As soon as I got the email confirming my first Covid-19 vaccine appointment, I immediately went to Google and began searching variations of “where can vaccinated Americans travel?”
A few months later, most international travel still seemed to be inaccessible. I’m a frequent, enthusiastic international traveler, albeit on a budget. And the places I’m currently able to go as a vaccinated American are largely either too expensive or places I would never consider traveling to — because I’m a transgender woman.
The difficulties trans people face when traveling internationally have been well documented. Doing quite a bit of extra research when planning travel is standard, and not only because I’m trans: I’m also a woman of color, and so is my partner, and when together, we’re a very visibly queer couple. Racism, homophobia and transphobia intersect to severely limit where we can go and expect basic safety.
And it’s all just gotten a bit more complicated. City and state governments across the country have recently proposed or passed laws, over 140 of them, limiting the rights of trans people to exist in public. While most of them deal with healthcare or sports, and most target youth, all of them have a very clear intention: letting me and other trans people know that we are not welcome.
How will this influx of bills affect the ability of trans people to move throughout the country, practically and emotionally? What about families with trans children? And in a larger sense, how will this affect the travel industry, travel agents and trip planners as well as hotels and other accommodations in these states and elsewhere already reeling from the financial impact of Covid-19?
Typically, I haven’t had to do as much preparation when traveling domestically, and as an outdoors enthusiast I travel often. But that may have to change.
“In 2019, I was coming back from Yosemite,” said Nikki Smith, a trans mountain climber, travel guidebook writer and outdoor lifestyle photographer. “I pulled up at a gas station, and the vehicle next to me had [a very homophobic] sticker. I pulled around and waited, kind of hiding. I didn’t dare go in.”
It doesn’t matter that she’s a 6-foot-3 athlete who spent years in the Army. “They could be armed,” she said. Self-defense only goes so far.
If it happened today, she mused, the new legal landscape might embolden her antagonist. “If I’m in a small rural town, the person who had that sticker … is probably friends with the cop. They could be the cop! If I did get in a fight with someone, I can’t rely on the fact that the law is going to be on my side in any way.”
‘If I did get in a fight with someone, I can’t rely on the fact that the law is going to be on my side in any way.’
When we think about safety, it’s often about protecting ourselves from others who would do us harm — but sometimes we also have to consider our ability to seek support after harm has occurred, whether from legal or healthcare institutions. This is especially crucial when we consider outdoor recreation.
“There are some climbing events in Arkansas, and [that state] passed a bill [SB289] this year that allows [medical personnel] to discriminate against trans folks unless it’s lifesaving,” she pointed out. “Who decides what’s lifesaving? If I fall while climbing or get in a car wreck on the way? … I’m not gonna put myself in that situation.”
This is an even more relevant concern than usual. According to Community Marketing & Insights (CMI), which has conducted some of the most comprehensive surveys of LGBTQ+ people in America, the vast majority of respondents to their most recent travel survey were excited to travel again, and outdoor recreation activities were frequently cited as potential leisure activities.
Presumably because of Covid-19, most respondents were planning to take car-based trips to smaller cities or towns rather than traveling by air, to choose a smaller hotel or an Airbnb rather than a large property and to prioritize outdoor recreation. Each of these requires special considerations for trans travelers, and our options are more complicated than ever in 2021, whether we live within one of those states or not.
Balancing Covid-19 and trans antagonism
Only 7% of transgender and nonbinary respondents to CMI’s latest survey indicated that the recent bills would not affect their travel plans, and most indicated they would be hesitant to travel to a state that had passed anti-trans laws. Trans travelers are frequently caught, however, navigating between two major poles of uncertainty when it comes to safety: Covid-19 and trans antagonism.
“Sometimes it’s good to have this very large hotel group that is supportive of the LGBTQ community, because you feel like management has your back to some degree,” said David Paisley, senior research director at CMI.
But he sees the tension in his survey data. Do you sacrifice the feeling of Covid-19 safety by going to big hotels in big cities? Do you sacrifice physical and emotional safety by going to smaller ones?
“If you’re going to some unknown Airbnb or to a small, roadside motel … how can [you] really tell how friendly the management staff are?”
‘If you’re going to some unknown Airbnb or to a motel … how can you really tell how friendly the management staff are?’
David Paisley, CMI
During a trip a couple of years ago, I stayed at an Airbnb rental in a small town that turned out to be an Airstream trailer in the hosts’ front yard. Once my partner and I entered, we realized the trailer was filled with Bible quotes. Religiosity doesn’t always indicate anti-LGBTQ bias, but we were still put on edge and unable to fully enjoy the trip.
This was in California, so if something discriminatory had happened, we could’ve relied on the law to back us up. But what if we’d been in a state that had made its opposition to trans existence plain?
“We won’t go to Mississippi,” said Gregg Kaminsky, co-founder of R Family Vacations. His organization creates vacation packages for LGBTQ families and their friends, but making sure all of their guests are safe is a process that requires intentionality. “In Mississippi, you can deny health coverage to our community based on religion. What if someone gets hurt?”
When it comes to tourism, money talks. Anti-LGBTQ destinations have often felt the financial squeeze of denying access to our community and sometimes have come around when they’ve realized the mistake they’ve made.
“The great thing about tourism is that we spend so much money. I mean, as a group, no one can afford not to welcome us,” Kaminsky said.
‘The great thing about tourism is that we spend so much money. As a group, no one can afford not to welcome us.’
Gregg Kaminsky, R Family Vacations
This may affect the landscape writ large as states see the financial impact of losing out on not just trans traveler dollars but the spending power of the rest of the LGBTQ community and allies, as well.
Seventeen percent of LGBTQ respondents to CMI’s survey, however, don’t think boycotting is always the right move, and John Tanzella, the CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, or IGLTA, agrees. In his view, sometimes our community’s presence in a location can be key to changing hearts and minds — and tourism money supports local communities.
Their annual conference has long taken place in Atlanta, and they’d already had to decide how to approach the conference due to the anti-voting rights bills passed in the state recently. Then Georgia proposed a few anti-trans bills earlier this year, too.
“Rather than boycotting, maybe [we] can come and make a difference for Georgia citizens,” Tanzella said. “If we didn’t bring our convention there, I don’t know that it’s going to make a huge difference [to the governor]. But [it] would end up hurting the tourism industry in midtown.”
‘Rather than boycotting, maybe we can come and make a difference for Georgia citizens.’
John Tanzella, International LGBTQ Travel Association
Atlanta, like many other LGBTQ-friendly cities within unfriendly states, has a sizeable LGBTQ population that survives in part because of tourism. For a travel organization, it’s not as simple as deciding where not to go.
For a parent of a transgender child, however, sometimes it is that simple.
Putting children first
“I would avoid [points of entry into the country through] any state that I didn’t feel comfortable with,” one person who asked to be identified only as R told me. “If there was [a connection from an international flight] in Atlanta, I wouldn’t book that [itinerary] … I would be too nervous because that individual immigration officer gets to decide how they feel about you on that day.”
R lives in California and is the mother of two young girls, one of whom is trans. Passport discrepancies in trans families can create major stress — the immigration officer may see a boy, but the passport says female, or the names don’t match what’s in the passport (this can be an issue for adults, too). Sometimes you’re at the mercy of an individual authority figure, and whether their personal bias is backed by state bias could make a big difference.
Domestic travel, meanwhile, has different challenges. R’s family will be heading to North Carolina soon to visit her parents. “I haven’t [visited them] for a long time. I didn’t go when North Carolina temporarily had that bathroom bill,” she said. Covid-19 also delayed plans.
A trans person’s experience in the world depends on countless factors, such as race, class and how well one “passes” among them. For trans youth, age becomes a much more salient consideration as puberty looms.
“I think I would feel different if my kid presented as nonbinary. If there were outward signs,” R said with a sigh. “I think I would be a little more fearful.”
Tracy Levesque, who lives in Pennsylvania, knows that struggle as the mother of a 14-year-old trans boy. “We went on a family roadtrip all through the South,” she said. “That was around bathroom-bill time … everything was very new for our family.”
As her son gets older, he gets more visibly gender nonconforming. They’ve had a couple of years to get used to everything, and planning a road trip route with safety in mind is routine. But the new landscape adds new challenges. Bathroom issues are difficult, but many of the bills that were passed or proposed had to do with healthcare.
‘Any place where they’ve tried to outlaw gender-affirming medical treatment for a kid? We will not be going there.’
“If he has to go to the emergency room and legally everything is still in [his] old name …” she said. “Any place where they’ve tried to outlaw gender-affirming medical treatment for a kid? We will not be going there. When you have a kid, you want to keep them safe more than anything else. He’s my kid, I love him so much. [I want him] to be free. [But there are] places I absolutely would avoid.”
Progress in fits and starts
For transgender people and our families, travel is never simple and has never been safe. Over the past decade or so, it feels like we’ve taken two steps forward and then been pushed a step back. The travel industry has been slowly becoming more intentionally inclusive but still has a long way to go, as does the entire country.
Some of these bills may become law. Some will be vetoed, successfully challenged in court or repealed. Regardless, the trans community is resilient; it has to be. Whether we stop going to certain places or soldier on, we’ll never stop existing and never stop moving through the world — welcomed or not.
Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color writer, editor and educator based in the Bay Area. She is a staff writer at Autostraddle.com
TW illustration by Jenn Martins.