Irish gay author Jamie O’Connell discusses LGBTQ+ allyship in the hospitality industry

Jamie O’Connell highlights the importance of LGBTQ+ allyship in Ireland’s hospitality industry, now more than ever.

A man in a suit with a half-smile
Image: Aidan Quigley -

In 2015, Jamie O’Connell, the best-selling author of ‘Diving For Pearls’ and a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, and his former partner had an uncomfortable experience staying in a family-run B&B in rural Portugal.

Here, Jamie O’Connell voices the difficulty that can come with staycationing in Ireland as an LGBTQ+ individual even today, six years after the marriage equality referendum.

It is July 2021. For many years, I have been an unapologetically ‘out’ gay man. I no longer fumble when I introduce my partner to strangers. I feel far beyond the sexual shame of my teens. However, as we come out of lockdown and I look to book a holiday for us both, I find myself facing an area of discomfort I have never entirely resolved as a gay man.

As with everyone else, it has been impossible to know what to do about travel this year, whether to hold out for a late foreign trip or to resign myself to another summer staycationing. Because I have left it so late, Irish hotels are pretty much all booked out. Of course, hotels are ideal for Irish staycations when there is no indoor dining; you are guaranteed a meal, even on a wet day! Otherwise, there is a risk you might be sitting in an Airbnb eating fish and chips on the bed.

There is a bigger area of concern for me in not being able to book a hotel. What I love about hotels is the blank anonymity of the experience. The young girl or guy on reception is not the owner; if you ask for a double room as a gay couple, there is no flash of interest or acknowledgement. However, with guesthouses and B&Bs, I am hesitant. Though legally, one feels on safe ground in Ireland booking a double room, I always wonder about how welcome we will be made feel. My concern arose from a holiday I had in Portugal six years ago.

In August 2015, my former partner and I flew to Lisbon. After a fantastic long weekend in the city, we were to take a road trip down the largely unspoiled west coast, travel across the Algarve, have a night in the wonderful traditional town of Tavira, before flying home from Faro Airport. However, ever searching for something unique to see, we decided one night to take a detour inland from Vila Nova de Milfontes to see the Alqueva Dam, the biggest in Europe, a rival to the Hoover Dam in the USA.

Due to the length of the drive, we were forced to move away from the ‘safe’ tourist havens and book a guesthouse in a town local to the dam. It was after the door of the guesthouse opened, and we were led through the hallway, I realised what a challenge it could sometimes be, even in Europe, to be an LGBTQI+ traveller.

Lining the hallway were images of the Virgin Mary, as well as a series of crucifixes. The guesthouse was run by a clearly religious woman and her son, both with poor English. Despite having booked a double room online, both led us to a twin bedroom. I, forever the people-pleaser, told my partner to say nothing, that we would just tolerate it for one night and flee back to the safe hotels on the coast. However, my partner (rightly) flagged that was not the room we booked, and after some confusion, we were finally given a double room.

I hardly slept that night. I felt the knot of nerves in my sternum. My partner and I became giggly, whispering in our room together, trying to break some of the awkwardness we felt. He joked about the classic film based around a motel with a son and his mother (the one with a memorable shower scene) till I felt I had to double-check the door. The following morning, we left at the crack of dawn, bleary- eyed, not bothering with breakfast, instead going to a café in the town.

Now, of course, beyond the confusion of the room and the excessive amount of religious imagery, we had no way to know how they felt about us. All I knew was, from the moment we were taken to a twin room, I did not want to stay there.

Was some of this angst simply in my head? Maybe. As I lay in bed, not sleeping, I wondered if the mother and son were in their own rooms, feeling their guesthouse was being besmirched by two men in bed together. The only thing that makes me think otherwise is the undeniable online booking for a double room. There are receipts, Karen!

Of course, I understand this issue is minor compared to what it must’ve been like to be a gay traveller two decades ago before Europe legislated and the law supported our rights as consumers. When I think of the challenges of LGBTQI+ people in other countries, where to be gay is a life-threatening situation, I know my quibble is comparatively small. Yet, the road to equality continues, even in liberal Europe.

Now, it is summer 2021. I find myself back in the predicament of booking a guesthouse if my partner and I want to have a staycation before the summer is out. I know Irish law means we will not be ‘turned away from the inn’. Yet, it’s impossible to know how welcome we truly are beyond the polite smile as we arrive. Perhaps it might be asking too much, but if our allies in the world of guesthouses humoured me and added a small note to their listings, saying LGBTQI+ friendly, or simply a little rainbow, I think I would find it much easier to push the ‘purchase’ button.

Jamie O’Connell is the best-selling author of Diving for Pearls (Doubleday, June 2021). He runs an online creative writing course through Blackwater Writing.

Follow Jamie O’Connell on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter or Facebook.

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