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With a gay man, Richard Gray, at the vanguard, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau has long been breaking barriers and leading the industry toward greater inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, Fort Lauderdale is dedicated to being a destination where all bodies are welcomed, regardless of queerness or gender expression, body size, race, or ability.
That refreshing and groundbreaking approach led the bureau to establish the Diversity, Inclusion & Equity department, led by Gray (whose last name belies his bright personality). In doing so, they became the only Convention and Visitor Bureau in the nation with an arm specifically aimed at improving diversity and welcoming LGBTQ visitors.
Born in London, Gray moved to New York in 1982 as an investment banker, but within a decade he'd changed focus and was making a name for himself in the travel industry. He moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1991, when he opened the acclaimed Royal Palms Resort.
In the mid-1990s, Gray joined the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor Bureau and launched their highly successful LGBT+ marketing initiative. Since then, Gray has garnered a slew of professional accolades: he's an inductee in the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association's Hall of Fame, a Fort Lauderdale Hometown Hero, and a recipient of Logo's 2009 TripOut GayTravel Award for "Achievement in Making Our World Gayer."
In 2016, Gray led GFLCVB to launch a new global marketing and advertising campaign which featured three transgender models. In doing so, Greater Fort Lauderdale became the world's first destination to hire transgender models to appear in its mainstream advertising. The campaign--which also featured models who were cisgender, straight, gay, and lesbian--was especially aimed at millennial and Gen Z travelers seeking inclusive and authentically diverse destinations.
"Using trans models in our mainstream campaign says who we are as a destination: cosmopolitan, edgy, diverse, inclusive, authentic, and accepting," said Gray at the time. "We want all travelers that visit our destination to be free to be themselves, to be free to be accepted, and most of all, to be safe and respected."
Gray's commitment to broadening the options for and acceptance of trans tourists led Q.Digital to present him with an honorary award. The work also led to his recognition by the United Nations in 2017 and his receiving a Stonewall Vision Award in 2018.
His representation of Greater Fort Lauderdale and promotion of LGBTQ travel has also been recognized by the broader travel community, where he's been named one of the most influential people in the industry. GFLCVB continues to push the envelope in 2020, unveiling a marketing plan featuring disabled, plus-sized, and older models. The latter gave Gray a new role in the advertising campaign: when one of the over-50 models failed to show, Gray stepped in at the photo shoot and is himself now featured in billboards and other marketing materials.
The city that held Florida's first Pride march (in 1977) is now home to more LGBTQ-owned businesses than any tourist destination in the nation. And Fort Lauderdale remains a trailblazer. This fall, the city hopes to host the inaugural Pride of the Americas, an event initially scheduled for April and expected to draw 300,000 LGBTQ visitors from across North, Central, and South America. Now Gray and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau the presenting sponsor of the event face their greatest challenge: keeping visitors safe while moving ahead with an event that promises to bring together two continents and 53 nations and "welcoming everyone under the sun."
After all, some of the guests represent the LGBTQ's most at-risk communities.
"This is obviously a disappointing blow to the entire Pride Fort Lauderdale team and our sponsors and partners," said PFL president Miik Martorell at the time of the postponement. He noted that planning for the multiday event began more than two years ago. "However, the safety of the public is always our utmost concern."
Regardless of the way Pride of the Americas is changed by the pandemic, Fort Lauderdale's internationally acclaimed sunny beaches will likely continue to play a big role. After all, the city's temperate climate provides 80-plus degree days well into November.
The hush-hush lineup is rumored to include an A-list female recording artist and the leader of one of the biggest nations in the Americas. But, as Gray, points out, this Pride was already planning to set itself apart by blending fun in the sun with an activist political and educational twist.
"One of the centerpieces of the first Pride of the Americas 2020 celebration in Greater Fort Lauderdale will be international conferences focused on LGBT+ empowerment in the Caribbean and Latin America," says Gray.
Although the Fort Lauderdale area is "close in proximity" to those countries, he adds, "they are miles apart regarding the treatment and acceptance of the LGBT+ individuals in their communities. Pride of the Americas will draw attention to the shared issues LGBT+ individuals, families, youth, people with disabilities, and seniors face in Latin America and the Caribbean. The event hopes to bring international attention to these inequalities while improving education and understanding of the LGBT+ community on a global scale."
Those inequalities are even more apparent now than ever before. The Florida city is leading the effort to confront them by inviting leaders from communities across the Americas who will share their experiences and expertise at numerous conferences and symposiums scheduled during the Pride of the Americas. Those will focus on human rights, travel, health and wellness, education, and more.
For example, the Business of the Americas will offer "a forum to discuss how the business community has improved the lives of the LGBT+ community across the hemisphere and to establish what more can be done," Gray says. Experts from the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce global network will also share ways that folks can support LGBTQ-owned businesses throughout the Americas.
Pride of the Americas reflects the diversity of the Greater Fort Lauderdale area, so it's natural that the idea originated here, Gray says. "We are re-establishing ourselves as leaders and want to share our knowledge. We are the LGBT+ capital of Florida. This is an opportunity to talk about the mix of our community; we are a blend of the Americas."