Even as many in the travel industry have taken steps to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community, transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers still struggle with a host of issues related to inclusivity.

By Jamie Biesiada

Even as many in the travel industry have taken steps to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community, transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers still struggle with a host of issues related to inclusivity.

By Jamie Biesiada

It’s right there in just about every abbreviation used to describe nonstraight and gender-nonconforming communities: LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA.

The list goes on, and the “T” is ever present. But the group it represents, transgender people, are still largely forgotten by the travel industry and the world at large. Gender-nonconforming individuals face very similar issues.

The travel industry has taken baby steps to become more accepting of transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers. The Travel Corporation has led the way in offering training that addresses not only the LGBTQ community but transgender individuals specifically.

And the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) has created groundbreaking marketing campaigns that include the transgender community.

But for most travelers who fall into the categories of transgender or gender-nonconforming, travel is still a fraught experience. While education can go a long way toward helping them feel more comfortable — with instructions to those in the travel industry that can be as simple as taking away unnecessary gendering, like replacing “good evening, ladies and gentlemen” with “good evening, everyone” — in some cases, a more attitudinal shift is necessary.

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‘I used the word ‘LGBT,’ but I never really talked about what I call the ‘forgotten T.’’
— Richard Gray
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‘I used the word ‘LGBT,’ but I never really talked about what I call the ‘forgotten T.’’
— Richard Gray

“There is a long way to go,” said Karen DeJarnette, a member of Guide, Expedia Group’s board of directors for LGBTQIA diversity and inclusion business resource group. “There are a lot of people out there who are just not very kind to our community, and it’s really, really unfortunate.”

It’s also a community often lumped into the larger LGBTQ umbrella, despite having its own unique set of concerns and challenges when traveling, ranging from making it through security checks to navigating public bathrooms to issues of basic safety in a destination.

Richard Gray, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion with the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, calls it the “forgotten T.” And while the CVB began marketing to the gay community in 1996, it didn’t home in on the transgender community until the mid-2010s.

“I used the word ‘LGBT,’ but I never really talked about what I call the ‘forgotten T,’” Gray said.

They comprise a small market compared with other parts of the LGBTQ community, but transgender and gender-nonconforming people are still travelers.

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‘We do still want to feel welcome. We want to feel accepted.’
– Jake Graf
‘We still have that spending power. We are still traveling. We are still going out there. We do still want to feel welcome. We want to feel accepted.’
– Jake Graf

“We still have that spending power,” said Jake Graf, who is half of a transgender activist couple with his wife, Hannah. “We are still traveling.” Graf spoke at the Proud Experiences conference in New York in June. “We are still going out there,” he said. “We do still want to feel welcome. We want to feel accepted.”

Jake and Hannah Graf at the Proud Experiences conference in New York in June.

Jake and Hannah Graf at the Proud Experiences conference in New York in June.

Jake and Hannah Graf at the Proud Experiences conference in New York in June.

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A growing market

HospitableMe, which provides LGBTQ education and training for the tourism and hospitality industries, estimates that 52% of Generation Z, usually defined as those born between 1995 and 2010, identify as something other than straight.

A growing handful of countries are starting to issue passports with more than two gender markers. Airlines, too, are starting to recognize more than two gender markers and more salutations beyond Mr., Ms. and Mrs.

People who identify as transgender are, indeed, traveling. According to a 2014 report from Community Marketing Insights (CMI) for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, transgender respondents take an average of two vacations, one business trip and one trip to visit family or friends in a year.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection decided it’s a sizable market and that it makes good business sense to be ready to welcome and accommodate transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers. The line, which is owned by the Travel Corporation, has held LGBTQ training for employees with HospitableMe since 2017.

Uniworld president and CEO Ellen Bettridge said, “I think, first and foremost, it’s a big market. We also have very much an approach here, across the Travel Corporation, that we want to service all customers who want to be taken care of. We want people to feel comfortable and people to be happy when they’re sailing with us and on our tours. It was really important to us.”

All employees who interact with guests undergo training. This year’s curriculum was heavy on defining who LGBTQ customers are and how to make them feel comfortable. Put simply, Bettridge said, the answer is “really treating everybody with the utmost respect.”

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‘We want people to feel comfortable and people to be happy when they’re sailing with us and on our tours.’
— Ellen Bettridge
‘We want people to feel comfortable and people to be happy when they’re sailing with us and on our tours.’
— Ellen Bettridge

The 2014 report on transgender travelers from CMI is somewhat unusual. While others have touched on transgender travelers, it remains one of the only studies dedicated solely to that specific group.

And that paucity of data, said John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), is part of the industry’s problem with being more accommodating to transgender travelers.

The IGLTA has six initiatives it wants to get funding for in the next 18 months, and near the top is transgender travelers. The association hopes to develop a white paper on the subject as well as information for the travel industry and “know before you go” information for transgender travelers.

“It is something that is becoming more and more relevant as the community becomes more visible out there,” Tanzella said. “And I think for tour operators and hotels, they need to do their homework to make sure that they’re doing the right thing.”

Tanzella said he believes that education, data and research are key to helping the industry embrace transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers. He pointed to the Travel Corporation as a leader in training, and though the field today is narrow, he anticipates it will widen. Ten years ago, he pointed out, only a few companies were marketing to gay and lesbian travelers. Now, inclusion and acceptance of diversity is de rigueur, and he predicts a similar future awaits for gender-nonconforming and transgender subsets of the larger LGBTQ community.

Billy Kolber, founder of HospitableMe, said society is in the midst of a cultural shift.

“I think the industry has just suddenly become aware of these issues and the ways that these issues impact their businesses, and it’s an enormous wake-up call,” Kolber said.

That is because younger generations are increasingly more open with their sexuality and gender identities. They’re out to their grandparents, something older generations never would have dreamed of doing. Those grandparents are accepting, too, looking to bring their out, queer grandchildren on multigenerational trips.

“The cultural shift of the last five or six years has also accelerated the need and the awareness of LGBTQ travelers in the tourism and hospitality space,” Kolber said.

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10 steps toward a more inclusive welcome

  • Don’t make assumptions about your guests/visitors.
  • Follow guests’ leads on relationships and pronouns.
  • Proactively welcome LGBTQ guests.
  • Acknowledge nonbinary guests’ needs, such as bathrooms.
  • Share knowledge of local LGBTQ venues/history.
  • Tone and body language are important.
  • Fix misinterpretations and mistakes with ease.
  • Focus on respect and kindness.
  • It’s OK to ask.
  • Foster diversity in your organization and among your colleagues by being respectful and inclusive.

10 steps toward a more inclusive welcome

  • Don’t make assumptions about your guests/visitors.
  • Follow guests’ leads on relationships and pronouns.
  • Proactively welcome LGBTQ guests.
  • Acknowledge nonbinary guests’ needs, such as bathrooms.
  • Share knowledge of local LGBTQ venues/history.
  • Tone and body language are important.
  • Fix misinterpretations and mistakes with ease.
  • Focus on respect and kindness.
  • It’s OK to ask.
  • Foster diversity in your organization and among your colleagues by being respectful and inclusive.

Unsafe travel

That cultural shift doesn’t change the fact that travel is not only often anxiety-filled for transgender and gender-nonconforming people but that it can be downright dangerous.

Meg Cale, who along with her wife runs the LGBTQ travel website Dopes on the Road, said, “Traveling as anyone on the LGBT spectrum is dangerous, but it is particularly dangerous for trans and gender-nonconforming people. My wife, Lindsay, is gender-nonconforming and faces a lot of the same issues transgender travelers face when crossing over borders, particularly in terms of safety in gendered spaces.”

Part of the problem is that many LGBTQ travelers can’t just “turn off” queer identifiers, Cale said. Oftentimes, they’ll be read as not straight, presenting problems.

According to the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (ILGA), 55 countries still offer no protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation; there are dozens in which same-sex sexual activity is still criminalized and some that impose the death penalty. And that’s just sexual orientation.

Zhan Chiam, author of the ILGA’s Trans Legal Mapping Report, released in its second edition in late 2017, found that the world’s laws, procedures and processes enabling transgender and gender-diverse people to change their gender markers on official documents is particularly complicated.

“Together known as ‘legal gender recognition,’ this area of rights is like a Pandora’s box,” Chiam wrote. “And the research continues to reveal more questions than answers, bringing forth areas of uncertainty and a need in many countries and regions to delve even deeper into the complexities.”

In 2018, Expedia’s DeJarnette published a piece online titled “Traveling While Transgender,” which outlines a number of concerns transgender travelers have as well as how best to cope with those concerns. Moving through airports and TSA checkpoints, the start of many travels, is an area of particular concern.

“Transition is hard enough,” she said in an interview. “Just living your life is hard enough on a day-to-day basis. Interacting with strangers is harder. But then going through the process of legal examinations, body checks, X-rays, pat-downs, going through name checks and examinations, sitting next to strangers for extended periods of time — all of this is just intensely, intensely difficult.”

If transgender travelers, especially those early in their transition, haven’t yet changed their name on legal documents, there is a good chance a security officer will use their old names (sometimes referred to as “dead-naming”). That, DeJarnette said, can be a humiliating, anxiety-producing situation.

Security checks are also inherently gendered experiences. When going through a body scanner, a TSA officer tells the machine what gender it is scanning based on how that officer reads a person’s gender presentation. For transgender or gender-nonconforming travelers, that can present obvious problems, leading to additional screening and pat-downs. In many cases, affected travelers are unaware they can ask for a private screening with a witness of their choice.

According to CMI’s Transgender Travel Report, 52% of respondents said they enjoy traveling by plane. Another 26% said they don’t, for reasons common to everyone. But 21% of respondents said they did not enjoy traveling by plane for reasons specific to the transgender community: Pat-downs and body searches were the No. 1 reason, followed by body scans and identification document issues.

The TSA works with a group of people representing about 75 organizations and advocacy groups reflecting a number of different communities, including the transgender community. The agency uses those connections to identify concerns and try to be proactive in making travelers’ experiences better.

Its Innovation Task Force solicits new technology, equipment and ideas from the travel industry at large. Several years ago, the TSA began asking for new technology and solutions that can help improve screening for transgender travelers, among other groups, including individuals with disabilities. TSA officers are also trained to successfully engage with transgender travelers and have processes in place to do so.

Public resources for transgender travelers are available on the TSA’s website, detailing their passenger rights and advising what to expect during the screening process.

Seena Foster, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for civil rights and liberties, ombudsman and traveler engagement, said the agency is dedicated to getting all travelers through the screening process as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“At the end of the day, TSA is dedicated to catching threat items to secure our aviation systems, while treating travelers with courtesy, dignity and respect,” Foster said. “As we engage with [the travel] industry, we seek accessible technology for the checkpoints, and as our technology evolves, so will the procedures and training of our officers. And we gather promising practices from our coalition executives and share these practices with our officers on how to successfully engage with diverse traveler populations and improve our security effectiveness.”

Cale said her wife is pulled aside for a pat-down nearly every time she moves through a TSA scanner. It’s awkward, and it becomes a double issue when the traveler is transgender and has identification that doesn’t match their gender identity, she said.

Once a traveler is through security, a litany of other issues that plague transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals begin, including fear of harassment (45% of CMI’s transgender respondents listed this as a top concern when traveling) and which public restrooms to use.

“People who don’t have to deal with gender discrimination don’t even think about the amount of gendered actions we take in a day,” Cale said. A lot of times, it comes down to doing advanced research, looking up things like where gender-neutral or single-occupancy bathrooms exist, she said.

Jake Graf said he and his wife select travel destinations by, first and foremost, “whether or not we’re going to be safe, whether or not we’re going to be accepted,” which they determine through research and asking a network of friends around the world for information and input.

At Expedia, DeJarnette said she is hoping to help LGBTQ travelers select hotels in destinations. She said she is spearheading a wide-ranging initiative that she hopes will launch by the end of the year to identify truly LGBTQ-friendly accommodations.

Unsafe travel

That cultural shift doesn’t change the fact that travel is not only often anxiety-filled for transgender and gender-nonconforming people but that it can be downright dangerous.

Meg Cale, who along with her wife runs the LGBTQ travel website Dopes on the Road, said, “Traveling as anyone on the LGBT spectrum is dangerous, but it is particularly dangerous for trans and gender-nonconforming people. My wife, Lindsay, is gender-nonconforming and faces a lot of the same issues transgender travelers face when crossing over borders, particularly in terms of safety in gendered spaces.”

Part of the problem is that many LGBTQ travelers can’t just “turn off” queer identifiers, Cale said. Oftentimes, they’ll be read as not straight, presenting problems.

According to the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (ILGA), 55 countries still offer no protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation; there are dozens in which same-sex sexual activity is still criminalized and some that impose the death penalty. And that’s just sexual orientation.

Zhan Chiam, author of the ILGA’s Trans Legal Mapping Report, released in its second edition in late 2017, found that the world’s laws, procedures and processes enabling transgender and gender-diverse people to change their gender markers on official documents is particularly complicated.

“Together known as ‘legal gender recognition,’ this area of rights is like a Pandora’s box,” Chiam wrote. “And the research continues to reveal more questions than answers, bringing forth areas of uncertainty and a need in many countries and regions to delve even deeper into the complexities.”

In 2018, Expedia’s DeJarnette published a piece online titled “Traveling While Transgender,” which outlines a number of concerns transgender travelers have as well as how best to cope with those concerns. Moving through airports and TSA checkpoints, the start of many travels, is an area of particular concern.

“Transition is hard enough,” she said in an interview. “Just living your life is hard enough on a day-to-day basis. Interacting with strangers is harder. But then going through the process of legal examinations, body checks, X-rays, pat-downs, going through name checks and examinations, sitting next to strangers for extended periods of time — all of this is just intensely, intensely difficult.”

Source: Community Marketing Insights for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau

Source: Community Marketing Insights for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau

Source: Community Marketing Insights for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau

If transgender travelers, especially those early in their transition, haven’t yet changed their name on legal documents, there is a good chance a security officer will use their old names (sometimes referred to as “dead-naming”). That, DeJarnette said, can be a humiliating, anxiety-producing situation.

Security checks are also inherently gendered experiences. When going through a body scanner, a TSA officer tells the machine what gender it is scanning based on how that officer reads a person’s gender presentation. For transgender or gender-nonconforming travelers, that can present obvious problems, leading to additional screening and pat-downs. In many cases, affected travelers are unaware they can ask for a private screening with a witness of their choice.

According to CMI’s Transgender Travel Report, 52% of respondents said they enjoy traveling by plane. Another 26% said they don’t, for reasons common to everyone. But 21% of respondents said they did not enjoy traveling by plane for reasons specific to the transgender community: Pat-downs and body searches were the No. 1 reason, followed by body scans and identification document issues.

The TSA works with a group of people representing about 75 organizations and advocacy groups reflecting a number of different communities, including the transgender community. The agency uses those connections to identify concerns and try to be proactive in making travelers’ experiences better.

Its Innovation Task Force solicits new technology, equipment and ideas from the travel industry at large. Several years ago, the TSA began asking for new technology and solutions that can help improve screening for transgender travelers, among other groups, including individuals with disabilities. TSA officers are also trained to successfully engage with transgender travelers and have processes in place to do so.

Public resources for transgender travelers are available on the TSA’s website, detailing their passenger rights and advising what to expect during the screening process.

Seena Foster, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for civil rights and liberties, ombudsman and traveler engagement, said the agency is dedicated to getting all travelers through the screening process as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“At the end of the day, TSA is dedicated to catching threat items to secure our aviation systems, while treating travelers with courtesy, dignity and respect,” Foster said. “As we engage with [the travel] industry, we seek accessible technology for the checkpoints, and as our technology evolves, so will the procedures and training of our officers. And we gather promising practices from our coalition executives and share these practices with our officers on how to successfully engage with diverse traveler populations and improve our security effectiveness.”

Cale said her wife is pulled aside for a pat-down nearly every time she moves through a TSA scanner. It’s awkward, and it becomes a double issue when the traveler is transgender and has identification that doesn’t match their gender identity, she said.

Once a traveler is through security, a litany of other issues that plague transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals begin, including fear of harassment (45% of CMI’s transgender respondents listed this as a top concern when traveling) and which public restrooms to use.

“People who don’t have to deal with gender discrimination don’t even think about the amount of gendered actions we take in a day,” Cale said. A lot of times, it comes down to doing advanced research, looking up things like where gender-neutral or single-occupancy bathrooms exist, she said.

Jake Graf said he and his wife select travel destinations by, first and foremost, “whether or not we’re going to be safe, whether or not we’re going to be accepted,” which they determine through research and asking a network of friends around the world for information and input.

At Expedia, DeJarnette said she is hoping to help LGBTQ travelers select hotels in destinations. She said she is spearheading a wide-ranging initiative that she hopes will launch by the end of the year to identify truly LGBTQ-friendly accommodations.

Advertisement
‘People who don’t have to deal with gender discrimination don’t even think about the amount of gendered actions we take in a day.’
— Meg Cale
‘People who don’t have to deal with gender discrimination don’t even think about the amount of gendered actions we take in a day.’
— Meg Cale

Advising transgender clients

Travel advisors, especially those who specialize in LGBTQ travel, work carefully with suppliers to set expectations about clients who are transgender or gender nonconforming.

Gregg Kaminsky, founder of R Family Vacations, said he always steers transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers to destinations that are LGBTQ-friendly, where they will encounter fewer problems.

“It’s a scary world out there, where even in our own country I feel like we have taken some small steps in the wrong direction,” he said.

Kaminsky also advised those travelers to, whenever possible, book with a travel advisor who can talk to suppliers and ensure they’ll have the proper bed types in hotels or on a ship.

David Rubin, CEO of DavidTravel in Palm Springs, Calif., has a very open dialogue with clients to find out more about their family makeup and match them with the right destination and supplier.

More and more often, Rubin said, he’s getting calls from grandparents who have transgender grandchildren and want to take them on a family vacation. He said he uses in-country partners he trusts to select the right guides and the right drivers.

“These are people whom I really trust and I’ve worked with for years, and they’re very good at being very connected,” he said.

Rubin advised other advisors to work closely with their own suppliers and communicate client needs. If it’s a new supplier, he suggested asking for recommendations before working with them.

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Advice for service workers, from Expedia’s Karen DeJarnette

  • Be discreet about bringing public attention to someone who may be transgender.
  • Consider not using gendered salutations, such as “sir,” “ma’am,” “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “gentleman” and “lady,” in your speech, especially if there is any possibility of perceived ambiguity in the person’s gender expression.
  • Discreetly ask the traveler how they want to be identified, including their personal pronouns, name, salutations, etc.
  • Never ask a transgender person deeply personal questions about surgery, genitalia, medications, their “real” name or anything else not relevant to their travel.
  • For TSA: Proactively provide options to the traveler on who can do a pat-down search if one is needed.
  • Treat transgender people with the same respect and dignity as you would show any other person.

Advice for service workers, from Expedia’s Karen DeJarnette

  • Be discreet about bringing public attention to someone who may be transgender.
  • Consider not using gendered salutations, such as “sir,” “ma’am,” “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “gentleman” and “lady,” in your speech, especially if there is any possibility of perceived ambiguity in the person’s gender expression.
  • Discreetly ask the traveler how they want to be identified, including their personal pronouns, name, salutations, etc.
  • Never ask a transgender person deeply personal questions about surgery, genitalia, medications, their “real” name or anything else not relevant to their travel.
  • For TSA: Proactively provide options to the traveler on who can do a pat-down search if one is needed.
  • Treat transgender people with the same respect and dignity as you would show any other person.

Be more welcoming

HospitableMe’s Kolber advised the industry to remember a few things to make themselves more friendly to transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers, most importantly that “We’re mostly the same.”

“LGBTQ travelers are much more than their sexual orientation or their gender,” he said. “Treat them as the whole person.”

He added that, in some cases, “to treat everyone equally, you sometimes have to treat people a little bit differently. The same is not always equal.”

For example, if a supplier sends all its clients a form card addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.,” that’s not equal, and it is seen by many as devaluing the relationships of same-sex couples.

Kolber also advised focusing on respect and not being afraid to politely ask someone things like their preferred pronouns or how they would prefer to be addressed.

He also recommended removing unnecessarily gendered language, even casual things like “good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” To a transgender or gender-nonconforming traveler, that can make a world of difference.

DeJarnette advised the industry to remember that, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, travelers are all people.

“We’re just human beings, and we just want to be respected just the way you do,” she said. “That’s all.”

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