A legally married gay man claims that a Virginia bed and breakfast denied him and his spouse a reservation for a room because they are of the same gender.
Russell Williams, 56, of Hanover, Pa., said his spouse, David Schaefer, 54, tried to make reservations in late February at Stafford House in Fairfax, Va., as part of a trip for the wedding of their nephew. However, they say they were denied a room over the phone on the basis of their relationship.
“So they, in that conversation — they ascertained that this was two men,” Williams said. “It’s a husband-and-wife operation. The wife was on the phone with David, and she said, ‘Well, we don’t accept non-traditional couples.’”
Williams, who married Schaefer five years ago in Boston after being together 35 years, said his spouse tried to “push back a bit” on the Stafford House owner, but she remained firm in denying the reservation. Williams, a racehorse breeder, said the owner also told Schaefer, a physician, that unmarried opposite-sex couples would be unable to obtain a reservation.
“There were no harsh words,” Williams said. “Apparently, the husband is a minister and it’s a religion-based policy that they have. And that was that. I guess we’ll stay at the Marriott.”
Stafford House didn’t respond to multiple requests from the Washington Blade to confirm the allegation that an owner denied the couple a reservation.
Virginia has no LGBT-specific non-discrimination law, nor one that protects same-sex couples against discrimination in public accommodations.
Williams said facing this discrimination reminded him of the mistreatment that racial minorities in the United States once faced in similar situations.
“The first thing that popped into my head was now I knew how black people felt 50 years ago,” Williams said. “It was bizarre. David felt the same way.”
Virginia State Del. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the only openly gay member of the General Assembly and a candidate for a Virginia State Senate seat, called the alleged discrimination faced by Williams and Schaefer “an embarrassment to Virginia.”
“It’s surprising, in spite of our lack of protections and laws, that this would happen in Fairfax County,” Ebbin said. “It’s another outrage that makes me want to redouble my efforts in support of equality in Virginia.”
Ebbin said a change in law to prohibit discrimination of all types would be the best way to remedy the situation. In the 2011 session of the General Assembly, Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) introduced legislation that would amend the Virginia Human Rights Act to include safeguards for LGBT people against unlawful discrimination.
“Clearly, we need to change the laws to prohibit discrimination of all types,” Ebbin said. “Unfortunately, we’re still at the building-block level.”
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, also expressed frustration that no legal protections exist to protect LGBT people from discrimination in public accommodations.
“These kinds of things should not be happening in this day and age, and the frustrating part is that they happen all too frequently in areas all across our country,” Sainz said. “It’s even more frustrating when they happen right across from the nation’s capital — in a city that is virtually within walking distance of the nation’s capital.”
Sainz said the incident “makes clear the need for uniformity of laws nationwide that protect all Americans, specifically on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” But Sainz also said the situation speaks to the need for state non-discrimination legislation in Virginia because he said states have always been “first and strongest” to protect LGBT families.
Williams said although he felt he faced discrimination, he doesn’t think sympathizers should retaliate against the owners of Stafford House.
“I would not want to see the people at the B&B persecuted,” Williams said. “I think it’s wrong and I think they’re ignorant, but I hope that — and I’ve talked about this with a lot of friends — gay people should not retaliate against this kind of thing. I think we should just go ahead and do what we have to do to get our civil rights and make sure that people comply.”
LGBT advocates said they felt drawing attention to this issue can help with efforts to pass laws to prevent such discrimination in the future. Ebbin said such examples can help build the case in the Virginia General Assembly to pass non-discrimination laws.
“We constantly hear complaints from Richmond that there are no documented cases of discrimination,” Ebbin said. “Every incident like this helps us make it more clear to my colleagues that we need to move forward on protecting LGBT people along with all others.”
Sainz added he believes more LGBT couples throughout the country face this kind of discrimination, but few make the incidents public because they’re embarrassed.
“My suspicion is more incidents like this take place than we hear of because people are embarrassed, and so they don’t want to shine the light on these kinds of situations,” Sainz said. “I think that this couple bringing attention to this issue is the right thing to do.”
UPDATE: Following the posting of this article, Donna Stafford, an owner of Stafford House, told the Washington Blade that the bed and breakfast has changed its policy and will no longer bar anyone from making a reservation.
“We were in the process of [changing our policy] even before your article came out,” Stafford said. “We’re not going to put restrictions on anyone that stays.”
In a separate email, Stafford noted that the prior policy of Stafford House was within the letter of all relevant state and local housing laws.
ADDITIONAL UPDATE: In a joint statement, Williams and Schaefer told the Blade on Wednesday via email that following Stafford House’s announced change in policy, they booked a room at the facility and plan a stay shortly.
“Pursuant to your update we have reserved a room at the Stafford House and plan to stay there this weekend,” they wrote. “Tolerance doesn’t require agreement about everything and if they learned that across the river in Congress the whole country would be better off.”