It all started with a rainbow and a dream, says Richard Gray of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. Eighteen years ago, Gray launched what he dubbed “The Rainbow Initiative” to attract gay and lesbian tourists to his city.
Even with stakeholder support, the bureau was so cautious they decided against calling it a “gay initiative.” He started with $35,000, and says, “Within five years, we found gold at the end of that rainbow.”
Today all that gold amounts to $1.5 billion in tourist dollars for Fort Lauderdale, with 1.3 million annual LGBT visitors. “And we believe those figures are on the low side."
But that wasn’t enough for Gray, who is managing director of the LGBT market at the CVB. He embarked on another quest last year, as he put it, “to emphasize the importance of the T in LGBT. The forgotten T, I am saddened to say.”
When Gray approached Alexis Dee, the programming director of the Southern Comfort transgender conference, and suggested moving the event from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, Dee scoffed. “You have a better chance of getting me pregnant,” Dee told Gray last year, But after 24 years in Atlanta, the prestigious annual symposium for transgender people is indeed moving next year, to the city the bureau calls "Where Happy Meets Go Lucky."
The SCC’s bold move baffled some. Norm Kent wrote on Bilerico that Florida is “a state still fighting same-sex marriage; its charge led by the state's attorney general, Pam Bondi. Even Fort Lauderdale's own mayor, Jack Seiler, opposes us.” (Of course, Georgia is no bastion of equality, either.) Kent also pointed out how, as an event that draws people from all over the U.S., the SCC has a reputation for creating a safe environment for social interactions and exploration of gender.