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Richard Gray: Champion of Diversity and Inclusion

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Richard Gray has been a part of the travel world for decades. He’s owned resorts, worked with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), and is the driving force behind the Pride of the Americas celebration. As one of Fort Lauderdale’s most prominent figures, he is known for pioneering diversity in all aspects of life in the city, from politics and social reform to creating spaces and events for a wide range of visitors and residents.

Gray, who is the Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Visit Lauderdale, was honored in 2020 as one of the most influential members of the LGBTQ community by the OUT 100 list. This recognition is due in part to his decades-long commitment to inclusivity and diversity. Passport recently sat down with this energetic trailblazer to discuss his life, career, and the importance of diversity.

You’ve just been named as one of the 2020 Honorees for the OUT 100 as an Innovator and for your role in promoting inclusion, diversity, and equality. It’s an absolutely phenomenal and incredible accomplishment, so I’d love to start by knowing how we got to this point.

I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined that my name would be included in a list of the top LGBTQ+ people in the United States. To be next to Peter Cook, the CEO of Apple; the amazing journalist Rachel Maddow; Mary Trump, psychologist and author; Joe Mantello, actor and director; Robina Asti an extraordinary Trans activist, to name but a small few…It is humbling to think that my personal vision, dedication, and commitment to inclusion and diversity has made such a global difference. I have been doing this since 1991 and I absolutely love it! I tell everybody I have the best job in the world!

You’ve been honored for your work with inclusion and diversity. Can you tell me more about that?

Inclusion, in my mind, is unquestionably the most important word that you can say today globally. All individuals have the right to feel respected, accepted, and valued. I was raised by progressive parents who instilled in me from my earliest memories that it was essential to respect all people, and most all, to listen to them. It’s so important to hear their viewpoint and learn from their crossroads. This is what made me the person that I am today.

Once you have inclusion, diversity follows. This is where you recognize and respect everyone’s unique qualities and attributes. It’s about representation. It’s about bringing together so many different dynamics like Non-binary, Trans, Disabled, Drag, Lesbian, Gay, Black, Brown, Straight, and so on.

The Intracoastal Waterway Fort Lauderdale (Photo: Sean Pavone)

You’re originally from the UK. Do you think that being an outsider when you arrived in the US helped you build your understanding of the need to be inclusive and welcoming? And how did you end up in Fort Lauderdale? Was there something specific that drew you to the city?

Without a doubt. I’m British, I’m European. We have such a different mindset and outlook than Americans. I moved to New York City in 1982 when I was 24 years young. When I arrived, I was in awe that I was actually living in New York and felt this incredible concrete energy, density, and amazing modern architecture. But I was also deeply shocked to see that I was surrounded by so much bigotry. And the more cities I visited, that feeling sadly did not change. I also found most Americans to have such a poor knowledge of the rest of the world and all they wanted to talk about was themselves. It was hard to get used to being with people who would interrupt you when you were speaking and then change the subject. Where were those European manners? Where was that European etiquette? It took me a while, but I did grow to like many Americans as I began to better understand them.

I moved from London to NYC because I met a man from Fort Lauderdale. We met when I took a three-week vacation there in May of 1982. He was a wonderful man. l also fell in love with the gorgeous beach, the Intracoastal Waterway, the palm trees, and this amazing destination I am proud to call my home, Greater Fort Lauderdale.  I found Fort Lauderdale to be a most accepting and inclusive destination, even then in 1982! It was very different from all the other American cities I had visited. I knew that was where I wanted to live. But for the time being, New York City and Wall Street were to be my home until 1991.

Robert and I survived the AIDS crisis. We literally lost all of our friends to AIDS. I was one of the very early volunteers for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the ‘80s. I was Captain of Buddy Team 6 and in my free time, I dedicated my life to helping people who were in their last stages of life from AIDS. Craig Lucas, the famous American playwright, was on my team as he was writing the movie script for Longtime Companion because he wanted to research helping people with AIDS.  I experienced horrific discrimination from parents whose sons were dying. Discrimination and fear from the general public. Discrimination from hospital workers. It was gut-wrenching and pulled at my heart.

So many of the men that my team looked after were disowned by their parents because they were ashamed that their sons were gay and had AIDS, this “gay plague”. I saw so many wonderful men who just wanted love from their family, a hug, a kiss, words like I love you or please hold my hand. It was a deeply, emotionally pivotal turning point in my life, and it was the AIDS crisis that gave me the motivation, the anger, the energy, the strength, the inspiration, and also the vision to start to speak out for ALL people. Enough was enough. Inclusion was a word that resonated in my mind daily.

Soon after leaving New York you opened The Royal Palms Resort, which was known for bringing upscale luxury to gay travelers. Did you know at the time that you were creating somewhat of a new industry for a group of travelers who were otherwise marginalized in most places? Why was doing so important to you? And what drew you to the hospitality industry?

Once I opened The Royal Palms Resort in 1991 and started to become well known in the LGBT+ hospitality world, I realized that I had a platform where I could make a difference…not just here in Greater Fort Lauderdale, but globally.

I have always been an innovator. I knew the importance of pushing the envelope and creating awareness and educating all people. When I owned The Royal Palms, my innovator skills came to light. We were the most acclaimed and well-known gay accommodation not only in Fort Lauderdale or in the US, but in the world. I worked extremely hard to earn that reputation.

When I opened The Royal Palms there were no luxury accommodations for the gay community. My goal was to become the Four Seasons of the gay world. I knew customer service was key and our goal was to always exceed our guests’ expectations. I constantly re-invested the profits to make the resort more luxurious. Our linens and towels were from Frette. The showerheads were Hans Grohe. I wanted my guests to enjoy a luxurious and relaxing shower experience. Our pool furniture was from Brown Jordan. I never scrimped. I would only buy the best. Quality was critical. I wanted to create a place where gay men would feel safe and free to be who they were. In the ‘90s, most of them were not out at work; some were still married to their wives. The Royal Palms was their oasis, their sanctuary, their home in Fort Lauderdale.

My claim to fame was when you lifted the toilet seat a dendrobium orchid was floating in the toilet. It was an idea that came to me when I was in Hawaii one year on vacation. The Royal Palms was famous for its orchids…we had over 1,000 that bloomed all year. Deco Drive, a Miami TV show, filmed the Royal Palms and loved my orchids, especially the orchid in the bathroom.

The success and reputation of The Royal Palms garnered global media and helped to create the gay mecca that Fort Lauderdale became. It was a steppingstone for this region to become one of the top LGBT+ destinations in the US. Around the same time, I became the Vice Chairman of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA). Back then, no one was looking at the gay market, and I was responsible for moving their office from Key West to Fort Lauderdale. A key strategic move on my part as Fort Lauderdale then became their worldwide headquarters and synonymous with Gay travel.

A Beautiful Day at the Beach in Fort Lauderdale (Photo: ddmirt)

It was in the mid-’90s that corporate America started to pay attention to the LGBT+ travel market. They recognized the importance of this untapped market, with double income and no kids. It was a very exciting time in my life. I became a leader in the global LGBT+ travel and tourism industry. I became the spokesperson for Fort Lauderdale because I had this international platform. This fueled my passion even more, and I went on as many global travel panels as I could. I looked for any chance to speak about Fort Lauderdale because I had a vision for this destination. In the ‘90s, this city wasn’t among the hot gay destinations like Palm Springs, Miami, or Provincetown. I wanted a voice at the table, and I wanted to educate not only the travel industry, but everybody, that Fort Lauderdale was the best place to be. It was a destination that was growing and emerging and had hundreds of gay-owned and operated businesses. It was inclusive, welcoming, and safe. It had 23 miles of glorious sandy beaches and lots of sunshine. It was a winning formula.

In 1995, I sat down with Nicki Grossman, who at the time was the president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (now we are known as Visit Lauderdale). I wanted to bring travel professionals to Fort Lauderdale to show them how great it was. We ended up creating a trip for seventy travel agents and tour operators, and that’s when my involvement with the Convention & Visitors Bureau really picked up. These agents and operators saw how amazing the “Venice of America” was. Previously, they had only associated us with spring break and didn’t realize our nightlife was so good. This helped catapult the city towards becoming the LGBT+ capital of Florida and the #7 LGBT+ destination in the US.

I became the destination’s gay liaison and created a rainbow campaign for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau which launched in 1996, called Immerse Yourself. I became a spokesperson again in an organic way. I also became the first openly gay person to Chair the Greater Fort Lauderdale Marketing Advisory Committee and then I became the first openly gay businessman to be publicly appointed as Vice Chairman to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Tourist Development Council. My role as the liaison grew and grew. I sold The Royal Palms in 2008 and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau eventually hired me to work for them. We became the first Convention & Visitors Bureau with a dedicated LGBT+ department with the focus to grow LGBT+ tourism and awareness of our destination among the LGBT+ community. I define myself as a pioneer in LGBT+ travel and am still highly passionate and happy to use my platform to educate others.

You’re now the Senior VP of diversity, equality, and inclusion for Visit Lauderdale. Can you tell me a little about the role?

Pride Runway Show (Photo: Ivonne MacMillan)

I report to Stacy Ritter, an amazingly progressive and inclusive CEO. I adore her. She used to be one of our County Commissioners and was also a former Mayor of Broward County. I attribute a lot of my success to her belief in me as she and I both think alike. She is the best ally possible.

The LGBT+ market is a vibrant market that should be embraced, understood, respected, and marketed to in an appropriate manner with careful attention being paid to gender nuances.

Diversity is not just a word or a sign on the door, it is not only a way of living, it is a way of doing business—the right way!  It’s imperative that we educate, elevate, energize, and inspire ALL people.

I see inclusion as the step that leads to awareness, and awareness leads to acceptance and then that step ends discrimination. We must stand up to racism, transphobia, and homophobia. We may identify with different gender identities. We may have different religions. We may be disabled. But we are all humans, and we should all unite as one. That is inclusion. We are not free until we are all free.

You created and were supposed to host the massive Pride of the Americas celebration in the Spring of 2020, but then the pandemic hit just weeks before. I’m sure it was painful to see something you worked on for so long not happen, but do you think there were any lessons you learned during the process of trying to create the event? Do you think the spirit of the event will live on?

We started planning Pride of the Americas several years ago with the event organizers Pride Fort Lauderdale. We were all deeply saddened to cancel this event, but obviously, we had absolutely no choice under the circumstances. As we look to reschedule this phenomenal event, which is sure to be transformative and historic, we are keeping the safety and wellbeing of our visitors and residents top of mind. The great news is that there is still so much enthusiasm and momentum for Pride of the Americas, so I’m confident when the event is rescheduled, it will be a wonderful experience for all.

Greater Fort Lauderdale is a community that celebrates diversity and inclusion in every way, each and every day, where Pride is our daily way of life. Pride Fort Lauderdale and Visit Lauderdale are committed to leveraging Pride of the Americas to strengthen the LGBT+ communities and the Pride movement in the Caribbean and Latin America. Although Greater Fort Lauderdale is close in proximity to Latin America and the Caribbean, they are miles apart regarding the treatment and acceptance of the LGBT+ individuals in their communities.

The event aims to bring international attention to these inequalities while improving education and understanding of the LGBT+ community on a global scale and maintaining Greater Fort Lauderdale as the global LGBT+ destination thought leader.  It is important to unite North America, South America, and the Caribbean to share our knowledge with the private and public sectors and to unify everyone. Not everyone is fortunate to live in Greater Fort Lauderdale, where diversity is celebrated, and you are free to love whomever you choose.

You also made waves over the summer with Visit Lauderdale’s ‘Celebrate You’ campaign, which focused on diversity, not just for the LGBTQ community, but also for racial minorities, disabled people, and more. The campaign even featured straight people. As I’m sure you’ve realized, so many approaches to diversity center around just one group, whether it’s a group connected by sexuality or race, or so on. Do you feel like Wokeness and this new cultural awakening will bring about a new era of diversity? One that will focus on everyone? One where people from different walks of life are able to empathize and sympathize with others?

Diversity is so multifaceted. Diversity is about being inclusive of everyone, not to single out people, although sometimes this ends up happening. People become so focused on diversity that they in fact single out people. I do believe there is an evolution of what we call diversity. It focuses on everyone because everyone is different. Diversity isn’t just what you can physically see. There is also a diversity of thought.

The beautiful thing about what I am so fortunate to do every day is to reach people who seek new experiences through travel. One thing everyone has in common is the love of travel. And I would like to think that people who love travel are open-minded. I think everyone has the capability to empathize and sympathize with people from different walks of life. They might just be too inwardly focused, or not think enough about what others might be experiencing, or maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to travel. But traveling is one thing that can really help people see other walks of life. It most certainly broadens your horizons.

I feel there may have actually been a cultural shift this year. It seems more people are now aware of issues like racism, environmental destruction, and America’s poor standard of healthcare. What are your plans post-COVID? Do you think the world will be more willing to listen to ideas of equality than ever before? Does Visit Lauderdale have any big plans? 

I’m very proud to say that Greater Fort Lauderdale is very diverse and inclusive. Visit Lauderdale sees diversity and inclusion as a very important element, not only for attracting more visitors to our destination but in everything we do. During a time of crisis such as this pandemic, there can be more downtime to reflect. And at that time, my hope is that people are thinking about their own unconscious bias. It’s important that we all try to better treat everybody the way we wish to be treated, at being active listeners, and at opening our hearts and minds to hear opinions and stories that differ from our own.

That is a key step in bridging the equality gap. I feel more impassioned than ever to use my global platform to speak up and educate others on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and am happy to share my thoughts with anyone who will listen.

I do think the world will be more willing to listen to ideas that close the divide. We are looking ahead to being more inclusive in our marketing to all, and we’ve really seen positive reactions to our Celebrate You campaign, so this is all very positive. We have many exciting things in the works, and we cannot wait to share them with the world.

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