The hosts list themselves as Pedro and Brian and they have a dog. But do they have a dog like the apartment has a dog living in it, or do they have a dog like my sister and her wife have a dogaka their starter child? Roommates or roommates? I see that one of them has an undercut and an eyebrow piercing and decide: sure, probably gay. “Request Booking,” please.
Choosing an Airbnb host when I travel is eerily familiar to being two years deep on someone’s Instagram, squinting at selfies, playing “gay or not,” and trying not to double tap. It’s trying to figure out if the hosts themselves are gay and if I’ll be sharing an apartment with others in my community. It’s trying to find a place where I won’t have to lie about my dating history and huge portions of my social and political life to straight and potentially homophobic hosts.
Let’s play a game of “Would you book this host?”
Example one: My hosts in Albania are a heterosexual couple; the husband from Albania, the wife from America. The Albanian man lived in Athens for a while, and the American woman was in the Peace Corps. There’s another American from a coastal city also staying at the house. Safe to talk about my ex-girlfriend, whose family is also Albanian?
Example two: My sister and her wife are looking for a place to stay while my sister is on a business trip located in an area of the country that voted overwhelmly for Trump. The property is a yurt and the hosts speak of international travel and hiking the Appalachian Trail. Safe to book?
In both cases, yes, they were safe. But I had to list all those factors for you first. Wouldn’t it be great if we could skip that?
Here’s what I want: I want a filter on Airbnb that would let me see only hosts that are LGBTQ- friendly. Not necessarily LGBTQ hosts, but ones welcoming to LGBTQ people, so that we didn’t have to wonder if a space would be safe. AirBNB currently has a “family/kid friendly” filter, so this wouldn’t be the first time a filter would exist for the type of guest, in addition to what amenities the guests are looking for. Much like selecting hosts who say they have wifi with an option of either choosing a private room or a whole apartment/house, I want there to be an option for LGBTQ friendliness. Other current filters I can choose for my next trip are: the aforementioned family/kid friendly, elevator, lock on bedroom door, doorman, blackout curtains, pool, free parking on premises, and suitable for pets.
It is reasonable to seek a degree of safety when leaving your comfort zone. That’s why I always check “wifi” and “private room” (as opposed to shared) when I’m booking. Sometimes I will check “private bathroom” if I’m feeling particularly anxious; sometimes “free parking” if I’m also renting a car. In large cities, I only book with “Superhosts” (a multi-variable algorithm, per Airbnb, that takes into account review history, responsiveness, and consistency), and read neighborhood descriptions either on Airbnb or through a cursory Google search. I never book with a male host with zero reviews, or one with zero reviews from women. This is all done mostly on autopilot, much like how I avoid walking down deserted streets after dark, how I hike my purse into my armpit when strolling through a market, and always get my own drinks. (For the record, I do this no matter where I book or live: from a trendy hipster neighborhood of Berlin to small village in rural Romania to a colonial city in Peru. It’s a matter of safety.)
But it’s not just safety that has me wanting this filter on Airbnb. I can, through a series of privileges and some careful fashion decisions, just closet myself again if I’m that worried. It’s annoying to guard my language and, because my life intersects heavily with queer and trans activism and politics, it makes me a less interesting person to talk to, but I can do it. My ex-boyfriend. My sister and her husband. But when I’m traveling, having to go back into a closet I insistently came out of nearly 15 years ago is a stressor I don’t want when I’m on vacation. I want to go the beach, eat tuna steaks next to the ocean, go to my temporary home at the end of the day, and be gay in peace.
Right now? I would say that Airbnb is adequate for this purpose. They currently have a nondiscrimination policy for hosts and guests. Gay travel blogger Adam Groffman says this policy makes him feel like he has “firm legal ground” should a problem arise with a host, based on his sexual identity.
“Of course some hosts might not be fully aware of the full policy, but at least there’s some safety built in,” he tells INTO. “Airbnb has done a lot to show public support for their LGBT hosts and guests,” he continues, noting their Pride sponsorships, LGBT-focused advertising, and nondiscrimination policy.
Yet Airbnb doesn’t see the need for for LGBTQ-specific filters.
“We expect all hosts to be LGBTQ-friendly through the community commitment,” says an Airbnb representative, “and if we are ever notified of a host that violates that commitment, we take appropriate action, including potentially removing the host from the platform.”
Those community standards, as stated on the Airbnb website, include an anti-discrimination policy that reads, in part: “We welcome guests of all backgrounds with authentic hospitality and open minds. Joining Airbnb, as a host or guest, means becoming part of a community of inclusion. Bias, prejudice, racism, and hatred have no place on our platform or in our community. While hosts are required to follow all applicable laws that prohibit discrimination based on such factors as race, religion, national origin, and others listed below, we commit to do more than comply with the minimum requirements established by law.”
The guidelines also specify that hosts may not “decline to rent to a guest based on gender unless the host shares living spaces (for example, bathroom, kitchen, or common areas) with the guest; Impose any different terms or conditions based on gender unless the host shares living spaces with the guest, or post any listing or make any statement that discourages or indicates a preference for or against any guest on account of gender, unless the host shares living spaces with the guest.”
The only mention of sexual orientation, however is where it says hosts cannot decline a guest or impose different terms of conditions or discourage someone of a specific sexual orientation. And indeed there are consequences for hosts who break the nondiscrimination policy. But, like many injustices, these consequences sometimes only exist when you push the issue.
A few years ago, Shadi Petosky, a trans woman who is also the creator of Amazon’s LGBTQ-themed animated series Danger & Eggs, was denied a room due to her gender identity by a host concerned about the hosts’ teenage son. Petosky waited for a year for word from Airbnb about the complaint she filed. Airbnb eventually removed the host for a year, only after Petosky brought public scrutiny and pressure to bear. To give them their due and because I think are doing good work, their nondiscrimination policy now explicitly covers gender identity in its own section.
I don’t actually think there should be a way to sort hosts by identity or orientation in Airbnbchalk it up to paranoia of Makings Lists of LGBTQ People That Also Have Addresses in the current political zeitgeist. I can continue looking for rainbow flags in the back of living room pictures if I want a specifically LGBTQ host, as I’ve become quite good at that particular detective hunt. If I want to meet more LGBTQ people when abroad, there are, as they say, apps for that. (Hi, Grindr!) The reason I am advocating for this specific filterone for friendliness over identityis also for safety purposes
Many Airbnb properties are located in parts of the world with legal or societal taboos against same-sex activity. Places like Cairo, St. Petersburg, Goa, and Kenya72 countries, all told. In 14 of those countries, the potential penalty is death. Airbnb has hosts in nine of them.
To be clear, I’m not calling for Airbnb to stop business in those countriesif multinational companies only worked in countries with a set of LGBTQ protections that I agreed with, they’d go broke and couldn’t work in over half the states in the USAbut I am noting that in those countries, it would be downright dangerous for a host to identify themselves as LGBTQ. “LGBTQ friendly” hosts could also be allies, and actual LGBTQ people could hide their signal in the noise of friendly allies.
Airbnb’s current non-discrimination policy has two sets of rules: those for hosts/guests in the USA and European Union, and those outside those limits. The company acknowledges that there are local legal restrictions that might cause a host to violate their nondiscrimination policy, and urges hosts to make those restrictions clear in the description of the listing. To quote: “In these cases, we do not require hosts to violate local laws, nor to accept guests that could expose the hosts to a real and demonstrable risk of arrest, or physical harm to their persons or property.”
So, no pressure from Airbnb to become a “LGBTQ-friendly” host, should this filter exist, if same-sex activity (definitions vary) is illegal in your country. I actually agree with this compromise, as it protects hosts from getting into legal trouble, and gives them a way to warn guests of potential issues ahead of time. But I only agree with this where there are legal restrictions against same-sex activity, and not just a license to discriminatetwo very different realities, the latter well represented here in the good old US of A.
Another drawback to my proposed filter that should be considered is that there are a lot of identities and presentations wrapped up in “LGBTQ,” and one host’s friendliness to, say, an affluent cisgender white gay couple on their honeymoon might manifest differently with a trans woman of color. We’re not solving that particular stratification of acceptance with a UX filter on a homestay/hotel website. But, much like attending a parade, applying for scholarships, or walking down the street, I’d still pick the one with the rainbow on it, because at least you’ve weeded out people for whom a conversation about your identity might not even be possible.
There are, of course, a panoply of competitors to Airbnb’s cultural monopoly on homestay accommodations. MisterB is the obvious first choice, as they specialize in being essentially Airbnb for gay men. Which is great, if you’re a gay man, and white, like most of the images on their homepage and testimonials.
Another competitor to Airbnb is Innclusive (formerly Noirbnb), which sprang up to be an alternative for POC who were looking to not deal with Airbnb’s well documented issues with racist hosts. Innclusive’s issue lies in market penetration rather than inclusivity, and their hosts outside of USA and Western Europe are more thin on the ground. Groffman says that Booking.com once had an LGBTQ filter once upon a time but it’s gone now. And finally, there are of course the gay guides to many tourist destinations with listings for specific hotels and hostels.
But I travel with Airbnb, and so do a lot of other LGBTQ people. Much like “making everyone switch to Signal” is a nice goal for cyber security experts but “encrypting Facebook Messenger” actually makes a larger change, I would like to improve the existing service that many use, rather than switch to another one with fewer hosts or where I’m also unsure of my welcome because I’m not the desired letter in the LGBTQ acronym.
Airbnb has shown documented ability to recognize services where they could improve and make giant strides. See their recent granularization of accessibility options, for example.
“Previously, travelers with disabilities could only search for homes that were labeled as ‘wheelchair accessible’ when they were searching for an accessible place to stay,” says an Airbnb representative. “You can imagine this left out many definitions for what both hosts and guests deemed ‘accessible.’” Airbnb created “new features [that] allow hosts to designate whether their listings have step-free entry to rooms, entryways that are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and more.”
As an American, I can already see that option (saved to my account, so I don’t have to check them every time), and they will expand this globally.
So, they can change and grow, and are a company that I do believe has a good heart, inasmuch as capitalism allows any company. Give me the LGBTQ friendly filter, Airbnb. Make my trips safer, more comfortable, and welcoming. In addition to the hovering sword of potential retribution for violating a nondiscrimination policy, add as well the positive side of the coin, and make it easy for welcoming hosts to identify themselves for a LGBTQ person or family. Proactive, not reactive. Help me find my wifi, my blackout curtains, my parking space, my step-free entry, my ability to be myself.