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Traveling around the world, I am accustomed to standing out at times. I am taller than average, so I have to duck when entering some airplanes. I’ve been a travel writer for 23 years, and I’m usually loaded down with camera gear and a notepad.
And I’m a member of the LGBT community.
On that last point, most of the time people don’t take notice — especially when I’m traveling alone. I don’t wear pins announcing my status, and I don’t emblazon my luggage with rainbow-flag decor. But I often travel with my husband of 33 years, and whether it’s at the registration desk when I verify that we have a room with a single bed, or by the pool where we share the kind of nose-in-book silence that longstanding couples do, we can be conspicuous by default.
Recently, I crossed a kind of personal Rubicon.
Having covered the Caribbean region intensively for most of my career, I’ve toured more than 1,000 island resorts, and have written about most of them. And that includes Jamaica-based Sandals Resorts which, starting with its first hotel in 1981, had long described its “couples-only” policy in strictly heterosexual terms.
I think I wrote fairly about Sandals back then. I included the chain only when I was writing a comprehensive destination piece, and then always mentioned the company’s discriminatory policy. Though I was invited to overnight on multiple occasions, I never did. Why would I stay as a comped guest at a place that wouldn’t welcome me as a paying one?
But in 2004, Sandals’ policy met its match: Under the direction of then-London mayor Ken Livingstone, the London Transit Commission stopped accepting Sandals advertising on the London Underground Tube, in buses and in taxicabs. And with Britain representing the company’s second-largest market, Sandals responded by finally opening its doors to LGBT couples — but quietly, without any marketing to announce the changed policy.
Fourteen years later, when Chris and I checked in at Sandals Grenada, we arrived not really knowing for sure how we would be received. In retrospect, it was silly for me not to recognize how much time has passed.
Six other Sandals-bound couples arrived on the same American Airlines flight from Miami, half of them honeymooners. At the check-in counter, the smiles and handshakes were warm and enthusiastic from all — no one flinched.
We were escorted to our room by a butler, a young, confident Grenadian who was even taller than me. His well-rehearsed spiel described the resort’s amenities, the evening schedule and how to operate the infinity pool on our balcony.
And at dinner, when we landed at our table at Le Jardinier restaurant, we found a waitress had made sure our initials were spelled out with heart- and star-shaped graffiti.
Yes, we blushed.
When I told Adam Stewart, deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts, about our Grenada experience, he was not surprised.
“I have never gotten one letter from a same-sex couple that said they were discriminated against, or that they weren’t welcomed,” said Stewart, who added that the family-owned company also did not experience negative feedback from its famously loyal clientele. “That was the absolute fear, that we could be disrupting the people who helped build Sandals 20 years earlier.”
At two nights, our stay was a bit too short to ascertain just how well we might have bonded with staff and guests over the length of a typical Sandals stay. But if we anticipated being the center of attention, just a bit, that didn’t materialize. Within 48 hours, I realized we had started to blend in, something I probably could not have ever anticipated two decades ago.
Stewart says that accepting same-sex couples was not a marketing decision in 2004. But perhaps the ultimate arbiter of how well Sandals welcomes LGBT couples will be when it starts marketing its vacations to the LGBT community.
“I can’t say that’s far away,” Stewart said. “We’ve been a company of shotgun marketing, but what we’re starting to do is break out smaller [marketing] programs. One day we’ll get there for sure.”
Stewart adds that there are many homosexuals working at the company’s resorts at the executive level.
“That speaks volumes about this road we were going down,” Stewart said.
Enough said: Sandals Grenada found room for us — and made it look effortless.
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