This August will not be the first time Houston resident Buddy Fisher attends Austin Pride — he’s been many times before. But it might have been his first time staying in an Airbnb during the event, had his reservation not been canceled by an anti-gay host — an unpleasant episode of discrimination that some say Fisher could have been spared if Airbnb allowed travelers to filter search results via an LGBT-friendly option.
“I wrote, 'I'm in town for the Austin pride events,'” Fisher told BuzzFeed News. “The booking started to go through. About an hour after, I get a message from Airbnb saying my reservation was canceled. Then, a few moments after that, I get a message through their private messenger system on the application saying, ‘No LGBT people please. I do not support people who are against humanity.’”
As a gay man living in Texas, Fisher said he’s never been exposed to the kind of blunt discrimination he experienced on Airbnb. “I've been quite lucky with my friends and family. I really haven't had overt discrimination against me. There's been little jabs here and there, but I've never been turned away directly because I was gay,” he said. “It surprised the heck out of me, and it was devastating. It hurt.”
Fisher had never booked a room on Airbnb before, but he did have friends who worked for the company. Through them he reported what had happened, and he quickly received an apology. “Airbnb reached out to me and apologized. The company said it has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination like this,” Fisher said. “They said they had blocked the person from their website.”
The company’s response satisfied Fisher, who said it was “appropriate.” But removing discriminatory hosts retroactively — no matter how quickly — won’t prevent the same kind of abuse from happening to someone else. “This could happen again,” Fisher said. “If I was taking my boyfriend with me, and that guy was anti-LGBT, and he sees that it's me and my boyfriend, and he approves our rental, and lets us stay there — who's to say that he might come in with a gun and kill us after we are asleep? It's a little scary. Something like that could potentially happen.”
Airbnb repeatedly told BuzzFeed News that the company is undergoing an internal review of its platform, with a focus on issues of discrimination that have been raised over the last few months. “We're currently examining a range of ideas and look forward to announcing our next steps as the summer winds down,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
But some LGBT Airbnb customers have been lobbying the company for a feature that might have prevented the discrimination encountered by Fisher and others.
An LGBT-friendly checkbox, some say, would give hosts a way to make LGBT travelers feel welcome, and would give LGBT travelers — especially those traveling with a same-sex partner — a sense of comfort and security.
“I just feel that until we do live in an accepting society we need some sort of a way of knowing that hosts are welcoming to members of the LGBT community,” said Anna Bailey-Bearfield, one of multiple people who have reached out to Airbnb on Twitter asking about the lack of an LGBT-friendly option. “It is just about ensuring safety. This would enable us to choose to stay in places that accept us rather than having to worry or potentially face hatred during what should be a positive experience.”
Sophie Wilkinson is another traveler who says she and her girlfriend would feel more safe using Airbnb to travel if they could search listings of explicitly LGBT-friendly hosts. Wilkinson notes that the pair spend a fair bit of time sleuthing online, trying to figure out if potential hosts are LGBT-friendly.
Though it’s not clear whether Airbnb is considering adding an LGBT-friendly option at this time, the company told BuzzFeed News it will “welcome ideas from anyone who shares our commitment to creating a community that is fair for everyone.”
One gay traveler who tweeted at Airbnb asking for a gay-friendly option, Andres Almeida, was happy to hear about the company’s internal review. “I'd like to know how many guests have ever been turned down for traveling as an out queer person or couple,” he told BuzzFeed News via email.
Airbnb has been very vocal about its support for LGBT rights. During recent pride holidays, the company published multiple ads touting its support for the LGBT community as part of its #HostWithPride campaign.
However, at no point during the host registration process are new hosts asked to read Airbnb’s anti-discrimination policy. The sign-up process for hosts involves many steps, including selecting what kind of property is being listed (apartment? Yurt? Treehouse? Villa?) and what kind of amenities are available (breakfast? Hot tub? Hair dryer?), and an acknowledgement of local laws and regulations regarding short-term rentals.
But Airbnb doesn’t do a great job of telling hosts that rejecting guests based on their sexual orientation or race is discriminatory and grounds for being permanently removed from the site. That information is buried in clause 14 of the company’s 32,000-word Terms of Service, which hosts have to click through to read during the sign-up process. And even then, hosts are just reading some legalese about liability for posting discriminatory messages, not Airbnb’s full discrimination policy, which requires even more clicking to locate.
Stefan Arestis and Sebastien Chaneac, who run a gay travel site called Nomadic Boys, were among those who noted the contradiction between Airbnb’s pro-gay public relations campaign and the experience that some gay travelers have had in trying to use the site. In June, the duo tweeted at the company, asking if its public support of pride meant that an LGBT-friendly checkbox was coming soon. Here’s the exchange that ensued:
In a follow-up email conversation, Arestis said Airbnb’s response to his concern on Twitter “missed the point.”
“In countries where being gay is illegal and society really frowns on us (like India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, etc.) this is particularly important to be able to check,” Arestis said. “They say they don't tolerate discrimination in any way and hosts are open-minded. This is all fine, but if we're searching for a host to stay with in, say, Kuala Lumpur, we genuinely have no idea if we have to pretend to be mates around them or if they are OK with us being a gay couple.”
While Airbnb insists addressing discrimination on its platform is a priority right now, the company’s policies to date seem largely aspirational, designed for a more idealistic world than the one we actually live in.
Airbnb says it’s working on making its stance on discrimination “easier to understand and more visible” to hosts. But that effort comes too late for people like Buddy Fisher, Shadi Petosky, or the two men who were kicked out of their Airbnb lodgings in Galveston when the host realized they were a couple.
Buddy Fisher, for his part, said he’d be willing to give Airbnb another go. But he also felt the company could take more deliberate steps to keep LGBT travelers safe.
“When you're looking for an apartment or hotel, you have all kinds of different boxes you can check, mark preferences,” Fisher said. “If Airbnb put something like that on there, that could help.”
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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