Charleston: not as gay as its ads

It started as a light-hearted attempt to promote America as a gay-friendly tourist destination during the Pride London parade. Throughout its history, South Carolina has been famous for many things: slaves, prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan among others. Now, much to the fury of its senators, posters on the London Underground are proclaiming: "South Carolina is so gay".

A gay rights group has stepped into the breach in a spat over an advertising campaign designed to promote South Carolina as a favourite pink-pound destination. Officials at South Carolina Pride were forced to respond after the state government said it was reneging on a contract to pay for posters already on display at two central London Tube stations, as result of objections by a leading state politician.

South Carolina is one of the "so gay" US locations featured in the poster campaign, along with places such as New Orleans, Las Vegas, Boston and Washington DC. The posters were produced by the advertising company Out Now for a gay and lesbian travel agency, AMRO Worldwide. With a picture of an antebellum plantation house and an avenue of oak trees with hanging moss, the poster says simply, "South Carolina is so gay", before exhorting would-be tourists to explore such attractions as its Civil War history, its golf course and its "gay beaches".

While South Carolina likes to project an image of southern hospitality, the notion that it especially likes gay and lesbian travellers did not sit well with everyone, least of all Senator David Thomas who, upon hearing of the posters, raised an instant ruckus and ordered an audit of the tourism department. Suddenly the Palmetto State is looking not quite so welcoming, for homosexuals anyway. Not only has one official in the tourism office resigned, but the state legislature has said it no longer has any intention of paying the $5,000 (£2,500) it was charged to be featured in the "so gay" campaign.

That was too much for Ryan Wilson, the director of South Carolina Pride. The group has already re-jigged its website to announce a fundraising effort to collect the missing $5,000 and send a cheque to London forthwith. It is running under the tag line, "South Carolina WILL BE so gay", on the grounds that, by current evidence, it hasn't got there quite yet.

Mr Thomas, a Republican, says he is speaking for fellow Carolinians who "will be irate when they learn that their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent to advertise our state as 'so gay'". Never mind if the $5,000 fee is barely a fraction of the state's annual tourism promotion budget of $10.5m. "It shows bigotry," responded Mr Wilson. "I don't want to be a pawn in someone's re-election campaign." He is confident that his group will be able to pay the fee quickly. "Our hope is that our community can step in, take the high road and do the right thing," he added.

Support for Mr Thomas has come from the office of the Governor, Mark Sanford. A spokesman said the request to be included in the London campaign was made without proper approval and that tax dollars should not be used for ads "that promote any group with a particular social or political agenda".

But targeting travel advertising – towards gay people, the retired, families and so on – is a tried and tested strategy. London is one of the capital cities which invests heavily in attracting gay and lesbian visitors from overseas, partly because of their spending power. A recent study revealed the combined earning power of gay men and lesbians in Britain was £81bn last year.

Mr Thomas has also claimed the London posters were misleading. In truth, while Atlanta and Boston may seem obvious candidates for a "so-gay" poster campaign, South Carolina does not. Gay tourists, he suggested, may feel a bit let down (even without hearing his political views). "They'll get off the plane and say, 'Where are the gay beaches?' and no one will know what they're talking about," he added.

But Mr Thomas and the Governor have embarrassed many. "It has been a classic overreaction," said Ray Drew, of the South Carolina Equality Coalition. "The whole thing has just made the state look backwards and homophobic, and that is the opposite of what the ad intended."

Five reasons to visit South Carolina...

Charleston

America's most intact colonial city, languid and charming. Only Savannah in neighbouring Georgia can compete.

Food

Magical Dixie dishes, influenced by French, Spanish, Caribbean and African kitchens. Oysters and okra. Pecans are good too.

Myrtle Beach

Warm, sandy beaches (60 miles of 'em) and endless golf courses.

Ambience

Spanish moss, white columns, Southern hospitality.

History

Early colonists, plantations, Civil War battlefields.

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