What Happens When Two Women Hold Hands at an Antigay Conference

From left; Crystal Cheatham and Jardana Peacock
From left; Crystal Cheatham and Jardana Peacock at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville

Conventional wisdom contends that there is a deep ideological divide in the country — that the radical right wing is consolidated in the brightest of red states, while the progressive values more commonly associated with shades of blue paint the coasts and a few liberal havens peppering our landscape. Similar assumptions are often made of well-known brand names, too — everyone knows that Chick-fil-A hates the gays, whereas Wells Fargo suddenly became every lesbian’s favorite bank last summer.

But as a queer Christian woman learned last month when she dared to hold her female partner’s hand in public at a right-wing conference in Nashville, intolerance springs eternal.

At a resort owned by adamantly pro-LGBT company Marriott International, organizers of a right-wing conference bluntly rejected the women, subjected the visibly queer couple to an unabashedly hostile environment, and forcibly removed another group of LGBT people of faith attempting to pray at a public worship service. 

Last month, the National Religious Broadcasters hosted its annual convention at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville. The event was attended by more than 4,000 conservative Christian media-makers, including representatives of some of the most infamous right-wing institutions in the country. Republican presidential hopefuls Sen. Ted Cruz and Ben Carson even showed up on the last day — a clear nod to the significant sway of numerous political power brokers at the gathering. Scheduled sessions ranged from blatantly Islamophobic lectures about how the government is helping jihadists “take away our freedom of speech” to tear-filled presentations from Christian business owners who claim they are being denied the freedom to practice their faith — because gays are “redefining marriage,” of course.

While the four-day conference was populated by a veritable who’s who of reliably anti-LGBT and xenophobic pundits, unabashedly hateful groups weren’t the only ones represented in Nashville. Facebook, a company that has been praised as a model of LGBT-inclusive policies and attitudes, sent a high-ranking executive to present at the event’s Digital Media Summit. And the event itself was hosted at a venue owned by Marriott International, another supposedly LGBT-friendly company, that has launched LGBT-inclusive advertising campaigns and received a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s latest Corporate Equality Index.

Founded by Edward Lewis Gaylord, an Oklahoma-born billionaire and businessman known for his conservative views, it’s not surprising that the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center has played host to some of the most conservative gatherings in the country, including NRB’s annual convention. (The irony of this right-wing extravaganza being hosted at a place called the “Gaylord” was certainly not lost on this queer author’s inner adolescent.)

But since 2012, the Gaylord has actually been owned and operated by Marriott International, a corporation that has gone above and beyond the call of duty to market itself as being LGBT-friendly. In June 2014, Marriott International launched its #LoveTravels marketing campaign, designed to “convey the company’s commitment to make everyone feel comfortable being who they are.” Some were surprised by the company’s welcoming tone, given that the owner, John Willard “Bill” Marriott, is a devout Mormon. But money talks, and the global LGBT travel market was predicted to be worth more than $202 billion that year.

After California voters rescinded marriage equality in 2008 by passing Proposition 8 — with well-documented involvement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the media began questioning Mr. Marriott about how he reconciled his company’s pro-LGBT policies with his faith. (Take note, Hobby Lobby.) The executive chairman released a statement, explaining:

“The Bible that I love teaches me about honesty, integrity and unconditional love for all people. But beyond that, I am very careful about separating my personal faith and beliefs from how we run our business.”

Which brings us back to the Gaylord in February. What happens when a Marriott-owned property hosts a decidedly antigay event?

Crystal Cheatham, a lead organizer for the Know Your Neighbors campaign — a collaborative project between social justice nonprofits Soulforce and Political Research Associates — decided to find out.

As thousands of Christian media-makers were gathering on the first day of NRB’s convention, Cheatham checked into the hotel with her female companion, Jardana Peacock. The two were told that multiple conventions were taking place that week, but only the ballrooms and designated meeting rooms were off-limits to guests. So after dropping off their things in room 4164, which overlooked the convention center’s lobby, the pair wandered around the sprawling resort, hand in hand.

Throughout the course of the afternoon, Cheatham and her partner experienced two distinctly different receptions. By Marriott staff members, the two were warmly greeted and accommodated. But from those wearing the telltale black lanyards of NRB conference attendees, they received a range of uncomfortable glances, gaping stares, and unapologetic scowls. Some NRB-affiliated guests could even be seen shielding the eyes of their young children, presumably to “protect” these impressionable young minds from witnessing the presence of a queer couple expressing their affection in a mild manner that would be deemed entirely appropriate for a straight couple in the same situation.

At one point, Cheatham approached the NRB information desk to inquire about the gathering. The staff member she spoke with explained that NRB is a "coalition of ministries." Identifying herself as a Christian, too, Cheatham — still hand in hand with her partner — asked if there might be any ministries present that she could take part in. She reports that the man at the desk shook his head, and with a look of disgust, told the women, "We believe in the traditional Bible. Homosexuality is wrong; so no, there aren't any ministries for you here."

Upon checkout, Cheatham described her experience to a hotel manager, who apologized profusely and ultimately refunded her bill. But when a romantic overnight is filled with an endless onslaught of anti-LGBT microaggressions and overt homophobia, the damage runs deep. Marriott’s ad campaigns are tender and sweet, but truly being an ally to your LGBT customers requires a careful reconsideration of the company one keeps.

Hosting — and profiting off of — events that are undeniably anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant is a glaring contradiction of Marriott’s stated values that “every guest, whoever they are, wherever they go, should feel comfortable and welcome the moment they walk through our doors.”

It’s impossible to control the actions and attitudes of all guests, but when Marriott opens its doors to groups that oppose the very existence of a key segment of the hotel’s client base, the kind of hostility Cheatham and her partner endured will continue to cast a dark shadow on the false promise that #LoveTravels. 

L. COLE PARKE is the LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank dedicated to exposing and challenging the right wing. Go to www.politicalresearch.org to learn more about their work, and follow Parke on Twitter @coleparke.

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