Same-sex couples discover Vermont’s queer-friendly B&Bs
Willie Docto, Left, and Greg Trulson
Wandering around the Moose Meadow Lodge in Waterbury, you may think you’ve stumbled on one of Teddy Roosevelt’s garish, utterly un-P.C. hunting camps: old-school fishing gear, taxidermied black bears, moose-head mounts. Hang out a bit longer, though, and you may start seeing another, seemingly incongruous likeness to a Provincetown resort.
Willie Docto, 45, and his partner Greg Trulson, 53, are the co-owners of the lodge, which they describe as one of at least 15 gay-owned bed-and-breakfasts in the state. Located just a few miles from downtown Waterbury, the 86-acre property offers a slice of pastoral Vermont to the well-heeled, nature-inclined tourist, gay or straight. That is, when the former opts to come here rather than heading for a more famously queer-friendly destination, such as Philadelphia or Montréal.
On a recent afternoon, Docto and Trulson chat with a reporter on the lodge’s stately front porch. Both wear monogrammed company T-shirts, and their professionalism matches that of the most doting concierge. Docto, slender and fit, is attentive and businesslike. Gray-haired Trulson radiates party-host enthusiasm. “A lot of people come up here just to decompress and unwind,” he explains. “We’re three hours from Boston, two from Montréal . . .”
That may be a pretty standard hospitality line in Vermont, but Moose Meadow Lodge defies easy categorization. Its utilitarian, retro interior is offset by an oddly precise and focused attention to aesthetics. A downstairs “powder room,” for instance, has been retrofitted with real birch trees to mimic a porch balcony; to complete the illusion, its walls depict a woodsy winter landscape, and little porcelain animals perch atop the toilet tank. Imagine a Martha Stewart installation at New York’s Museum of Natural History. “Each [item] is a piece of art,” Trulson asserts. “But it’s functional art.”
Like most B&B owners, Docto and Trulson daydreamed about their lodge while working other jobs: Docto is a professional freelance violinist and event organizer, Trulson a former IBMer. Neither had run an inn before . . . but they’d stayed in plenty, and knew what kind of look they had in mind. “When we started this, we knew we wanted to do something different,” Trulson explains. Docto adds that they were aiming for an “old-fashioned home-stay” ambiance. He characterizes the vibe at Moose Meadow Lodge as “rustic redefined” — a.k.a. outdoorsy, but not downright rough.
As it turned out, the couple’s timing was impeccable. In 2000, just two years after Moose Meadow Lodge opened, Vermont passed the nation’s first civil-union law — a statute granting the equivalent of marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Not surprisingly, that turned Moose Meadow and other queer-friendly inns into prime spots for ceremonies and receptions. Trulson even became certified as a justice of the peace, in part to serve his guests better. “For a couple of years, with civil unions, we had a niche,” Docto reflects. “Everyone flocked to Vermont.”
The honeymoon didn’t last. Soon Canada and Massachusetts passed same-sex marriage legislation, and New Jersey legalized civil unions. As a result, Vermont lost its status as the primo destination for gay and lesbian couples looking to tie the knot. In 2000, 1709 civil-union ceremonies were performed in the state; last year, the number fell to 427. The percentage of queer guests at Moose Meadow Lodge, which draws most of its clientele from New England, has declined accordingly, from 70 percent at its heyday to the current 50 percent. The majority is female.
Regardless of the numbers, say Docto and Trulson, their place has always offered a unique experience for gay and lesbian clients. In 2003, Docto founded http://www.gayvermont inns.com, a consortium of such establishments around the state, to recapture the elusive queer market. That was a savvy business move: According to the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association of America, nearly half of all gay and lesbian tourists indicate gay-friendliness is an important consideration for trip planning. “We started [the website] because gay-friendly properties and businesses in Vermont realized that, all of a sudden, our niche was gone,” Docto explains.
Still, defining the “gay B&B” can be a tricky task. For example, while Docto and Trulson advertise on such gay-tourism websites as http://www.purpleroofs.com, their own site doesn’t mention sexual orientation. In fact, the main picture on its “wedding and civil union” page features a heterosexual couple. While Moose Meadow Lodge’s blurb on the Vermont Department of Tourism’s site reads, “This is no ordinary Vermont log cabin,” it doesn’t make an explicit pitch for gay and lesbian travelers, merely suggesting that the B&B is “perfect for weddings and civil unions.” That makes sense, since the men are more concerned about making straight guests feel comfy at the lodge.
Other gay Vermont innkeepers take a similar tack. Darrick Pitstick, a San Francisco transplant who has co-owned the Stowe-based Timberholm Inn since 2001, hosts a lot fewer civil-union ceremonies than he used to — 10 to 15 per year, he says, as opposed to 70. But setting aside business motivations, he believes a queer-only marketing approach would be offensive. “If we were African-American, we wouldn’t say, ‘This is an African-American place to come to,’” notes the innkeeper. “I think that’s inappropriate. You know, equality comes when [gay and lesbian representation] doesn’t become an issue, and it just is . . . We just meld into the fabric of society.”
Moira Donovan and Mary Bouvier, lesbian co-owners of Jeffersonville’s Donomar Inn, suggest that their queer-friendliness is just one part of a multi-pronged marketing strategy. The couple opened their digs in 2003, three years after Vermont’s civil-union law was passed. That could explain why, even as they attempt to attract more gay and lesbian clients through queer-oriented advertising venues, they aren’t trying to make their place a queer destination per se.
“People are looking for the rural when they come here,” notes Donovan, adding that she and Bouvier are planning to expand their business to include bike tours and wellness retreats. “They pretty much know they’re not going to have the clubs open until two in the morning.”
“I think people are more attracted to the inn overall, and the location,” adds her partner. “I don’t necessarily see that gays or lesbians stay here just because we are lesbians.”
Neither does the State of Vermont, apparently — its Department of Tourism and Marketing makes no mention of gay or lesbian tourism. Compare that with an overtly queer-friendly destination such as Montréal, whose city website offers a “Gay to Z” directory.
Bruce Hyde is Vermont’s commissioner of Tourism and Marketing. He confesses to not knowing about gayvermontinns. com, and he doesn’t have any plans to promote gay or lesbian tourism. But the administrator, who voted for civil-union legislation as a Republican House rep, says the lack of targeted promotion isn’t a deliberate slight. At $4.2 million per year, Hyde points out, Vermont’s tourism budget is one of the smallest in the country. He adds that the state doesn’t officially promote weddings — gay or straight.
That might rub some gay business owners the wrong way. But not the proprietors of Moose Meadow Lodge. Even a gay-tourism champion like Docto isn’t bitter about the apparent lack of state support. Though he established gayvermont inns.com to fill a marketing void, he says he recognizes there are “other niches in the state that need help.”
For his part, Hyde says he’d be willing to collaborate with Vermont’s gay innkeepers. “We have a granting program that’s open to all organizations,” says the commissioner. “If there is an organized association that would like to go out and market that niche, I’d be very encouraged to really look at that. I know it’s a big business and a significant sector of the population.”
Docto notes that he’d be open to that, as well.
For now, there’s plenty of work to do at Moose Meadow Lodge. In addition to running the inn, both Docto and Trulson are engaged in big side projects. When he’s not planning Burlington’s annual Vermont Brewers Festival, Docto tours as a violinist; Trulson sells artisan wicker furniture, some of which is on display at the lodge. Once in a while the couple finds time to duck out for a night at a neighboring B&B. And once in a blue moon, they treat themselves to a Caribbean cruise. “So someone will make our bed,” Docto declares with a laugh.
Does their relationship ever feel the stress that can afflict many a B&B-based romance? No way, answers Docto. While he concedes that the prospect of owning a business with a significant other is “definitely a risk,” he also likens the process of renovating the Waterbury lodge to raising a child. “[Greg and I] work really well together,” he insists. “Because we know each other so well, there’s no tension that might occur with other couples who own a business together, whether it’s a bed-and-breakfast . . . or a print shop.”
***********Fittingly, this particular afternoon happens to be perfect for lovebirds. As Docto and Trulson, who had their civil-union ceremony in 2001, recline on the porch, bluejays soar over a nearby field of white and purple wildflowers; trout surface in an adjacent pond as if they wanted to become dinner. With the exception of modern amenities like a glass-eclosed gazebo nestled in a distant stand of pine trees, everything about this property appears to reflect 19th-century country-inn mores.
As it turns out, this couple’s relationship has an interesting history of its own: The men met 10 years ago in West Virginia — at a B&B, of course. To hear them tell it, their good fortune has rubbed off on more than a few other couples. Trulson claims that marriages have been saved at Moose Meadow Lodge. Other guests have wed on the premises, only to make return visits — with their children. And last year, he reports, one couple requested that their ashes be spread on lodge property when they die.
“It was like, ‘How did we do that?’” Docto chimes in. “‘All we did was serve you dinner!’”
By mid-afternoon, new guests begin to stream in. As Docto and Trulson gaze down at the Mad River Valley from their deck chairs, a red Ford Mustang convertible cruises up the driveway. Just as fast as they slipped into reminiscence, the innkeepers snap back to attention. A minute later, two well-dressed, starry-eyed women ascend the grand wooden staircase.
Next year will be the lodge’s 10-year anniversary. How long do the innkeepers plan to keep up this 24/7 hospitality? “Until I’m on a walker and he’s on a respirator,” Trulson declares, taking in the sylvan scents with an easy, contented breath.