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Big bucks at Gay Days

Big bucks at Gay Days

Greg Ruffer scanned the hotel's exhibition hall and felt something was missing among the vendors catering to visitors at Gay Days, the 14th annual gathering of gays and lesbians at Orlando, Fla.'s theme parks and hotels. Then the choral conductor realized what was missing were the ubiquitous rainbow flags found at most gay events. Gay and lesbian vendors who once sold rainbow T-shirts, buttons, and key chains have been replaced this year by Bloomingdale's merchants offering $500-a-setting china for bridal registries, Nordstrom makeup artists offering makeovers, and a skin care company selling eye gel for $110 an ounce. Some attendees, whose numbers could reach 130,000 this weekend, say the upscale slant is a sign of progress at Gay Days, a march toward the mainstream in an age of gay marriages in Massachusetts and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on television. "Maybe there isn't such a need for a rallying symbol since gay is more mainstream," Ruffer said of the absence of rainbow merchandise. "Maybe we're in a new era." But others worry that Gay Days, which isn't sponsored by any single organization and has no official connection to the theme parks, has become more about making a buck than about making a statement. "We just hope it continues to grow and be pro-gay people and not just cash in on the dollars that gay people bring to this event," said Judy Derench, a vendor from Connecticut who had an arts and crafts booth with her girlfriend. Jane DeCoil paid $650 to set up a booth to sell silver jewelry, a fee that amounted to several hundred dollars more than she paid when she first came to Gay Days six years ago. "It's pricing itself out of the market for several vendors," she said. Bloomingdale's set up a bridal registry booth that offered sterling silver utensils, Waterford crystal, and Versace and Spode china. Five gay and lesbian couples registered on Thursday. Nordstrom offered makeovers and a free shuttle bus to its store. "We always look for opportunities to come out in the community and make new friends," said Vicki Price, a Nordstrom store manager in Orlando. Scott Alles, a volunteer for, one of two rival groups selling hotel packages and tickets to theme parks and parties, said the presence of the upscale retailers was a sign that the gay and lesbian community has arrived. Real estate broker Barbara Ramirez was offering vacation homes from her booth for as much as $500,000. "It's a huge market [with] huge expendable income," Ramirez said of the Gay Days attendees. It wasn't always that way. In 1991, Doug Swallow and some friends from a gay computer bulletin board service decided to get together informally at Walt Disney World as part of gay and lesbian pride week in Orlando. They agreed to wear red shirts so they would be easily identifiable. The next year, the gathering grew to a few thousand and Swallow and friends decided to meet in the Magic Kingdom at Cinderella's Castle at 3 p.m. on Saturday, a tradition that has lasted through the years. In the early 1990s, Disney placed signs at its parks alerting guests to Gay Days, but they stopped doing so after a year or two. While Disney World doesn't sponsor any Gay Days events company officials have taken a tolerant attitude toward the weekend, allowing party promoters to rent out parks after hours and rebuffing religious groups that condemn Disney for allowing Gay Days. Meanwhile, attendance has swelled and promoters estimate that Gay Days has an economic impact of over $100 million. A turning point occurred in the late 1990s, when promoters added Gay Days as a circuit destination for young gay partygoers. Swallow, who operates rival Web site, said the addition of upscale merchandisers is inevitable. "You then have a market that is desirable for merchandisers," Swallow said. "I don't think it's any less about making a statement, but it's more about making a buck. I don't see it as an either-or thing. It's becoming many things to many people."

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