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Originally published Monday, March 19, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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More New York hotels cater to gay travelers

In a place like New York City, what does being a gay hotel mean, exactly? The author noses around a handful of New York hotels that identify themselves as gay or gay friendly.

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NEW YORK — On a recent Saturday night at the new XL nightclub on West 42nd Street, revelers danced with abandon on a sunken floor while the DJ Manny Lehman spun a percussive house mix, lights flashed, go-go boys undulated on raised platforms and bartenders busily mixed cocktails. I'm really not the party-all-night type, but I stayed pretty late, given that my bed was a short walk away through a couple of glass doors that lead to a Manhattan hotel lobby.

Welcome to the Out NYC, whose owners have called it both the first gay hotel in New York and a "straight-friendly urban resort." Located in way west Clinton between 10th and 11th Avenues, the three-story, 70,000-square-foot hotel, the brainchild of Ian Simpson Reisner, a managing partner of Parkview Developers, has 105 rooms. The XL nightclub and bar are just off the lobby; a restaurant and other amenities are in the works.

So my question was: In a place like New York City, what does being a gay hotel mean, exactly?

To answer that, I nosed around a handful of New York hotels that identify themselves as gay or gay friendly and gave myself a bit of a history lesson in the process.

The general litmus test for a gay-friendly place is whether it is TAG-approved, a standard established by an organization called Community Marketing Inc. to identify businesses that have a nondiscrimination policy and offer diversity training for their staff members, for instance. Many hotels in New York are TAG-approved, but a few (some founded, quietly, decades ago) do more than simply assure gay guests and employees of a comfortable environment, and actively cater to gay clientele.

Since the Out is certainly the biggest, blingiest and most brazen of them all, I started there, checking in on March 3, along with my partner, Brett, and a couple of lesbian friends who could help assess whether gay-themed actually meant only gay-male themed.

We showed up separately; the women got a room right away while we had to wait almost an hour. So Out passed our secret lesbian discrimination test but lost points for not having my room ready until almost 5 p.m., despite a 3 p.m. check-in time. (It was opening weekend, so kinks were still being worked out.)

After checking in, we headed up to our room, passing areas still blocked off for construction. It felt a bit like going to a Broadway show during technical rehearsals.

But the unfinished feeling did not extend to the service. Every employee I encountered was friendly.

Our second-floor room was done in black-and-white minimalist chic. White furniture and sheets popped out against dark curtains and a black carpet. There was no closet; the storage space was in the bathroom, where a hanging rod was big enough for only a few shirts.

Pluses included a big flat-screen television mounted on the wall at the foot of the bed, room-darkening shades, a king bed with a perfect mattress and soft, pristine sheets.

Directly outside our door was the "great lawn," an outdoor expanse covered in AstroTurf with brightly colored beanbag chairs scattered about. Eventually almost all of the rooms will open or look out onto this space or one of the two other courtyards being completed. (One will feature plants and tables; the other will have hot tubs, a reflecting pool, a waterfall, cabanas and areas for sunbathing.)

The proximity of the courtyards — open to all guests — to room windows creates a sort of fishbowl effect in that people can stare in and out pretty easily. This may have some people feeling exposed while, say, sunbathing; others might not want to seem to be voyeurs.

I could hear every conversation as people walked by our door, too, though the courtyard was mostly empty during our stay. I wondered if the front desk would start getting noise complaints when the place is more crowded with late-night revelers. (Our lesbian friends won again on this point; they found earplugs on their pillows upon check-in.)

Also, since these courtyards will provide most of the common space (the lobby's lounge area is pretty small), bad weather is likely to hinder socializing.

But there's always XL for that.

The club, run by the promoter John Blair, is a 14,000-square-foot complex comprising one bar facing 42nd Street, the sunken dance floor, two more bars, a VIP seating area and a huge DJ booth.

A cabaret space with tables some nights and a giant dance party others, the club was little more than a month old but was in full swing by midnight on the night I stayed.

Watching the crowd (mixed but mostly male) I was reminded of the hotel's goal: to provide a place that is not just gay friendly but that is out and proud — or, as Reisner told me on the phone a few days after my stay, "a place that was built from the gay point of view from the ground up."

As Cristian Bonetto, a travel writer for Lonely Planet, told me in a recent email, some gay travelers seek "an all-out, proactive'green light' to be themselves," and the Out surely offers this.

Reisner said he specifically wanted to do something better and more unapologetically gay than the smaller gay inns of yesteryear.

Below are some thoughts on a few of those, and the other places in New York I recently checked out.

The Colonial House Inn, 318 West 22nd Street.

WHAT'S GAY ABOUT IT: A doorbell rang as Tony Breen, the manager, showed me around one afternoon. "We have a group of boot fetishists staying here," he said. "That's them." A trio of middle-aged men, two of them in boots that stopped above their knees, entered. So there's that, and the clothing-optional rooftop deck, which helped give the inn a palpable gay — yet not seedy — mood while I was there for a brief visit. The 1850 town house was the home of Mel Cheren, who helped start the downtown disco Paradise Garage in 1977 and donated space in his house in 1982 to Gay Men's Health Crisis, an HIV and AIDS service and advocacy organization that at the time was still fledgling. WHAT YOU WILL FIND INSIDE: Colonial House has 20 rooms and two suites. Ten rooms have private baths and the others share, but the hallway bathrooms I saw on my visit were spotless, so even someone averse to shared bathrooms might be OK here. There is a small breakfast area off the main entrance, where homemade muffins are served daily.

THE TAKE-AWAY: Colonial House Inn offers an interesting gay history and a mixed clientele. It often fills up, so plan ahead. Rooms are $130 to $385.

GEM HOTEL CHELSEA, 300 West 22nd Street.

WHAT'S GAY ABOUT IT: Gem markets itself on gay travel websites, but plenty of its guests probably don't know that. It's simply a boutique hotel, common in New York. But this particular outpost (there are Gems in Midtown and SoHo also) is in the heart of Chelsea and, despite the constant migration northward of New York's gay epicenter to Clinton (also known as Hell's Kitchen), Chelsea ain't over. From old-school haunts like Rawhide to younger hangouts like Boxers and Gym, there are plenty of gay bars and gay-friendly businesses within walking distance. WHAT YOU WILL FIND INSIDE: All the rooms have one bed, a full or queen, so the place is really designed with the single traveler or couple in mind. Our room was tiny but clean, with a small closet, a soft mattress and a not-too-small bathroom. A flat-screen television was mounted on the wall at the foot of the bed, hanging over the smallest desk I've ever seen. There is a rooftop deck and, in the basement, a teeny gym and business center.

THE TAKE-AWAY: An example of the many gay-friendly boutique hotels in Manhattan, the Gem in Chelsea is cute and modern and sits in a prime location, close to many gay hangouts and only a block from the nearest subway, which will quickly transport you to Hell's Kitchen. Rooms are $149 to $349.


WHAT'S GAY ABOUT IT: Listed in Lonely Planet as the first gay inn in Manhattan, Incentra was for a long time owned by a gay couple who periodically closed floors for sex parties, said Jeff Pica, the current manager. That was in the 1970s and '80s, and today the 11-room guesthouse, which comprises two town houses in Greenwich Village, draws a mixed crowd, though it is predominantly a destination for gay men (sans the sex parties).

WHAT YOU WILL FIND INSIDE: Each room has its own design and its own bathroom. I spent a night in "the stable," a rustic corner room, half subterranean, that was once part of a real stable. Getting in the door was a little cumbersome given the partly underground aspect of it; I had to unlock the door while partway down a tiny staircase. Our room, which faced Eighth Avenue, had charm, though, with simple wooden furniture, a kitchenette and extras like a ceramic rabbit, a basket of dried ferns and a wagon wheel propped up against one wall. What it did not have was much natural light.

THE TAKE-AWAY: Incentra Village House, at West 12th Street, is not a bed-and-breakfast, so the experience can be isolating, especially if you stay in the second town house. At the main house, guests sometimes gather spontaneously around the baby grand piano, Pica said. The overall experience felt like renting a small apartment. Rooms are $169 to $309.

CHELSEA MEWS GUESTHOUSE, 344 West 15th Street.

WHAT'S GAY ABOUT IT: There were no guests present when I dropped by this gay, male-only, clothing-optional guesthouse one day, so one of the owners, Gary Rice, was able to show me all eight rooms, starting with a master suite with a private bathroom and claw-foot tub. The clothing-optional aspect, more common around the pools and hot tubs of gay vacation spots like Key West, Fla., seems odd in an urban town house, but contributes to the somewhat libertine aura here. There are no check-in or checkout times, either, adding to the unrestrained feel of the place.

WHAT YOU WILL FIND INSIDE: The guest rooms and the double living room are decorated in early American style, and the house has the feel of an antiques shop (a cramped one), with paintings and trinkets galore. In one of the common areas, a massage table looks out of place beneath an aged-looking chandelier and alongside a piano. Except for the master suite, guests share hallway bathrooms that looked only decent.

THE TAKE-AWAY: Chelsea Mews is a niche destination — with hosts who like to interact with their guests — that is definitely not for the prudish. But in a city where businesses like the West Side Club — a gay sauna — and the Unicorn (pornographic) video store are a short walk away, a clothing-optional guesthouse may not be so out of place, after all. The prices may be another draw: Rooms are $125 to $200.

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