From air travel to hospitality and destinations, the industry has become more welcoming to LGBTQ+ travelers, but there remains room for improvement.
JUNE 20, 2022
For much of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is ostensibly over and life has returned to “normal,” including when it comes to travel. When I next venture out, I’ll be engaging with a travel industry that has over the past few years changed dramatically — but not just because of the pandemic.
Dozens of U.S. states and international political bodies have spent the last few years attempting to make life for LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender people like me, more difficult. At the same time, however, countless travel industry organizations and businesses, including in many of the U.S. states passing anti-trans legislation, have made powerful efforts to do the opposite.
When I asked friends and colleagues about the issues we face while traveling, the recurring theme was how we navigate safety. “When I’m in smaller towns,” a colleague named Meg said, “it immediately puts me on edge. … I try to create a bit of distance between my partner and me without even thinking about it.”
She isn’t alone. “I take steps like pretending my spouse is my friend, booking a room with separate beds or dressing differently,” shared Katie Reilly, a nonprofit worker.
I’ve had similar experiences. LGBTQ+ travelers often have to calculate whether simple acts of being human — dressing authentically or holding hands with our spouses, for example — are worth the potential danger. But it does appear that things are changing.
Difficult, common experiences
One of the most frequently mentioned struggles for trans and gender-nonconforming travelers in particular is getting through TSA checkpoints, and earlier this year the TSA announced a major shift in policy and technology.
“Before I had top surgery, I always got flagged by the TSA body scanners,” said Kam Burns, an editor and founder of the Trans Journalists Association. “Even before I was out as trans, I would get pulled aside frequently.”
Nearly all transgender travelers have similar experiences. For years, TSA scanners have operated assuming strictly binary gender passengers and were often calibrated based on a cursory glance. Embarrassing questions and sometimes traumatic physical exams were routine aspects of the airline boarding process — I can’t count how many times I have had to explicitly describe my genitalia to a TSA agent in an effort to explain an “anomaly” detected by a scanner.
This could finally change, however, as the TSA rolls out new policies and technology: “When travelers appear at the travel document-checker podium for identity verification, gender information is [now] irrelevant,” said a March press release from the agency. It is also working on creating a “gender-neutral algorithm” for scanning software and is rolling out “less-invasive screening procedures.”
If implemented as promised, these could be transformative improvements for transgender travelers especially. Once the transportation portion of a trip is completed, however, LGBTQ+ travelers often must engage with the hospitality industry at our destinations.
Our community has long felt as if we’re on our own when handling issues related to safety that may arise, especially when it comes to problems with other travelers we encounter. Finding an accommodation with an explicit commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion and safety is ideal, but it isn’t always possible. Still, some hospitality companies are doing what they can.
Major hotel chains have made important strides. “Marriott has focused on internal education,” said Apoorva Gandhi, senior vice president multicultural affairs, social impact and business councils at Marriott International. Guests can expect well-trained staff, including when it comes to public restroom and spa usage.
Delta Airlines, a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and winner of the “best airline” award in the 2021 Gay Travel Awards, recently joined United and American Airlines by closing a gap in service: Travelers can now select “X” as their gender marker, as an alternative to “M” or “F,” when booking a flight. This comes after years of internal education and training as well as external communications, like an in-flight safety video featuring the “Queer Eye” cast and speaking out publicly against anti-LGBTQ+ bills moving through Congress.
Both Marriott and Delta also signed on to support the 2021 Equality Act.
The training efforts don’t go unnoticed. “I deeply appreciate when staff have clearly been trained on working with LGBTQ+ inclusivity and cultural competency,” said KaeLyn Rich, a nonprofit leader. “Small things, like not assuming gender and pronouns during check-in and using gender-inclusive language, they’re always appreciated.” Seemingly small microaggressions like misgendering can be piercing, especially when a traveler is already stressed by the struggle of long-distance drives or going through airports.
“Small things, like not assuming gender and pronouns during check-in and using gender-inclusive language, they’re always appreciated.”
Airbnb has long been a leader in pursuing LGBTQ+ traveler safety. “We have zero tolerance for discrimination,” said Laura Rillos, an Airbnb spokesperson. All hosts and guests are required to agree to Airbnb’s Community Commitment, which explicitly requires agreement not to discriminate. “More than 1.4 million people have been removed from or denied access to our platform for declining,” she said.
“When Airbnb hosts make it explicit in their listings that they’re LGBTQ+ friendly, that’s super-helpful for booking,” Burns said. “It usually makes me feel much safer.”
What if discrimination happens regardless? Airbnb will warn, suspend or even remove the offender from the platform and immediately help affected travelers book an alternate listing. The company recently launched a 24-hour Safety Line, meaning that rebooking assistance is always accessible.
Intentional internal education efforts can transform the travel experience for our community, but efforts to increase access to travel for LGBTQ+ communities can also have much larger external cultural impacts.
Gregg Kaminsky of R Family Vacations knows how powerful getting groups of LGBTQ+ travelers together can be. He’s been creating inclusive travel and tour experiences for LGBTQ+ travelers as well as their friends and family for nearly 20 years. “One thing that makes traveling with us a little safer is safety in numbers,” Kaminsky said.
Being around a large group of affirming and supportive people creates an unparalleled sense of security. But it also has a positive impact on the places groups visit.
"I have this belief: money talks. And we’re an extremely powerful travel segment as far as the number of dollars that we spend."
“I have this belief: money talks. And we’re an extremely powerful travel segment as far as the number of dollars that we spend,” he said. A recent example: A cruise line Kaminsky was negotiating with had a restrictive dress code policy. When he objected, they changed it. This has a lasting impact for everyone who uses that cruise line in the future, not just LGBTQ+ travelers.
“Whether they see the financial opportunity or they are really more welcoming,” Kaminsky mused, didn’t matter too much. “The travel world is changing in a good way.”
Boycott or to support?
There isn’t uniform agreement within the community on the topic of whether to boycott destinations that have passed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Many of us want to visit and spend tourism dollars in destinations where we know we’ll be accepted and advocate against anti-LGBTQ+ policies by avoiding discriminatory destinations. But most evidence points to travel boycotts being ineffective — and they can even be detrimental to local LGBTQ+ communities.
“We can’t only go to New York and San Francisco,” said John Tanzella, CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA). Part of the IGLTA’s mission is working with lesser-known locales to help them become more inclusive destinations, which has wider effects beyond giving LGBTQ+ travelers more options.
“Jamaica’s a great example,” Tanzella said. “A lot of American travelers don’t want to spend their money in a place where there are stringent laws against us. But there’s a huge community there, trying to survive, and some great nonprofits. One of our luxury hotel members, Round Hill, trains transgender Jamaicans in tourism and hospitality and gives them jobs. So not visiting doesn’t help them.”
"A lot of American travelers don’t want to spend their money in a place where there are stringent laws against us. But there’s a huge community (in these places), trying to survive .... So not visiting doesn’t help them."
This is just as true in the U.S., as LGBTQ+ communities in some cities grapple with their identities as friendly destinations within states that have made their opposition to LGBTQ+ communities plain.
“When we travel as a family, with our kid, we always have to consider whether our destination is LGBTQ+ friendly and what our safety plans are,” Rich said. But beyond marketing, or a designation based on laws and policies like the Municipal Equality Index, how do you know if a destination truly feels safe and accepting? “I would like to see more travel industry companies go beyond rainbow flags and paid ads,” she added.
One of the destinations that has gone far beyond superficial support is Fort Lauderdale. “We are a very progressive destination,” said Richard Gray, senior vice president of inclusion and accessibility for Visit Lauderdale. “We have people from 170 countries … and we have become the LGBT capital of Florida. And I truly believe it is because of our diverse population and how inclusive we are.”
"As a community, we have to be thoughtful about where we spend our money and work with folks who truly support us."
Fort Lauderdale has been marketing to the LGBTQ+ community since 1996, hiring local LGBTQ+ folks for their campaigns, working with the IGLTA and speaking out in response to Florida’s recent anti-LGBTQ+ efforts. Gray views their consistently inclusive marketing as a form of culture change, as well. “Part of our success has been that we’ve used marketing as a platform, not just to highlight or sell the destination but to educate people on inclusion.”
What else can be done
Marketing is important, but it isn’t enough. “As a community, we have to be thoughtful about where we spend our money and work with folks who truly support us,” Gray said. But how can travel industry companies be truly supportive?
There seems to be general agreement that the best way is to start at home. That means hiring LGBTQ+ consultants to educate staff and hiring LGBTQ+ workers. It means working with local LGBT chambers of commerce, pride centers or nonprofits. It means auditing your product: Is there a way prospective users can confirm before booking, for example, that the hotel, tour or destination is explicitly LGBTQ-friendly? When all of that is sorted, it means hiring local community members as consultants for marketing campaigns.
Another crucial point: The LGBTQ+ community is diverse. Trans and gender-nonconforming travelers of color and travelers with disabilities, for example, need to not just be included but prioritized.
“Any organization or host can say they’re LGBT-friendly,” Burns said, “but for a lot of places, they’re really only thinking about gay people.” That is changing slowly, but there’s still work to do.
“Any organization or host can say they’re LGBT-friendly, but for a lot of places, they’re really only thinking about gay people.”
Finally, corporations need to make sure that when issues between travelers arise, they support the harmed party. It shouldn’t be up to a traveler who has just experienced discrimination to then have to resolve it. Too frequently, LGBTQ+ travelers feel like we’re doubly punished when we’re discriminated against. We’re moved to a worse room or the back of the plane, or have to escape the situation without support.
“If you feel unsafe in a hotel or even a city, you should be able to cancel or switch your flight or accommodation without having to do the mental calculation of whether or not you can afford to do that,” Burns said.
The industry has been making incredible strides in recent years, and if it is going to bounce back after the most difficult years of the pandemic, the strongest way to do so will be with diversity and inclusion at the forefront — and not only because the LGBTQ+ community has money to spend on tourism and travel but because our endeavors benefit all, and it’s only together that we’ll move forward from the past few years.
“Inclusion and unity make us all stronger as human beings,” Gray said. “We can only accomplish so much on our own, but together we can create a movement that brings tangible change — and creates a future of hope.”