photo by Mariah Grant
Two Asheville women say they're mad as hell about their treatment by a Madison County ski resort, and they're not going to take it anymore.
Laurel Scherer, 35, grew up an Army brat; after high school, she attended the Air Force Academy. Eight years later, Capt. Scherer left the service and her job as chief of technology integration for Air Force public affairs at the Pentagon. In other words, she's not a woman to be trifled with.
Virginia Balfour, 49, is a part-time physical therapist. Like many health-care professionals, she conveys a sense of compassion bolstered by a basic toughness. And like any good P.T., she's not squeamish about twisting a few arms.
Together, the warrior and the healer make a formidable pair. The north Asheville couple, who were married in Massachusetts on Oct. 15, are ticked off because Wolf Laurel Ski Resort in Mars Hill recently terminated its business relationship with Scherer's company, All Terrain Images, which has done action photography at the resort for the past two ski seasons. Balfour assists Scherer in the business.
The couple, interviewed in their home by Xpress, say the break resulted from their decision to share the news of their nuptials with the rest of the world. The wedding announcement appeared in the Nov. 6, 2005 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times, one of a handful of newspapers in the state -- and hundreds nationally -- that now run same-sex marriage announcements.
Wolf Laurel co-owner Rick Bussey did not reply to a detailed message left on his personal cell phone, and neither he nor co-owner Orville English responded to e-mail sent to the resort. Contacted by phone, a public-relations official at the resort said later that both men had declined to comment.
But Scherer and Balfour aren't the least bit reticent about discussing the affair, which they say caught them flat-footed. "We joked about it before we ran the announcement, but we never thought this would happen," Scherer reveals.
And they've now embarked on an ambitious grassroots campaign to spotlight their plight that has reverberated around the globe. Scherer knows something about how to manipulate cyberspace. Her primary job at the Pentagon was overseeing the Air Force's main Web site, Air Force Link, which serves as the hub for more than 1,000 Air Force sites worldwide. In 2002, the online edition of Federal Computer Week cited Scherer and her staff for their major overhaul and redesign of the site in 2000, which boosted the number of hits to more than 2 million per week.
Get it in writing
According to Scherer, All Terrain had an oral agreement allowing her to take and sell action photos of skiers and snowboarders in exchange for the ski resort's free use of her photos in its marketing materials.
But on Nov. 29, as Scherer was setting up her business's space in the lodge in anticipation of the ski season, she says she was informed that she could no longer operate at Wolf Laurel. At first, she reports, the owners told her they needed All Terrain's 60 square feet of lodge space to sell real estate, using a counter Scherer herself had built. Scherer says she offered to pay rent, be moved elsewhere, or even give the resort a percentage of her sales in order to stay, but all offers were turned down.
Puzzled, the women say they began asking more questions and learned that news of their wedding had upset the owners, whom Scherer and Balfour say voiced concern that the resort, which caters heavily to church groups, would lose business. Wolf Laurel had appeared to be happy with the arrangement, says Scherer, telling her they were looking forward to having her back and even advertising the service in this season's brochure (and, until the story broke, on their Web site).
The city of Asheville is one of a handful of municipalities in North Carolina prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. State law offers no such protection. In addition, the women also have no written contract or agreement with the resort -- a foolish move on their part, they now admit.
"If we made any mistake, it was not having something in writing," says Scherer.
At the moment, the two women have sent the resort -- which continues to use Scherer's photos in its brochures, Web site and billboard advertising -- a letter demanding $9,000. At press time, the couple said they'd received no response. All Terrain says it will lose about $25,000 in projected income from work at the resort this winter.
In the meantime, Scherer and Balfour are scrambling to generate income to carry them through to the start of rafting season, when they'll resume identical work shooting photos of rafters and paddlers on the French Broad River for a local river-expedition business.
Spotlight on discrimination
They're also making sure their story gets plenty of play. It was featured on WLOS' Jan. 10 broadcast, and it made the front page of the next day's Asheville Citizen-Times, generating the most traffic on the paper's Web site by a substantial margin.
But even months before that, they'd sent an e-mail detailing their story to nearly 100 friends and acquaintances, telling them how to contact Wolf Laurel if the tale spurred them to action. That e-mail has now made its way around the globe and onto liberal and gay-and-lesbian blogs throughout cyberspace.
"We've literally had responses from around the world -- from the United Kingdom, Australia, just all over," says Balfour. "It's amazing how it has spread."
The women aren't using the word "boycott," but they say they hope Wolf Laurel and other like-minded businesses get the message that discrimination is wrong -- and prohibiting a whole class of people from making a living may not be good for a company's bottom line. Scherer says the pressure of keeping one's sexual orientation a secret is the reason she left a promising career in the Air Force in the first place.
"We are not willing to subscribe to a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," says Balfour, calling it "an attempt to force gay people back into the closet. If we stay in the closet, we are letting bigots get away with their rhetoric and their discriminatory practices. If we stay silent, we are letting these people assume that they are in like-minded company way too often, that they are always in the majority, and that it is acceptable to discriminate. In the pursuit of acceptance and equality, gays and lesbians must be visible."