GRAND RAPIDS — A group of about 30 people gathered on Monday to protest a new wedding and events venue at a former Grand Rapids church where owners have a policy against hosting same-sex marriages.
Ada residents and owners of Broadway Avenue, Hannah and Nick Natale, made the “very hard decision” early this year to only host weddings at their venue between biological men and women, Hannah Natale told MiBiz.
The couple has been renovating the venue for the last four years. In recent weeks, the business has attracted attention on social media from people inquiring about the space’s inclusivity and policy toward same-sex marriages and the LGBTQ community.
“We’re not interested in everybody,” Nick Natale said when asked whether the business would cater to every couple. “We’re interested in serving our God and celebrating the love we feel he created.”
The venue highlights an ongoing tension within the services industry about inclusivity, and whether customers unknowingly contract with a business that may hold opposing views on social issues. The company’s policy also led another business owner to create a directory of LGBTQ-inclusive wedding businesses in West Michigan.
Protesters clad in various iterations of LGBTQ pride flags gathered in front of Broadway Avenue at 1140 Broadway Ave. NW on Monday as the Natales held a public 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 was married here to my wife. If we were looking for a venue here and we were still engaged, we would be interested in this place. It’s a beautiful venue and a wonderful location. It would be heartbreaking to discover that if that was somewhere 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 to trickle out from clients of Grand Rapids-based wedding photographer Liv Lyszyk, who wanted to help bring clarity to customers.
Lyszyk created an online directory of wedding businesses that are queer-owned and owned by allies who have identified as inclusive to the LGBTQ community. The directory has 95 vendors as of July 11, including retailers, photographers, venues, officiants, formal wear companies and salons. The directory focuses on mostly West Michigan vendors.
“A lot of us in the community want transparency so queer couples aren’t turned away,” Lyszyk said. “This should be a fun time for them. A few couples that have booked (Broadway Avenue) tried to back out because they have family members who are queer or people in their wedding party who are queer, so they don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”
Compiling the directory has been both frustrating and inspiring to see the support for inclusive venues, Lyszyk said.
“I’ve been surprised with how many people who have come out of the woodwork and want to be included in the directory,” Lyszyk said. “It’s been a good connection thing for me. We live in a conservative area and a conservative state, but it’s nice to see those vendors I’ve heard of before in the community say they want to be a part of this. It’s heartening to me as a queer person and a business owner.”
Jessica Krebs, another organizer of Monday’s protest, said while companies should be inclusive of everyone in the community, organizers hoped to at least raise awareness about the venue’s policy.
“The goal really is just to make people aware they exist and that they discriminate so people can know that before they decide to use their services,” Krebs said. “A lot of people have gotten into contracts with this venue not knowing they were homophobic and they backed out when they found out and didn’t get their money back.”
Hannah Natale confirmed that the venue would not issue refunds to couples who are upset about the policy.
“These couples came in and they picked the space to celebrate their own love and now they’re making it about somebody else. This is about them … not about people who are coming to the wedding,” Hannah Natale said. “If people are uncomfortable coming to a wedding here because of this then they cannot come, but we will treat them with love and kindness and they will know no difference as a guest.”
The Natales are also still considering whether to more visibly label their policy against hosting same-sex couples.
“We’re not required to have this posted anywhere and honestly this has been a very hard decision for us and we just decided this at the beginning of the year, not four years ago when we bought the building,” Hannah Natale said.
The Natales have encountered some vendors that have opted to not work with the venue based on its policy, but they said they have 32 weddings booked this year.
Nick Natale bought the former church property on the city’s west side in March of 2018 for $230,000, according to city property records.
During a May 17, 2018 Grand Rapids Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, Nick Natale told the Zoning Appeals Board that they planned to invest $1 million in renovations for the development. The Natales declined to disclose the final renovation costs as well as contractors involved with the project.
“We bought this building in 2018, it’s been a very long journey to get it to this point,” Hannah Natale said.
The venue has areas to host wedding ceremonies, as well as cocktail hours and receptions, with room for both the bride and groom to get ready, Nick Natale said. As well, they plan to host 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 in 2018 wrote letters of support for the project to the Zoning Appeals Board.
Before purchasing and renovating the former church, Hannah Natale was a wedding photographer for eight years and Nick Natale was a chef at Rockwell Republic.
“We love that it is so close to the heart of downtown. We feel like this is a different vibe to 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?”