I think we can all agree that the term “gay-friendly” and the increase in its usage is a good thing. It’s wonderful to see businesses that openly support and welcome LGBT customers.

Unfortunately, bigotry is still pervasive and pops up every day in places you’d never expect. So a rainbow sticker or flag in a window can go a long way in making people feel safe.

But, what exactly does the term “gay-friendly” mean when it comes to travel? Does throwing the term into your hotel or resort listing mean that every member of your staff understands what that means in practice? Should you differentiate between gay-owned and gay-friendly? Where’s the line between marketing and philosophy?

As a brand new hotel owner, these are a few of the questions that have been on my mind lately and that I thought should be answered.

Marketing vs. Reality

As much as we’d all like to believe that all labels of gay-friendly were genuine and reflected the beliefs of the owners and staff, it’s clear that the pure pursuit of the so-called Pink Dollar is real. It’s a sad reality that some businesses willy-nilly call themselves gay-friendly when the only thing they’re friendly to is the sizeable disposable income of many gay travelers.

It’s for this reason that you should not take the term at face value. Take, for example, Matt DeLava and his partner Eric Diaz, who traveled to a Cancun resort that was listed on Expedia as gay-friendly. Well, it wasn’t. The couple, who got engaged on what was supposed to be a very romantic trip, repeatedly faced bigotry, verbal abuse and blatant disrespect from everyone from a waiter all the way up to the general manager.

DeLava told his story on the Huffington Post and eventually got the resort taken off of Expedia’s gay-friendly list, but that couldn’t take away the humiliation of being told he couldn’t hold hands with his new fiancé at dinner or that the hotel didn’t allow two men to share a bed. Obviously there’s much more to being a gay-friendly hotel than a label on a website.

Gay-Owned vs. Gay-Friendly

Some businesses make a distinction between being gay-friendly and gay-owned, and it’s certainly one worth noting. Now, that doesn’t mean that only hotels owned by an active LGBT person should be considered when you travel. On the contrary – that would be quite limiting and would end up excluding some amazing accommodations.

But, if you’ve been burned in the past or are wary about the gay-friendly label, seeking out a property that’s gay-owned and operated can be a good way to ensure that you’ll be staying in an environment where you feel safe and respected. Another benefit is that these hotels often have their finger more squarely on the pulse of the local LGBT scene and can better provide local recommendations they’ve experienced firsthand.

Traveling Abroad

Much of the United States has become fairly progressive about sexuality and many countries are way ahead of us on that front. But there are still lots of travel-worthy destinations around the globe that are positively prehistoric in their social attitudes. While that shouldn’t necessarily discourage you from going there, it does mean that you may have to do a bit more digging when it comes to finding a truly gay-friendly place to stay.

Countries that are very traditional and/or religiously conservative tend to also be quite conservative about sexuality. In some places, legislation still exists that finds homosexuality to be a crime that can result in jail time or worse. And let’s face it, no trip is worth risking jail time in a foreign country. Before you visit any country that’s considered socially conservative, seek out other gay travelers who can share their experience and advice with you.

How to Know

So, it all comes down to this: Just how can you tell if a place is really gay-friendly or not? Well, there are several ways. But the point is that you should definitely go beyond checking for a “gay-friendy” label on a web listing for a place. Here are some tips that should help you find the facts:

Word of Mouth – One of the best ways to know for sure is simply to talk to other gay travelers who can give you the lowdown. Find gay travel message boards and post message inquiring about a specific hotel or hotel suggestions in your destination. And be sure to mention what matters to you – if you and your partner often hold hands or kiss in public, ask what people’s experience with PDA has been in the hotel.

Apps – There are several gay travel apps that can help you find the right place to stay, eat or drink while traveling. One is Pink Dollar - Inspired by his own experience of discrimination in Hong Kong, Paul Ramscar created a mobile app that depends on crowd-sourcing for reviews of businesses around the world.

Local Wisdom – Sometimes it’s best to ask a local as they’ll be able to tell you about the best neighborhoods to stay and will likely be familiar with the local businesses and accommodations that are as gay-friendly as they claim to be.

Seals of Approval – Check sites like Purple Roofs or Tag Approved, which are gay travel organizations that list approved hotels.

Really, being a good business owner means being “friendly” to all customers regardless of race, sexuality, age or religion. But because personal prejudices still trump business intelligence for many, it’s still necessary to find hotels that actively welcome LGBT travelers.

Before booking a room for your next dream vacation, devote some time to researching your accommodation options so that you can have the best possible time.

[Editor's Note: Jay Deratany is an attorney, movie producer, human rights activist and boutique hotel owner. He’s a frequent contributor to online publications and writes about topics ranging from adoption laws to travel tips. The Kirby, his new Saugatuck hotel and wine bar, is all about modern luxury meets old world charm. Click here to take a look and connect with Jay on Google+ today!]

Copyright 2014 Jay Deratany