ISSUE: This week in Grey Matters, we look at discrimination and the sharing economy. Specifically, should a person have the right to refuse to rent a room in her home to a gay couple? Let’s examine this topic with a fictional story about Dot and Austin, lifelong residents of Nashville, TN.
BACKGROUND: For more than an hour, Austin had been taking photos of Dot’s large Greek Revival-style house. “I so appreciate your helping me out,” Dot said. “My kids tell me to sell this place every time they come over. Billy Ray Junior swears that old magnolia tree out front is one stiff breeze away from falling onto the garage.”
“I had the same dilemma with my momma’s house until I started renting rooms online. But in the past few months I’ve made enough money to put in a pool!” Austin uploaded the photos to Dot’s iPad and worked on writing the content for the listing while Dot made monkey bread, a coffee cake made with chunks of biscuit dough, walnuts, cinnamon and lots of sugar.
After thirty minutes, Dot pulled the gooey monkey bread out of the oven and spooned two huge helpings. She was pouring herself a second cup of Sanka when her iPad dinged.
“Your first inquiry!” Austin grabbed the tablet and started reading. “They want to rent your old master bedroom. I knew you’d get top dollar with that huge bathroom and claw foot tub.”
Dot was so excited she spilled a little coffee on the counter and didn’t bother to wipe it up. She grabbed the iPad from him. “I need to learn how to do this.”
She opened up the app and read the inquiry from Mark, a good-looking blonde in his early thirties. Mark said he was going to surprise his boyfriend with a weekend trip to see Miss Dolly Parton perform in concert, and Mark just knew that his boyfriend would love the décor of Dot’s home.
Dot felt a little light-headed. She went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. The thought of two guys sleeping in the bed she shared with her late husband made her sick to her stomach.
She regained her composure and came back into the kitchen. Austin tapped some icons on the iPad and showed Dot the profile and reviews of her prospective guests. Everyone said that Mark had been perfect and they would welcome him back to their home anytime.
“Now all you have to do is press where it says ACCEPT, and you have your first guest,” he said.
“I can’t accept having people of that persuasion in my home.”
Austin moved his chair back from the table. “What do you mean ‘that persuasion?'” He leaned in towards Dot. “I’m gone tell you something that’s not a big secret in this town. I’m…”
Dot interrupted him before he had a chance to say the word. “I know you’re that way! But you don’t flaunt it by bringing men around.”
Austin packed up his messenger bag, swung it over his shoulder and headed towards the door. “Your ignorance and bigotry never cease to amaze me!”
“Wait!” Dot got up and grabbed onto his shoulder. “I’m a Baptist! If word gets out I’m running a gay brothel, I’ll have to become a Methodist.”
“A gay brothel!” Austin shrieked and pearl-clutched. “Don’t bother coming to the salon anymore.” He pulled away from her. “And good luck finding a new stylist who’s as good a liar as I am. Every time you ask, I hope she can say ‘No, your hair is not thinning at all.’” Austin stomped down the steps of the front porch.
Dot went back to the table and sat there shaking. With her fingers barely hitting the right keys on her iPad, she wrote a very proper and sincere thanks to Mark for his interest, but she respectfully declined because she was a Christian and wasn’t comfortable promoting “that lifestyle” in her home.
Two days later, Dot received an email from the rental service advising her that she was banned from being a host on their site. Dot printed the email and showed it to a friend at church who agreed with Dot that she ought to be able to accept or reject people she wasn’t comfortable having in her own home.
COMMENTARY: Companies like AirBnB are changing the way that people travel. No longer do you have to stay in a chain hotel, but you can live just like the people where you’re traveling. In Nashville, Tennessee, this means staying in a big master bedroom in a Greek Revival-style mansion. But Dot made the wrong assumption that she could discriminate and pick and choose who would stay at her home. Although I believe that she is 100% within her rights to decide who can stay in her and Billy Ray’s old bedroom, it’s also 100% ok for a rental service to have policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and refuse to allow the Dots of the world to list their homes / rooms. I wouldn’t mind if Dot had listed her property on a Christian property website where you could check a box if you’re “gay friendly.” AirBnB has decided to require its hosts to be welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds and has decided against letting you indicate whom you’ll accept.
If we stand in Dot’s shoes, we see that she doesn’t hate gay people. She was having coffee and monkey bread in her kitchen with Austin when she got the rental request. She knows that Austin is gay, but she won’t use that word and like many Southerners, discusses sexual orientation in vague language that is not intended to offend but usually does. Many people are like Dot and have the view that it’s ok to be gay so long as you’re in the closet. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t the rule of law for no reason. And that’s why it’s important to think about how we approach Dot and others like her.
That’s why Austin isn’t blameless in this story. His reaction to Dot was a missed opportunity to possibly change her mind. Or at least plant the seed for change. Austin should have asked Dot about her fears in having a gay couple in her home, tried to get out of her what she was really worried about, and then helped her craft a better response to poor Mark, who’s the real victim here when he receives Dot’s rejection. But instead of trying to talk to Dot, he responded by calling her ignorant, bigoted, and hairless. This reaction just entrenches Dot in her position.
Austin should invite Dot over for breakfast, possibly when he’s hosting a gay couple (Mark and his boyfriend maybe?), and apologize to Dot for his reaction, but explain to her why he was offended. Dot could meet Mark and see that gay couples aren’t that much different from straight couples.
We fear what we don’t understand. It’s wired into our DNA. For the majority of Dot’s life, gay people were hidden because it was considered shameful to have those feelings. Given her upbringing, we can understand where Dot is coming from, even if we don’t agree with her position. But we need to help people like Dot by engaging with them in conversation and not by calling them names. Let’s be angry on the inside but kill them with kindness on the outside.
What’s your view on Dot’s ability to not host a gay couple in her home? How do you think Austin should have handled the situation?