ORLANDO, Fla. — Starting a business is a challenge, daunting for many, let alone those who face extra barriers just because of who they are.
“Our LGBTQ community is fierce, strong,” said Blue Star, "Supportive in terms of business, for sure. Because it’s hard.”
What You Need To Know
- LGBTQ businesses have established a Pride Chamber in Orlando
- Advocates say businesses run by LGBTQ owners run into problems getting funding
- They urge people to consider patronizing LGBTQ-owned businesses
Eight months ago, amid the pandemic, Star took over the Church Street space which housed the Orlando City Soccer Club-themed restaurant, Lions Pride.
She opened up HAOS on Church across from the historic train station, hanging pride flags alongside gas street lamps.
HAOS inside is more than a restaurant and bar, but a space for performers and a safe haven for the LGBTQ community.
As drinks splash and food whizzes out the kitchen, aerialists swing on hoops through the air and burlesque dancers sparkle and lip sync across the small stage.
"Dress however you like, be with whomever you like. Just be you,” she said. “We have to be united, create these safe spaces so people aren’t afraid.”
At 19, Star, then a beauty pageant queen, had come out to her parents. It was a “struggle,” as she felt unaccepted, and they didn’t speak for years, she said.
Then, as the woman took a stance on an anti-gay law in Georgia, she felt pushback for the first time in her young life.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow. People are not very nice,’" she said.
And though she always found acceptance working in the theater world as a dancer, then later a club promoter, a times operating as a LGBTQ business owner — and a woman — she’s encountered obstacles.
“Pushback in the community, I think it depends on which business I am,” she began. “Audio, it’s a male-dominated world and not very gay.”
“We’re talking about some demographic of people who are usually left out of the conversation most times, anyway,” said Shea Cutliff. “You’re dealing with LGBT persons, but there’s also a point of intersectionality where women are not given funding to start businesses at such a rate as men.”
Cutliff serves as a board member for the One Orlando Alliance. She also sits on advisory boards for the Gender Advancement Project, which aims to establish a trans chamber of commerce, and Divas and Dialogue, which connects the community with services from hormone therapies to HIV care.
Cutliff said that LGBTQ women, especially trans women, face extra barriers in business when it comes to funding and stigmas.
But, the community as a whole needs to be supported in terms of financial backing.
“A lot of LGBT businesses are underfunded…LGBT persons seeking funding don’t necessarily feel comfortable saying that they’re LGBT because they’re scared of missing out on funding,” she explained. “They ultimately have to play a balancing act of, 'Do they fight for their personal rights or the rights of their business?’"
In addition, Cutliff said that when lawmakers pass discriminatory laws which leave LGBTQ business owners vulnerable, some ultimately decide to pick up and take their companies elsewhere where they feel greater acceptance.
"When we’re trying to build the economy locally, that’s something we don’t want,” she said.
In order to promote LGBTQ business growth, Cutliff suggests patronizing LGBTQ-owned businesses. The Pride Chamber keeps a list of certified LGBT businesses.
Cutliff also said that denouncing discriminatory laws and public policy, not supportive of the community as a whole, is paramount.
Star said that she only made it through her business ventures with the support of other women, like the one who owns the Orlando sandwich shop Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria.
“For six months, Pom paid my power bill. She was like, 'This is going to be one thing you’re not going to think about,’” Star said, tears brimming in her eyes. “It’s women like that, LGBTQ or an ally or whatever. It’s women supporting women.”