Running a business is never easy. Most days feel like you’re juggling plates. On a unicycle. That’s on fire.
You need to balance operations, finances, marketing, sales, quality control, human resources, legal, and a host of other issues competing for your attention.
But for owners that come from marginalized communities, there can be additional challenges, but also opportunities.
One such community is LGBTQ. These days, LGTBQ stories fill the news. On one hand, gay marriage has been legal in all 50 US states since 2015. On the other, Florida recently passed what’s known as the “don’t say gay” bill, greatly restricting what can be taught in schools regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, with many other states looking to follow. Similarly, Texas is trying to pass what many consider to be anti-transgender laws, again, with other states looking to create similar legislation.
Despite this environment, many members of the LGBTQ community are running businesses, hiring workers, and contributing to the US economy through entrepreneurship…truly embracing the “American Dream.”
According to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, in 2021 there were 1.4 million LGBTQ-run companies in the US, accounting for 1.7 trillion a year in revenue. Still, stories of people tearing down Pride Flags and signs (or worse) from businesses are all too common.
To get a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities LGBTQ-owned businesses face, I reached out to several here in our home state of Maine for interviews. Not everyone was willing to talk, and some felt they didn’t have much to add because their identity wasn’t part of their business or who they served.
In the end, I collected interviews with twelve businesses, both via email and Zoom calls.
Featured LGBTQ-Owned Businesses in Maine
The Third and Only Photography
Bao Bao, Zaza Cafe, Canopy Farms
Below are the questions I asked, and a selection of the answers I received.
Do you have a specific demographic you’re going after?
“I don't just want to focus on queer people because I know there are plenty of wonderful humans and plenty of stories to be told and plenty of things going on that have nothing to do with queerness, even though the world is a lot more queer than anyone would like to believe. But I am interested in just marginalized communities in general. I tried my best to document the Black Lives Matter movement, as I saw it here in Portland and here in Maine. I went to a bunch of different towns in central and Southern Maine, trying to document Maine’s part of that movement.”
“I actually have different bodies of work that cater to a couple different demographics! I have my figural prints that definitely have a queer “edge” to them, as well as cards and textiles with gay iconography and references to queer culture. I care a lot about social justice issues, so I have made some overtly political work. However, I also am a dog & cat lover, and natural forms inspire me too so I have lots of cards and work that attract animal and nature lovers of all stripes. I have letterpress birthday cards that appeal to just about anyone! The throughline is that it's all stuff that I care about – it's all me.”
“No, our underlying mission statement is to create food that is sourced with care, comes from good places, and is accessible to almost everybody…not to make something that’s so precious that it’s priced out of accessibility.”
“Humans. I love capturing all people from all different ages, races, cultural and religious backgrounds, even people whose worldviews might be different than my own.”
“I will not print for people that just don’t understand and share the same values. I don’t really get approached from the pro-life movement or Stop the Steal movement.”
“No, we like the mix of people we get. Every walk of life and we don't turn anyone away.”
“We do not. We want to serve Greek food to anyone and everyone who wants to eat it!”
“Pretty much anybody who wants a Bundt cake.”
How much is your LGBTQ identity part of your brand?
“I decided a long time ago that I would make my being gay an easily accessed part of my story and business bio. It's right there on my website and I also promote images of my LGBTQ couples that I've photographed. I don't hide them, myself, or any queerness away. However, I don't see my sexuality as something to be monetized or commoditized either. Being a gay photographer, I think it can be comforting for LGBTQ couples or individuals to know that I have a business which will not judge them– I'm a safe space.”
“Well, you know, I decided to put ‘queer owned’ in my Instagram and on my website about a year ago, which is interesting because I was still afraid of classifying myself. I was nervous about not getting business or getting business I didn't want. And then I had a moment where someone was like, well, that's the type of community I want to be part of. So I would say that the staff here all identify as queer. I think the social justice movement really is a huge part of identity. And I think the queer owned is there.”
“My identity has been a big part of the brand identity. I think for a lot of people not in my generation who are trying to start businesses, it's really hard to separate your individual person from being a mascot for the rest. And so in that way, it's like a hundred percent of the brand is built on who I am. And I do try to create a safe place for people. And so I guess it'll be hard to kind of strip it out of the brand identity at this point.”
“I would say that it's a pretty big part of my brand because it's a pretty big part of my personal identity. I bring my authentic self into my work and I think it naturally shines through.”
“Honestly, not much, other than just being gay and owning a business. I know quite a few of our customers do come in because they are gay and so they feel safe here.”
“It lives as part of our brand but does not consume it. We are a BIPOC and LGBTQ-led studio and we do our best to support and engage the underrepresented communities of all types.”
“We are our business. People have millions of choices for shopping, so we stand front and center in our shop, at our shows, and in all of our social media and marketing.”
“We've never explicitly made it a part of our brand, but we also don't make any effort to hide it.”
“Not much. But I’m my brand, so it’s there.”
Do you make LGBTQ part of your marketing?
“100%! I feel like it’s essential to market ourselves as queer videographers because we want our couples to know we exist! One of the biggest things we wanted for our own personal wedding was to hire queer vendors and we were able to hire a queer videographer and coordinator which we loved! We only hope to be able to reach those in search of that as well!”
“Occasionally I post pictures of the two of us that make our LGBTQ identity explicitly clear– mostly at the beginning of Pride Month, to celebrate the end of each season, etc. I actually have found that these posts get the most engagement with our followers, and it's always positive! Also, now that I'm thinking about it, we are going to add “LGBTQ+ Friendly” to our Google listing!” ”
“No, we don't. And part of that is that a lot of what we celebrate is dictated by Corporate. A lot of the merchandise that we sell is chosen by Corporate and none of the merchandise that we have available to us to purchase is Pride. Everything having to do with couples is Mr. and Mrs. or male and female couples. There's no visibility of gay couples in any of the retail stuff that we can buy.”
“We haven’t in the past. I mean, we say ‘Happy Pride!’ I don't think we do anything specific. We're talking about doing something this year. But there's this other part of me that's like, are we supposed to be capitalizing on pride? It's sort of an odd reality.” ”
“Not specifically. I don't really adapt the brand identity towards an LGBT audience. I keep on hearing that the people who find this place–who are attracted to it because of that part of our branding–they're already cued in. They see the signals, they hear what I'm saying.”
“Yes. I specifically have been reaching out to queer-run businesses and organizations and GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] groups in high school. I am giving a little bit more of a target email introduction and saying, ‘hey, let's work together. I'm here to help you all.”
“Our BIPOC and LGBTQ identity lives at the forefront of ‘Who We are’ in all of our RFQs/RFPs as well as interviews. It is important to us to have a great rapport with our clients and to have similar values. We have great respect for open-minded and progressive thinkers.”
“No, never have. But we are going to be part of a start up app that is launching in June that will be like a yelp for gay businesses with a friend chat element, and we do list ourselves as gay-owned.”
“We have always believed that we have the greatest potential for impact and change when we proudly represent ourselves as members of LGBTQ community, as successful, queer women.”
“I do in the sense of making sure LGBTQ people are represented and promoted in my images both on my website and in social media.”
“Sure! I normally don't go out of my way to, unless there is a LGBTQ market or its Pride month.”
Has your business faced any challenges because of your identity?
“Not at all, actually. I mean, we were able to get funding. Nothing Bundt Cakes approved us for the franchise. When I was building out our space, we had to find a contractor and the person at Corporate that does all of the construction development work was really pushing a particular contractor on me. When I did some research on this guy who was a contractor, he was very right wing, very anti-gay, pro-Trump. And I didn't want to use him, to the point where I paid $30,000 more to use [my choice] than I did from the guy that they recommended.”
“I guess a bit. In the beginning, there were local church people that came in all the time and then stopped coming in because they found out we were gay. But what can you do? I didn't start the business to tell people what to believe. Interestingly enough, a pastor of a local church came in during the whole marriage equality years to ask us our opinion. She thought as a congregation they should take a stance and as leaders in the community and a community hub…she wanted to use us as an example for support on the pulpit.”
“Since we have been in business together, interacting with the public all over the country for 25 years, we have seen a big change in how people react when they learn we are a couple. In the past, we lost sales and had the occasional unkind or disturbing interaction. It happens less. But, in the larger sense of our business, regarding policy and support in politics and legislation, we do feel invisible and less a part of the small business community than ‘mom & pop’ shops.”
“We fortunately have not had many. We select clients as much as they choose us, so again make sure that our values align. We’re also fortunate enough to live and practice in progressive cities – Portland, ME, Toronto, ON, and Los Angeles, CA – where the general communities have been wonderful to work with all-around, from contractors and sub-contractors to consultants and sales reps.”
“Occasionally being called a ‘dyke’ outside my door sometimes. Occasionally we get a mailing of a psalm from some religious group. It's almost more positive. You know, some weird people on Instagram, but we quickly block them or delete them, but I haven't felt like a target.”
“it has, I'm not aware of them. Most people have (thankfully) been super supportive and great. I think this is a byproduct of putting it all out there. Someone who is homophobic or against my being gay may decide not to contact me in the first place.”
“You know, I feel like it really hasn't. I've been really lucky. On a personal level I have a lot of support in who I am, but I think Portland also generally has a really supportive community.”
“No (or at least not that I have ever noticed). We feel lucky to live and work in a very supportive community.”
“Probably. But I try to make my identity clear before any contracts are signed so that this is not an issue.”
Have there been any opportunities specific to being part of the LGBTQ community?
“I think so, at least for me and my shop, and me as an educator. I'm going into schools and being asked to work with the students to create pride designs. There's an organization called Haystack School of the Crafts up in Deer Isle, and they collaborate with OUT Maine, which is focusing on LGBTQ youth. And so we all go up to Haystack for a weekend and I'm getting hired because I'm a queer-identified faculty member. That's been a really great opportunity, that I get to be a little bit more of a mentor; I'm kind of older and been through the roughness of the eighties and nineties. I can tell them my story and hope that can help inspire them. I think those have been great opportunities that I'm really proud to be part of.”
“Absolutely! I think that as a queer person myself, there are people within the LGBTQ community who know that I will be a safe space for them. Photography, especially wedding photography, can be such an intimate thing. With weddings you are with people on one of the most significant days of their lives. It perhaps holds a unique significance as well for the LGBTQ community as we understand how precious and hard fought the right to marry was.”
“Yeah. I mean, I think that in the big picture that’s any identity. It's a way to connect with people. And so I see a lot of other business owners in town who are LGBT and we kind of band together a little bit, or we have an understanding. I don't think that's exclusive to sexual identity. I think small business owners in general are really good at taking care of each other in a lot of ways. But I I think that sometimes it creates opportunities that might not be there just because it's like the idea of family as it were.”
“Yes. We have definitely been hired for other people‘s weddings because they identify within the LGBTQ community. To us this means the world because we understand that a wedding is an intimate party and to be hired because you feel comfortable with just really gives us a sense of purpose.”
“Opportunities like these! We are on several LGBTQ-owned business lists both regionally and nationally so often have people reach out to discuss or share our experience/process in the community. It’s been great to connect with a wider network and get to know our fellow LGBTQ peers.”
“The only opportunities seem to be situations where we are targeted by marketing and sales entities and offered “opportunities” to pay for representation in magazines or events.”
“Definitely! I love being part of Queer Makers markets and events. The sense of community is incredible!”
How do you feel about the word “queer?”
“I love it. I used to hate it. I recognize that everyone is, and probably will be for a while, in different places with the kind of cultural reclamation of the word queer. I think I'm in a unique place where right now in 2022, I am 33 years old. I grew up being called queer in a derogatory way. I grew up hearing my fellow Mainers bandy about the word queer. Oh, that's f***ing queer. I grew up with that being a bad word, being an insult, but in recent years, I feel like I have embraced that word and personally reclaimed that word. I think it is a more inclusive, more opportunity-filled identity then perhaps ‘gay’, which is what the world has labeled me as, or what I was kind of forced to label myself as for years.”
“I'm fine with the word “queer” myself as an umbrella term for those in the LGBTQ community. I use it to describe myself often enough, though I am aware that others may use it more specifically as an identity themselves. Queer for me may be an umbrella term, but for others, queer may actually represent something very personal. I also know that others may have negative feelings or associations with the word. Therefore, I think that while I am always comfortable with it myself, I also want to be sensitive to the words weight and meaning to others.”
“You know, I like it, it's funny because I identify as queer, but some would say, oh, you're just a lesbian. And I feel like lesbian is so old. I just don't know. I think queer is very open and I am open to all genders and non-binary folks. And so for me, that just feels like it keeps the door open in terms of how I identify. And so it feels more comfortable to identify as queer.”
“I don’t feel comfortable saying it. To me, I grew up in the sixties and seventies, and queer always carried a negative connotation to it. To me, it's just as bad as saying faggot. I get uncomfortable when I hear, ‘I’m queer’. Queer always has this connotation that there's something wrong. And I don't feel that there's anything wrong with being gay.”
“When I was young it was a slur. [These days] I see a lot of people of different ages kind of adapting that language as ours, it's our word again. And we're going to use it for us. And so I think that there's kind of a positive change that has been taking place around that word.”
“We love queer. Lesbian always felt like a loaded word that limited us. We are queer, and we came up in the time when we took back queer from the gay haters.
“I never use it to describe myself but I think that’s because I’m over 50. I’m okay with anything as long as it’s not preceded with an expletive or said in a venomous tone. Sometimes, with friends, you need to have a sense of humor about language.”
What’s the best way a person or a company can be an ally to LGBTQ-owned businesses?
“I think the best way to be an ally of anyone is to be supportive of the needs of that group. When trouble arrives, don’t speak for that group, let them have the mic and just agree. Sometimes you win over people in odd ways. When I moved here many people in my community had never met a gay man, and the stereotypes they thought were true went out the window as they got to know us. Those people that were homophobes before are now allies. Sometimes it takes years to get people to see and understand. Change is not always just pointing out inequity, it’s showing people over time that makes them see. Well, maybe not everyone, but I hope that is what it would take, just one conversation at a time. No judgment; ask questions and be honest.”
“It's, once again, sending business. I'm a t-shirt shop so sure, I would love to print pride stuff, but once again, when I want to support Black Lives Matter movement, I'm giving money to organizations that identify with that. And so even if I'm not someone that identifies in that community, I can completely support or send work towards certain businesses. So, to be an ally is really to see someone.”
“I think just support the community any way that you can, whether it's by patronizing a business or just just being there for someone. I've never really thought about that because I've always had support since I've come out. Friends and family have always been supportive of me. So I'm not really sure how to answer that question because I've never really had anybody not support me.”
“I think the best way someone can be an ally is by supporting us as friends and vendors but also if anyone hears that a client is looking for a queer videographer to just let us know. Sharing and spreading word that that we exist is awesome because I guess there aren’t that many queer videographers in Maine in general.”
“Just to treat the folks in the LGBTQ community the same way that you do the people in your own community. Judge us on our work ethic and work product. Don’t dismiss the anti-gay rhetoric that is still around us. It’s still fraught to be an ‘other’ right now, so acknowledging this and listening with an open mind is great.”
“I’d say first through support, second through some level of understanding and third through action. Allies exist in a broad spectrum across many demographics. While someone may not fully understand or have the bandwidth to act, having their support is a great first step.”
“The best way to be an ally is to listen more. Listen more and ask more questions.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
“As individuals, we become mascots for our businesses. So, how do we wear our personal politics? ‘Am I saying it or is the business saying it?’ or am I a private citizen, and should be quiet over here. For my business, I have to be vocal about issues because of my identity. And so I think that one of the challenges right now in this kind of climate is what's personal, what's business, what's social media, and trying to find what voice to use, where there's a real challenge and when to use your voice. There's not a good guide to that.”
“We started our business in San Francisco 25 years ago. We moved to Maine 8 years ago, and it was the best decision we ever made. It is wonderful to welcome LGBTQ visitors to our shop (more and more every year) and know that each time, they feel more welcome and a part of the community. It can be incredibly lonely to travel to locations that are not specifically LGBTQ.”
“When we moved here in 2003 and bought this building we were a bit worried about how we would be received. A small town of 1,200 and not only were we gay, but we were from ‘away’. There have been many challenges, but after almost 20 years, we are really happy to have moved here and become part of the amazing community of Brooks.”
“Just that I have found being an out LGBTQ business owner to be a blessing. While I do not monetize or commoditize my sexuality or identity, my identity as a queer person presents opportunities for connection. I have a unique perspective not only as a business, but as a person, and I try to hold that in my mind as the gift that it is.”
“I think really what [running an openly-LGBTQ owned business] does is it kind of puts a welcome sign on us and I'm proud of that. I feel like that anyone could walk through my door and feel like they're appreciated or welcomed in some ways, even if they don't quite fall into that category.”
“Just to add thank you for reaching out. Venues like yours are a great way to keep our community connected and visible, which is very important in these divisive political times.”
“I used to shy away from my LGBTQ identity in my professional work, but once I leaned into it more, I found a niche audience that appreciated my authentic work for what it is.”
What did I take away from these conversations?
My biggest takeaway was that even within a specific community, there is a huge amount of diversity and opinion.
For some, their personal identity drove a lot of the brand identity and marketing, while for others, it was almost unrelated to their business. Some people sought out business from their community, while others didn’t specifically target them at all.
The idea of openly queer businesses as a “safe space” was also a recurring theme, in some cases expanding to really any one who might feel “out of place.”
It also seemed that feelings around the word “queer” were mostly generational; Boomers and Gen X grew up when it was an insult and so tend to shy away from it, where Millenials and Gen Z see it as more of an inclusive term. It certainly rolls off the tongue easier than LGBTQ!
In the end, the experience reaffirmed what I had hoped when I started this process: I had the opportunity to interview twelve fellow entrepreneurs who were all interesting, unique, and caring.
While not everyone here agreed on how to best be an ally–from “treat us the same as any business” to “support Pride through patronage”–please consider checking out these businesses online or in person, and give them the opportunity of winning your business.
Rich Brooks is founder and president of flyte new media, a digital agency in Portland, Maine, that’s been in business for 25 years. He is a nationally recognized speaker on entrepreneurship, digital marketing, and social media.
He founded The Agents of Change, an annual conference and weekly podcast that focuses on search, social & mobile marketing. He recently co-founded Fast Forward Maine, a podcast and workshop series for growing Maine businesses.
Rich is the author of The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing, a popular and well-received book that helps entrepreneurs and marketers reach more of their ideal customers online.