Steve Bustin wonders whether there’s any longer a need for gay-owned businesses serving the LGBT community.
Anyone who was around on the gay scene ten or more years ago will remember the plethora of gay businesses that served the LGBT community. Gay travel agents. Gay estate agents. Gay restaurants. Gay hairdressers. These were gay-owned, gay-run businesses for gay customers. Yet not much more than a decade later, they’ve pretty much all gone. What changed? Were these businesses not good enough to survive, or have “non-gay” businesses finally got their act together and started serving everyone, irrespective of sexual orientation? Are there any gay businesses left?
One organisation that ought to know is the Gay Business Association (GBA). Chairman Jean-François Dor says a gay business is more about ownership than who they serve these days.
“A gay business is one that is gay-owned or gay-operated, or at least that’s what defines the businesses that join the Gay Business Association,” he says. “These days not many businesses that serve gay customers are purely gay, and in fact many, such as most of the gay pubs in central London, are not even gay-owned. For example, The Village is a gay space, flies the rainbow flag and the managers are gay, but the owners are not, with the venue just one of about 220 pubs they own in London.
“We do have a lot of businesses that just want to join the GBA because they want to promote their wares to the LGBT market and reach the pink pound, but for genuinely gay-owned businesses they want to show they belong to the LGBT community.”
So should that community be seeking out gay businesses and supporting them? Jean- François says no.
“I don’t think LGBT people should be seeking out gay businesses specially. Business is business and if I want to buy stationery, for example, I’ll find the cheapest supplier and the best quality, not go to a supplier just because they’re gay.”
Steve Coote, owner of gay business directory GaytoZ.com, agrees.
“In the UK, a business being LGBT-owned or not isn’t an issue any more. It comes down to value for money and how good your service is – the things that are important to everyone. There isn’t much of an LGBT market any more in the UK, even on the gay scene, which is why London and other places have lost many of their gay venues.
“I think it’s becoming an anachronism to say you’re a gay venue. Young people are looking for something slightly different now and don’t see the need for a gay venue, let alone a gay travel agent or anything like that. We all now just go straight to Easyjet or use a high street travel agent.”
One of the reasons some consumers do still seek out specifically gay-owned or operated businesses seems to be an expectation of the ease of communication with someone with whom they have something in common. This is particularly true for providers of home services such as plumbers and builders, as Steve Coote explains.
“A good way to narrow down who you want to buy from is to find someone you’re going to have something in common with and get on with. If you’re going to have a plumber or builder in your house you want to be fairly relaxed about it and about your home space, from photos by the bed to the sling in the lounge! I think this is even more important for many lesbians who are wary about lairy (straight) builders coming into their house.”
Builder Ray Bulloch of R&G LGBT Builders in East London is all too aware of concerns such as these and has built a very successful business by offering a service that addresses them.
“Builders come into people’s houses but a lot of people aren’t comfortable with the way builders can be, and deep down it’s got to be about honesty and trust. I’ve spoken to other builders and they see gay people as having loads of money so they set out to overcharge them. They walk into a gay person’s house, look at what they’ve got and put the price up – I’ve heard straight builders talking openly about stitching up their gay customers.
“I’ve been an openly gay builder for 15 years. When I came out, I turned the vans pink, had the rainbow flag painted on it and went the whole hog, my business literally took off. I couldn’t cope with all the business I got when it happened.
“I now only work for the LGBT community. I don’t say that officially but straight people have plenty of building companies – gay people don’t. I still get inundated with calls from people who’ve been ripped off by builders, whereas the way I get on with my clients is more like a friendship. It’s the trust element – I must have the keys to 25 different people’s houses. A lot of my clients say they prefer to keep their money within the community, too.”
Josh Rafter is Managing Director of property agents Outlet, who, as the name suggests, have always been focused on the gay market.
“We still position ourselves within the LGBT community but now our customer base is 50/50 gay/straight,” says Rafter. “We open our doors to everyone – we always have done – but we certainly don’t shy away from our roots. We were set up so LGBT people could find safe flat shares and housing where they could be themselves.
“Members of the LGBT community are some of the highest critics on service – we’re a very demanding community. We’re still here as a business because we had to ensure our service was up at that level. Non-LGBT people find our service shockingly good – they’re not used to it, and we’re so different to other estate agents.
“Attitudes to gay businesses are changing, though. The younger generation, especially in the London bubble where everything seems equal and wonderful, will buy from anywhere and are good at finding bargains. There’s also indifference about gay businesses within our community, but if you have the choice between two or three companies offering the same service at the same price, why wouldn’t you go to the LGBT one?”
With all the anti-discrimination laws around these days, could calling yourself a gay business land you in trouble with the law? We asked a top lawyer.
“While it’s not illegal to refer to your business as a ‘gay business’ under The Equality Act 2010, it could be seen to have some negative repercussions as it could be construed as discriminating against potential heterosexual employees or customers. The term ‘a gay-owned business’ conveys a more welcoming ethos and reinforces the existence of the LGBT community at the helm of thriving industries and in positions of leadership.
“Under the Act, taking positive discriminatory action is legal ‘…if people with a protected characteristic are at a disadvantage, have particular needs or are under-represented in an activity or type of work’. It’s therefore important to acknowledge the fine line that exists between positive action and positive discrimination.”
Alexander Pappin, Jamieson Alexander Legal, jamiesonalexander.co.uk