How to Be an LGBTQ+ Ally While Traveling
As a traveler in a same-sex couple, a bed and breakfast is never my first choice. Clarifying that my wife and I would like to share a bed—yes, one bed—is awkward enough in the lobby of a hotel, let alone in the living room of a stranger. But when we booked a last-minute anniversary trip to Orcas Island, Washington, this July, there was only one vacancy left in town—at Otters Pond B&B, owned by professional chef Amanda Zimlich.
Lo and behold, this stranger turned out to be a lesbian—and a damn good cook, too. After a day of hiking through old-growth pine forest and basking in waterfall mist, my wife and I woke up the next morning to find Zimlich in the kitchen, ready to take requests. Five minutes later, she served us two goat cheese omelettes that became the subject of all my postcards. (The eggs came from her four hens, who are named after the Golden Girls.)
Some guests discover that Otters Pond is LGBTQ+ and woman-owned beforehand, thanks to advertising that highlights that fact, Zimlich told me by phone shortly after our stay. “But I have also had many guests like you come in and say, ‘Oh, thank God,’” Zimlich said.
Ending up at Otters Pond was a happy accident, but it was also a reminder to put LGBTQ+ owned businesses on my itinerary instead of stumbling onto them. Voting for candidates who support LGBTQ+ rights is important, as is protesting politicians who strip those rights away. But the most material way to help LGBTQ+ people is to put dollars in their hands, whether you’re part of the community or a friend to it.
Otters Pond B&B is among the LGBTQ+ businesses on Orcas Island.
For me, this is a new way of thinking about travel. Even though I recently wrote a queer cross-country travelogue that spotlighted nightclubs and cafés as a matter of course, I realized at Otters Pond B&B that when I travel merely for pleasure, I don’t go out of my way to find LGBTQ+ owned businesses. Sure, I’ll look up the local gay bar—and if I’m in town for a while, I’ll ask around. But anything more than that? I don’t know where to start.
Enter the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), an organization that advocates for the estimated 1.4 million LGBTQ+ business owners in the United States. NGLCC has local affiliates all across the country that are conveniently linked on their website, which means that long lists of LGBTQ+ owned businesses are a few clicks away no matter where you’re going or what you want.
“If you can buy it, there’s an LGBTQ+ owned company that can supply it,” NGLCC Senior Vice President Jonathan D. Lovitz told me. “That’s not just in New York City and San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale; that’s in Texas and Iowa and everywhere in between.” (For help finding LGBTQ+ owned businesses abroad, NGLCC recommends consulting the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association.)
I recently tested out the NGLCC’s site for myself when planning an upcoming business trip to Madison, Wisconsin. It’ll be an in-and-out affair: one work event sandwiched between two travel days. Often, I coast through such trips on chain coffee and airport food. But less than a minute after opening the website, I found an LGBTQ+ owned breakfast joint: the Short Stack Eatery. I already know what I’m going to order: the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich served on a pretzel roll with rhubarb jam.
Beyond filling an itinerary, seeking out LGBTQ+ owned businesses can be especially important when visiting states without protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity—states like, say, Wyoming where the renowned Backwards Distilling has planted deep roots.
Amber Pollock, co-owner of the Casper-based distillery, told me that her business gets nearly 40 percent of its revenue from out-of-towers during the summer Yellowstone season. That money helps keep Backwards thriving during the winter months when locals account for 85 percent of the business. The tourists may leave, but their money stays behind, giving LGBTQ+ locals a lifeline.
“Because there aren’t that many businesses [in Casper] that are public about their support for the LGBTQ+ community, there are a lot of folks who really want to get out and about, to go someplace to have a drink,” said Pollock. “We’ve been able to establish ourselves as that place.”
Similar stories can be found almost anywhere: Ryan Bernsten, host of the “50 States of Mind” podcast, saw firsthand on his 50-state road trip that tourism dollars are a massive boon to local LGBTQ+ communities: “The choices we make about where we shop, eat, or drink can have a really big long-term impact,” he told me.
Just how big is really big? NGLCC estimates that LGBTQ+ owned businesses contribute an estimated $1.7 trillion to the United States economy—and as the cliché goes, money talks. That massive dollar amount encourages states to pass LGBTQ+ protections and provides a disincentive from discriminating against our oft-embattled community.
“It is much harder to oppress a community that has the money in their pockets to fight back,” Lovitz explained. “Your dollar can be just as powerful as your vote at the voting booth when trying to influence change that helps the entire community.”
Pollock proved that theory true in 2018, when she collected signatures from approximately 150 Casper businesses for a letter of a local resolution condemning anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. The resolution passed last February, in part thanks to that letter. “That platform is only available to me because of the business side of things, really,” said Pollock, who sits on local boards tasked with furthering economic development. “Those 150 businesses? That speaks.”
Washington’s Orcas Island, where rainbow flags fly freely in the heart of downtown, might have more formal legal protections than Wyoming, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my part to support LGBTQ+ businesses on my next trip back there in a couple months. Zimlich confirmed to me that a favorite local bakery—Brown Bear—is LGBTQ+ owned, so I’ll make it a point to pick up an extra kouign-amaan. Further research will fill out the rest of my itinerary, I’m sure, but I have one detail locked down: A certain bed and breakfast is now the first place I’ll look for a room, not the last.
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