoy the many facilities at one of Jamaica’s popular all-inclusive family resorts, such as Beaches Negril or SuperClubs’ Starfish Trelawny but in fact, homosexuality is technically illegal in Jamaica. A SuperClubs’ spokesperson suggests instead that gay parents who want to sightsee outside their resort may prefer one of the brand’s upscale Breezes Resorts elsewhere.
“At SuperClubs we know that modern day families come in all shapes and sizes, and we do our best to meet each family’s unique needs. Gay families would find our resorts in Curacao and Brazil particularly appealing as both destinations are gay-friendly and our resorts offer special programs for the kids and exciting cultural experiences for parents” said David Hancock, Vice President of Sales at SuperClubs Resorts.
While Dutch-influenced Curacao is considered very liberal, Brazil is actively gay-friendly — Bahia’s capital of Salvador (an easy daytrip from the Breezes Costa do Sauipe resort) as a hot gay-friendly destination.
Gay families may be interested in traveling onwards to Buenos Aires, the first Latin American capital to legalize homosexual unions. Argentina, with its historical, cultural, culinary and eco-attractions — and a strong U.S. dollar — could be the next big international destination for this segment. For more information about gay-friendly vacations, check out Resources for Planning a Gay Family Vacation.
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