KEY WEST

A lesbian landmark goes `all-welcome'

 

The Pearl's Rainbow guesthouse will allow male visitors -- a sign of the down economy but also a signal of the growing acceptance of female couples.

cclark@MiamiHerald.com

Guests lounge around the pool at Pearl's Rainbow, soaking up the sunshine and tropical vibes typical of a Southernmost guesthouse. Not a man is in sight -- and that's the way these vacationers like it.

But over this Thanksgiving weekend, Key West's only lesbian-exclusive resort is going ``all welcome.''

The decision was made public about the same time Pearl's Rainbow was honored in October by Curve, the best-selling lesbian magazine, as the guesthouse that had the greatest impact on lesbian culture over the past 20 years.

Pearl's Rainbow's lesbian owner, Heather Carruthers, said it was a business decision based on tough economic realities, the request of some lesbian guests who would like to bring male family members or friends -- and on some good news. Lesbians are being more accepted and feel more comfortable in the mainstream these days.

``They can hold hands wherever they want to,'' Carruthers said. ``It's really the world we want to have. We don't necessarily want to be segregated.''

But that does not seem to be the case for gay men, even in super-gay-friendly Key West, a city of about 25,000 with a gay police chief, gay president of the Rotary Club, more than 400 members of its gay chamber of commerce and several elected gay officials -- including Carruthers, a Monroe County commissioner.

Key West has at least nine male-only guesthouses, and the general manager and vice president of three of them said there are no plans to convert them to all-welcome.

``Absolutely not,'' said Tinlin, who oversees a secure, clothing-optional complex that includes the Oasis Resort, Coconut Grove Resort and Coral Tree Inn. ``Our business is down because of the economy and BP oil spill, but it's very important for this destination to maintain its all-gay reputation.''

In fact, it was the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market that put Key West on the tourism radar, said Stephen Smith, sales manager for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

``In the '70s, before there was a Tourist Development Council, the only quantity of tourists were gay men and women,'' he said.

But today, gay travelers have far more options than they did a decade ago, said Smith, a past president and current board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travelers Association. ``More and more hotel chains, car-rental companies and destinations are reaching out to the gay and lesbian market,'' Smith said. ``And why wouldn't they? It's a $1 billion-a-year market.''

While Key West's gay market has remained strong, some visitors' habits have shifted.

About 35 percent of the 210,000 annual overnight gay visitors to Key West now choose to stay with a mainstream resort chain like the Westin, Marriott or Hyatt, according to Tourist Development Council surveys.

Some want to use their chain loyalty points; others are looking for big resorts with more amenities than they might find at a guesthouse. Others want to stay on the beach.

All-female guesthouses have never been common in the United States -- partly because women often have less economic power than men, some suggest, and perhaps because lesbians long have been more accepted in American society than gay men.

Though the 2009 Damron Women's Traveller, which touts itself as the best lesbian guide, lists many lesbian-friendly lodgings worldwide, Carruthers said she knows of only one other exclusive all-women's resort in the United States: the 19-room Highlands Inn, located on a farm in Bethlehem, N.H. The phone number: 1-877-LES-B-INN.

Carruthers and her late partner, Leslie Leonelli, bought their 38-room Key West resort At 525 United St., a few blocks off the tourist drag of Duval Street in 2000. They visited to Key West from the rat race of New York City.

When they learned the all-women's resort, then named Rainbow House, was for sale, they sold their Manhattan loft and moved.

Even then, they had mixed feelings about keeping the inn all-female, Carruthers said. Male and straight friends from New York would not be able to stay at their place.

Still, they tried to make a go of it. They changed the name to Pearl's Rainbow to convey more warmth. Next, they renovated the five-building complex with two pools and two hot tubs, which began as the Marrero Cigar Factory.

For a few years, the resort's business grew as women flocked to stay in the Love Shack, a cozy room near a hot tub, and the other 37 unique rooms that range in price from $79 to $369 a night, including a full breakfast. Guests loved the Pearl's Patio pool bar, the only all-female bar in Key West.

But in 2006, Carruthers said, business leveled off. In 2007, it began to drop.

They were not alone. During the past decade, at least three gay accommodations in Key West have either closed or gone all-welcome. Even business at Tinlin's all-male guesthouses was down 12 percent from last year -- much like other local lodgings.

But Carruthers said her guesthouse is not performing as well as the all-welcome lodgings in Key West. Thus the change.

The resort will remain safe and welcoming to lesbians, said Carruthers. All guests will have to sign a sheet at check-in that states they will be respectful. ``We won't tolerate intolerance,'' she said.

Pearl's also will feature a few women-only weeks, during Pridefest, Womenfest, Fantasy Fest and the Kelly McGillis Classic, an annual female flag football championship.

The decision to go all-welcome was not welcome at all among some recent Pearl's guests.

``I like it the way it is,'' said Elizabeth Villanueva of Vancouver, British Columbia. ``I have nothing against men, but we feel comfortable here.''

Mesha and Paula, elementary schoolteachers from Alabama who did not want to give their last names, have been coming to Pearl's for six years.

It is one of the few places where they can be themselves, they said.

``In Alabama, it's not one human family. It's don't ask, don't tell,'' Mesha said.

``The culture here in Key West is so different from back home. People don't realize what a treat it is for us. Pearl's is our little bit of heaven.''

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