Buddy Fisher wanted a place to stay during Austin’s Pride Festival. Then he got a message from his potential Airbnb host: “No LGBT people, please. I do not support people who are against humanity. Sorry.”
“We identified this case and immediately removed this host from Airbnb,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Discrimination has no place in the Airbnb community.”
But as it is currently written, Airbnb’s anti-discrimination policy does not explicitly bar hosts from banning guests based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, it defers to “local laws and regulations” and instructs hosts to “be familiar with the laws that apply to you and your listing.”
Airbnb appears to act swiftly after incidents of anti-LGBT discrimination are brought to its attention, but the policy could apparently do much more to prevent them before they occur.
Rae Paoletta, writing for Revelist, noticed this crucial discrepancy after transgender traveler Shadi Petosky went public with her own experience of discrimination early last month.
Petosky had chosen to notify her intended Airbnb host that she was transgender and the host denied her request, writing: “I have a 13-year-old boy going through puberty. I don’t want him to feel any discomforts in his own home.”
Airbnb terminated the host in question.
After reviewing Petosky’s case, Paoletta called Airbnb’s anti-discrimination policy “naive at best,” arguing that “deactivating accounts on a case-by-case basis doesn’t address larger issues of discrimination on Airbnb.”
For one, addressing the incidents after the fact leaves LGBT travelers with a sour taste in their mouths. Fisher told KHOU that the experience “really, really upset [him].”
“It felt like we’ve been going in the right direction but then something like this happens,” he said. “It’s like you take five steps forward then two steps back.”
For her part, Petosky brought the incident to public attention a few days after Airbnb released a video for Pride Month under the Twitter hashtag #HostWithPride.
In an interview with The Daily Dot, Petosky recommended that Airbnb have a “global nondiscrimination policy” or that it institute an orientation for hosts. Her story was widely reported, and it quickly overshadowed Airbnb’s #HostWithPride initiative.
Although Airbnb has promptly deactivated homophobic and transphobic hosts in the past, its policy still technically leaves the door open for anti-LGBT housing discrimination—in most states, at least. According to the Human Rights Campaign, only 20 states and D.C. prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In the absence of stricter local laws, Airbnb advises U.S. hosts to follow the Fair Housing Act, which, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) makes clear, “does not specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Instead, as HUD notes, the Fair Housing Act only applies to LGBT people if they are discriminated against “based on nonconformity with gender stereotypes.” A butch lesbian, for instance, could file a sex discrimination complaint but not a sexual orientation discrimination complaint. A gay man who conforms to gender stereotypes would be entirely out of luck.
Airbnb’s policy does prohibit “content that promotes discrimination, bigotry, racism, hatred, harassment or harm,” and the company clarifies on its “community standards” page that users should “not treat others differently” based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As the stories of Fisher and Petosky demonstrate, however, hosts don’t always get the memo.
Change could be coming soon to Airbnb, however, which is still the most widely used service of its kind.
Faced with widespread allegations of racial bias by Airbnb hosts—which coalesced around the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack—the company announced on June 2 that it would conduct a thorough internal review, which includes attention to its anti-discrimination policy. Former American Civil Liberties Union leader and African-American civil rights advocate Laura Murphy is assisting in the process.
A copy of the memo provided to The Daily Beast notes that Airbnb expects the review to “conclude in early September .”
“We have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination and when we become aware of it we take action,” the memo reads.
For LGBT travelers, however, reacting to discrimination is different from doing more to prevent it in the first place.