Reprinted from Orlando Sentinel,April 15, 2002
Parliament House continues to prosper
By Kelly Brewington and Jeff Kunerth
Burly men in leather and metal studs dance to pulsing techno music beside middle-aged couples in polo shirts and wire-rimmed glasses. Guys in their 20s clad only in their underwear and tennis shoes gather at the bar.
Models strut the runway at the poolside fashion show, and gay and heterosexual couples alike jam the theater where a 200-plus-pound man in a wig and heels lip-syncs Patty Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade.”
With a clientele that ranges from the stereotypically outrageous to the innocuous neighbor next door, the Parliament House has been an institution in Orlando’s gay community for nearly three decades. The 130-room motel and 10,000-square-foot entertainment complex on North Orange Blossom Trail has earned a reputation that’s both international and infamous — known both for its Vegas-style drag shows and its motel rooms where men looking for sex loiter with curtains open and doors ajar.
The history of the gay resort motel reflects the evolution of Orlando’s gay community as a whole — from the mid-1970s when the “P-House” was the gay community, to its current plans for an upscale 164-condo time-share resort. Since it opened in 1975, the combination motel/nightclub/theater has served as the setting for outreach groups, sponsored charity fund-raisers, held concerts and supported community events.
“When you go back 30 years, if you didn’t go to a bar, there was no other place to meet a gay person,” said Peter Thornly, 59, owner of Rainbow City, a gay bookstore and gift shop on Mills Avenue. “And Parliament House was the place to go.”
Built in 1960, the Parliament House had become a haven for prostitutes and drug addicts before it was purchased and converted into a gay resort in 1975. The precursor to the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Community Center of Central Florida held its first meetings at the P-House. The Orlando Gay Chorus got its start in the resort’s piano room.
But after the 1992 death of Michael Hodge, one of the resort’s original owners, the Parliament House slid back into seediness. Male prostitutes were conducting business from the motel rooms. The rooms were dirty and in disrepair.
On the brink of being shut down, the motel was purchased in 1999 by Don Granatstein and Susan Unger, a heterosexual couple who owned time shares in the Orlando area. They spent $2 million to remodel the resort — and rebuilt its reputation.
“It was attracting the wrong people,” Granatstein said. “After we did the renovations, people came up to us and said, ‘Thank you.’ We fixed up their home.”
Now the couple are replacing an adjacent, run-down 10-acre trailer park with Orlando’s first time-share resort for gays. Groundbreaking on the $20 million project is scheduled for this summer.
The Orlando Police Department said the new owners have clamped down on lewd behavior at the Parliament House.
“The male prostitutes we talk to say they have been told they can’t come back on the premises, which is a step in the right direction for the Parliament House,” said Sgt. Randy Groetsch, who investigates sex crimes in the area. “They used to have open sex in the rooms, leaving the curtains open and the doors open. None of my guys have seen that in recent times.”
The motel still serves as a sort of pickup bar with room service, but the sex that goes on at the P-House is now behind closed doors and curtains between consenting adults, which is not against the law, Groetsch said.
The resort’s owners contend the same thing goes on at any business with rooms to rent.
“Do people come here to pick up people and take them to their room? Yes, but it’s not overt in the least,” said Granatstein. “The same things happen in straight establishments.”
Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel