By Christopher Treacy
It’s difficult to believe that anyone can afford to say no.
Our economy may be wobbling toward some semblance of stability, but the last eight years have been challenging for even the most savvy business people. And yet, that hasn’t stopped some vendors from refusing to participate in the same-sex wedding industry.
On the eve of BTL’s upcoming Ultimate Wedding & Anniversary Expo, not to mention the anticipated Supreme Court ruling this summer, we spoke with a trio of regional business people about incorporating same-sex weddings into their spectrum of services. But first, a quick recap…
As recently as earlier this month, an Ohio videography business made headlines by turning down a lesbian wedding. No particular reason was given, just, “…Unfortunately at this time I do not offer services for same-sex weddings, but thank you for your inquiry!” As veiled business kiss-offs go, it’s — friendly enough. But it’s also a distressing sign that, despite high-profile debate and the onslaught of negative publicity that refusing wedding-related services to gays and lesbians can incur, some folks obviously feel very comfortable saying no. No explanation necessary.
Looking back to 2013, Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman refused to design arrangements for the wedding of longtime customers Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed. Stutzman told reporters that her decision was faith-based. Then, last year, the Indianapolis bakery 111 Cakery came under fire for refusing to prepare a wedding cake for a marrying gay couple. And most remember the case of New Mexico photographer Elaine Huguenin, who also used a faith-based defense to decline working a same-sex wedding.
Two out of these three scenarios involved making a distinction that really stung: both Stutzman and 111 Cakery owners Randy and Trish McGrath had no problem taking money from LGBT customers on a regular basis, including those that inquired about wedding services. As casual, ongoing point-of-sale customers, both couples felt an intense sense of betrayal for that reason in particular, because they’d made the unfortunate assumption that they were frequenting LGBT-friendly businesses. And if you’d asked the owners, they probably would have told you they were gay-friendly — friendly enough to take your money, but not friendly enough to co-sign for “…a commitment to sin,” which is how the McGrath’s — a devoted Baptist couple — phrased it.
It’s a slippery slope. Faith and religion are ongoing, hot-button LGBT issues — and whether we like it or not, they have longstanding ties to the concept and process of marriage. It’s almost too easy to label the actions of the above-mentioned business owners as hateful, and it all begs the question (laws aside for the moment): Do business and faith-based beliefs share any reasonable common ground?
For companies with an eye on the almighty prize, the answer is no — at least, not insofar as same-sex weddings are concerned.
Kevin Dombrow, 44, handles Business Transient sales and manages social media for the Sheraton Detroit Novi, the hotel that’s hosted an LGBT wedding expo. He’s also half of one of the 323 couples married in Michigan during the original four-hour window last March.
“When we were trying to find vendors for last year’s expo, many of the reactions we got were appalling,” he said. “‘Remove me from this list’ and ‘you people are disgusting’ — just outrageous emails and phone calls. We tend to think they’re going to have to get over it and do business with us, but look what happened in Utah. Social media makes it harder to get away with discriminatory behavior, though — you should be able to do whatever you want to do if you own the business, but there are swift consequences for every action.”
Dombrow comes from an unusually sensitive position, having repeatedly suffered through discriminatory behavior from customs officers at the Canadian border not long ago. His patience was tested on numerous occasions while traveling to Windsor-Ontario where his husband — a native of Mardrid, Spain — was able to achieve work status.
“They’d say, ‘What do you mean you’re married? Two men can’t be married!’ They inferred we’d been deceitful about our purposes. It was horrible.”
All the more reason that he’s proud to say that his company has a great plan ready for implementation when the Supreme Court ruling comes down, including a budget specifically for LGBT outreach.
Sheraton properties fall under the Starwood umbrella, which maintains a 100 percent score with the HRC nearly all across the board. On a business trip last fall, Dombrow learned that same-sex weddings account for 20 percent of business at the Sheraton Commander, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Harvard Square.
“I doubt we’ll see numbers like that in Detroit, but to have over 200 couples come in for last year’s Expo when it’s not even legal yet is very promising,” he said. “This is definitely the premiere venue in SE Michigan for LGBT weddings.”
Flagstar Bank’s Beth Correa made it clear that her company is more than happy to help LGBT couples financially plan their lives, weddings included.
“Flagstar is headquartered in Michigan and it’s really important for us to provide banking services to the whole community, not just a part of it,” she said, during a three-way chat with the bank’s Corporate Communications Representative, Susan Ferguson.
Both Correa and Ferguson advised using caution with regard to wedding expenses, however, mainly because of the staggering debt that accumulates. They cited a home equity loan as a potential way for current homeowners to finance a big wedding, but would encourage renters who’ll be looking to buy a home after the wedding to concentrate on the bigger picture. They also mentioned emerging new mortgage programs from FHA and Fannie Mae — signs of economic recovery — as incentives.
“Credit card debt can be so difficult to dig out of, because the rates are so high,” Correa said. “As a banker, I see how people become burdened with these things, so I’d say that if you’ve got your heart set on a really extravagant wedding, you should include your wedding day as part of a longer-term savings plan. It’s something you should save ahead for, because buying a home and planning for retirement are more important in the long run”
CNN Party Rental co-owner Roy Mason has a refreshingly straightforward take on the role his party rental operation plays in the various events for which it gets hired: “How can we help?”
“We like all customers,” said Mason, a happily married straight man with kids. “As long as we can help people, it doesn’t much matter what the event is: corporate lunch, graduation party, same-sex wedding, same-sex adoption party or baby shower… we just do whatever we can to be a quality rental experience.”
Perhaps folks thinking about starting a business that might get asked to participate in same-sex weddings should take a lesson from Mason, who sounds like he really understands his role in this unnecessarily complicated scenario.
“I try to represent with what makes sense from a business perspective, increases revenues and provides service to all communities,” he said. “I know there are others that don’t feel that way, but this is a tough business and we’ve been successful by sticking with an equal policy. I go from the perspective that everyone should have the right to marry if they feel that’s right for them — human to human. It’s a right to love… just be sure to celebrate with a lot of tent tables and linen!”