GRAND RAPIDS — A group of about 30 people gathered Monday to protest a new wedding and events venue at a former church in Grand Rapids where the owners have a policy against hosting same-sex weddings.
Ada residents and owners of Broadway AvenueHannah and Nick Natale, made the “very difficult decision” earlier this year to only host weddings on their site between biological males and females, Hannah Natale says MiBiz.
The couple have been renovating the premises for four years. Over the past few weeks, the company has drawn attention on social media from people inquiring about the space’s inclusivity and policy towards same-sex marriages and the LGBTQ community. .
“We’re not interested in everyone,” Nick Natale said when asked if the company would cater to all couples. “We are interested in serving our God and celebrating the love we believe he has created.”
The venue highlights an ongoing tension within the service industry over inclusivity and whether customers unknowingly contract with a company that may have opposing views on social issues. Company policy also led another business owner to create a directory of LGBTQ-inclusive wedding businesses in West Michigan.
Protesters dressed in various iterations of LGBTQ pride flags gathered in front of Broadway Avenue at 1140 Broadway Ave. NW on Monday as the Natales hosted an open house for their new venue.
“We cannot accept this blatant act of homophobia and discrimination,” said Meghan Cytacki-Lewis, one of the protest organizers. “I live here and I married my wife here. If we were looking for a place here and we were still engaged, we would be interested in this place. It is a beautiful place and a wonderful place. It would be heartbreaking to find out that if this was where we wanted to get married, they wouldn’t accept us just because of who we are.
A call for transparency
Meanwhile, information about Broadway Avenue’s wedding policy recently began rolling in from clients of Grand Rapids-based wedding photographer Liv Lyszyk, who wanted to provide clarity to clients.
Lyszyk has created an online directory of gay-owned and ally-owned wedding businesses that have identified as LGBTQ-inclusive. The directory had 95 vendors as of July 11, including retailers, photographers, venues, celebrants, formal wear companies and salons. The directory primarily focuses on western Michigan vendors.
“A lot of us in the community want transparency so gay couples aren’t turned away,” Lyszyk said. “It should be a fun time for them. A few couples who booked (Broadway Avenue) tried to pull out because they have family members who are gay or people in their marriage who are gay, so they don’t want them to feel bad about it. ‘easy.”
Compiling the directory has been both frustrating and inspiring to see the support for inclusive places, Lyszyk said.
“I’ve been surprised how many people have come out of the woods wanting to be included in the directory,” Lyszyk said. “It was a good connection for me. We live in a conservative area and state, but it’s nice to see these vendors that I’ve heard of before in the community saying they want to be part of it. It’s encouraging for me as a queer person and a business owner.
Jessica Krebs, another organizer of Monday’s protest, said that while businesses should be inclusive of all members of the community, organizers hoped to at least raise awareness of the venue’s politics.
“The point is really to make people aware that they exist and discriminate so people can know before they decide to use their services,” Krebs said. “A lot of people entered into contracts with this venue not knowing they were homophobic and they backed off when they found out and didn’t get their money back.”
Hannah Natale has confirmed that the venue will not issue refunds to couples unhappy with the policy.
“These couples came and they chose the space to celebrate their own love and now they’re doing it about someone else. It’s about them…not the people coming to the wedding,” he said. said Hannah Natale “If people aren’t comfortable coming to a wedding here because of that, they can’t come, but we’ll treat them with love and kindness and they won’t see any difference as a guests.”
The Natales are also considering whether to more prominently label their policy against hosting same-sex couples.
“We are not required to post it anywhere and honestly it was a very difficult decision for us and we decided that at the beginning of the year, not four years ago when we bought the building” , said Hannah Natale.
The Natales met with vendors who chose not to work with the venue due to its policy, but said they have booked 32 weddings this year.
Nick Natale bought the former church property on the city’s west side in March 2018 for $230,000, according to city property records.
At a May 17, 2018 meeting of the Grand Rapids Zoning Appeals Board, Nick Natale told the Zoning Appeals Board that he planned to invest $1 million in renovations for the development. The Natales declined to disclose the final renovation costs as well as the contractors involved in the project.
“We bought this building in 2018, it’s been a very long road to get here,” said Hannah Natale.
The venue has spaces to host wedding ceremonies, as well as cocktail parties and receptions, with room for the bride and groom to get ready, Nick Natale said. Additionally, they plan to hold a range of other events that members of the LGBTQ community are welcome to book, such as business meetings and birthday parties, he added.
Surrounding businesses and the West Leonard Business Association wrote letters of support for the project to the Zoning Appeal Board in 2018.
Before buying and renovating the old church, Hannah Natale was a wedding photographer for eight years and Nick Natale was a chef at Rockwell Republic.
“We love that it’s so close to the heart of downtown. We think it’s a different vibe than other wedding venues in the area, so we wanted to bring something new to the people of Grand Rapids,” Hannah Natale said. “We love love, so what better industry to get into?”
Never miss the biggest stories and breaking news from MiBiz. Sign up to receive our reports straight to your inbox every weekday morning.