Arnie WeissmannI have a confession to make: On my first night in a Sandals resort, my dinner companion was a man. His name is John Lynch, and he is the consigliere in the company that runs Sandals and Beaches.

Among the scores of couples in love that shared the restaurant with us, no one stared -- as far as I could tell -- and no one noticed us. Im not outing John and myself -- he and I have become friends over the years, but at the time we were, perhaps, the only two people at the resort whose conversation was strictly business.

I had always thought that Sandals recently-dropped policy of forbidding gay couples was at odds with other behavior I had seen in Sandals management.

For instance, Butch Stewart, the chairman of the company, is, as far as I can see, color blind in a way most American executives are not. Stewart is white, and Lynch, his right-hand man, is black.

Stewart has not only employed black Jamaicans (and Hispanics) in visible positions throughout his company, but, as recently demonstrated after Hurricane Ivan, he has generously donated to fellow islanders in their times of need.

But people and the societies in which they live are complex. Stewart is Jamaican, and for all its associations with reggae and rum punch, Jamaica is in many respects a traditional society with strong ties to fundamental religions. One Sunday morning I was driving through rural Jamaica to visit the home and grave of Bob Marley, and it was slow going -- the road was crowded with people walking toward villages that had churches. When I later stopped for lunch at a country roadside restaurant, I fell into conversation with a table of people who had just attended services, and it was soon clear that many of the values and beliefs they held were quite conservative by mainstream U.S. standards.

Since then, I had always assumed that the no-gay-couples policy at Sandals was, in some way, connected more to Jamaican attitudes than to any management philosophy.

Ultimately, I suspect Stewart may get more flak from those who equate family values with policies that reject gays than he ever got from gays protesting his old policies.

I once wrote a column for America Online about a visit I made to Disney World with my then 4-year-old daughter on one of the parks Gay Days. I reported that if she noticed the men holding hands with men, or women with their arms around other women, it didnt strike her as something worth commenting about. The reaction I got from church-affiliated groups that were appalled I would take my child to the park on Gay Day was, to say the least, un-Christian in its tone and content.

The fact is that gays are present every day at Disney World. The shift in Sandals policy does not mean that it is now a more gay-friendly place -- it is, as Disney World is, a more people-friendly place. To the extent that one leads best by example, the policy Stewart instituted may have an impact -- not only on Jamaican society, but on travelers from all countries who may still be intolerant of the differences among people.

In the final analysis, by changing its policy, Sandals is first and foremost sending a message about the true meaning of the word all-inclusive.


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