Business Travel Management and DEI: 5 Insights Travel Managers Need to Know About Their LGBTQ+ Travelers
Hi. My name is Emilie, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I’m a director of strategic partnerships at Deem. I’m also a board member of Equality Texas, the largest non-profit dedicated to equitable treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the state of Texas.
This is a story about business travel through my lens as a woman in a same-sex marriage.
My wife and I love to travel and we’ve both traveled often for companies we’ve worked for. Whenever we travel together, there is quite a bit of research that goes into where we are going to stay — not just proximity to offices or convention centers, or the quality of hotels, but also what kind of cultural considerations there are and perhaps safety precautions we need to consider as a same-sex couple.
I’m reminded of a trip to Shenzhen, China to attend an electronics expo. We had done our research: Shenzhen is a tech hub in Greater China, a huge metropolis of corporate buildings not necessarily known for being a tourist attraction. As such, we didn’t expect much when it came to accommodations and support for non-natives. As opposed to places like Shanghai and Hong Kong, there likely wouldn’t be many, if any, English-speakers in places like hotels, restaurants, or taxi cabs.
On top of that, we had done the “extra” research. We understood that as long as we weren’t making any outward expressions of our sexuality, we likely wouldn’t attract any unwanted attention. But despite our intentions, we’ve still found ourselves in funny yet tricky situations.
After more than 30 hours of travel from Austin to Shenzhen, we finally made it to our hotel in the dark hours of morning. We had booked a king suite but upon checking in, the staff, seeing two female travelers, insisted that they give us two queen beds. It took not one or two or even three, but four front desk clerks to verify that one bed was fine. My wife and I were faced with a significant language barrier and politely trying to explain — mind you, without literally explaining — that no change was needed. Needless to say, the desk clerks were thoroughly confused that these two jet-lagged women refused such a generous offer.
While I can look back on this story and laugh, we’ve also traveled both internationally and domestically and been made to feel unsafe because of our relationship.
5 Insights for travel managers
When it comes to traveler safety, especially during the post-pandemic travel recovery, most business travelers will naturally consider things like social distancing, mask-wearing protocols, and vaccination records.
But some of us must navigate a more complex set of safety and convenience considerations when it comes to planning travel. In a recent BTN Group webinar, a panel of LQBTQ+ travelers, including myself, helped reveal the additional challenges we face when considering where we can travel and what additional precautions we must take to ensure our safety and success.
Here are five insights that came from the webinar that travel managers should know about their LGBTQ+ travelers:
1. Most LGBTQ+ travelers hide their identity
Surveys have proven that LGBTQ+ travelers feel they must go “back into the closet” while traveling, citing safety as their top reason. The queer folks who are lucky enough to blend in will do so, flying below the radar and covering their authentic selves as simply the cost of doing business.
And sure, I think we can all appreciate the anxiety of social acceptance among coworkers and clients: “Would they still like me if they knew I’m queer?” But there’s an infinite list of more ominous questions with much graver consequences that can spiral in the minds of LGBTQ+ travelers. Questions like:
-If I’m outed as a homosexual in a foreign country, could I be put in jail? Who would defend me?
-Could I be denied service at a hotel or restaurant?
-If I fall ill, could a doctor refuse life-saving treatment?
Questions such as these create a mental and emotional burden. For those of us who can, we will likely avoid them entirely by hiding our identity. But for those of us who can’t, it often means we forfeit the travel opportunity entirely, hoping it won’t lead to further repercussions on our career paths later down the line.
2. LGBTQ+ safety by destination is more granular than you may think
Global acceptance of LGBTQ+ people has generally been on the rise over the last few decades. Sadly, there are many countries that make homosexuality illegal, punishable by imprisonment and even death. In the map below, consider the countries in red as the no-fly zone for queer travelers. So just stick to the countries in blue, right?
Not so fast. There are countries where there may be some protections for LGBTQ+ people, but that doesn’t mean they will be treated as fairly and equitably as everyone else. Many may even assume that domestic travel within the United States should be relatively easy and safe for most queer travelers. We did, after all, make same-sex marriage legal and more recently, our Supreme Court ruled that workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation is illegal.
However, despite the fact that 83% of Americans favor laws to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, it remains legal in 29 states to deny basic needs and opportunities to queer folks. So even traveling within the United States often requires additional research and safety considerations.
3. LGBTQ+ travelers need more safety research
The burden of research remains primarily on the LGBTQ+ traveler, but there is headway being made with technology tools and data sources to help surface helpful considerations and insights to the business traveler.
Through a partnership with a platform called GeoSure, Deem created the (now award-winning) Travel SafetyCheck feature that’s in our Etta platform. It combines big data, AI, and crowd-sourced reporting to provide an assessment of LGBTQ+ traveler safety on a hyper-local level.
In its most literal sense, SafetyCheck provides safety scores based on the traveler’s destination. Of course, the scoring is to be considered a guideline, as there are never guarantees in life for anyone. But this information is a valuable resource that can help reduce stress and ensure the safety of employees.
4. Trans folks face even more challenges
While anyone who’s traveled through an airport expects to go through security and show identification, trans folks experience these steps in very different ways. From the second they arrive at the airport they’re subject to identification and security checks where they may be mis-gendered, and they may hold documentation that doesn’t match their outward gender expression. It’s important for travel managers to understand the anxiety someone may face from being misidentified.
Much of the recent discriminatory legislation proposed and passed into state law targets trans people. In fact, seven states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, and West Virginia, have passed 13 laws that target trans rights, with six more anti-trans bills that remain active in various places.
Sadly, this means there aren’t many destinations, even inside the U.S., where a trans person can move about with ease and freedom from discrimination. They must remain vigilant and hyper-aware of their safety and fair treatment at all times.
5. Gen Z is the queerest generation ever
Duty of care and traveler safety for LGBTQ+ travelers will become more and more relevant when hiring new talent. According to a Gallup poll published February 24, 2021, people in the U.S. who identify as LGBTQ+ now make up an estimated 5.6% of the population. That’s increased from 4.5% its last poll in 2017.
For Gen Z adults (aged 18-23 in 2020,) however, the percentage increases to 15.9%. That’s compared to Millennials (9.1%), Generation X (3.8%), and Baby Boomers (2.0%). But, Gallup states, it would be a mistake to assume these numbers mean you should focus only on your younger travelers:
The pronounced generational differences raise questions about whether higher LGBT identification in younger than older Americans reflects a true shift in sexual orientation, or if it merely reflects a greater willingness of younger people to identify as LGBT. To the extent it reflects older Americans not wanting to acknowledge an LGBT orientation, the Gallup estimates may underestimate the actual population prevalence of it.
Considering LGBTQ+ safety helps everyone
It’s important to embrace more diverse, equitable and inclusive practices when it comes to business travel. As mentioned, many of us choose to cover our identity, so you may find many of your travelers don't outwardly identify as queer. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t there. And in some cases of relocation or assignment, your travelers may have spouses or children who need protections.
Even straight, cis travelers may care about your solutions for LGBTQ+ travelers, as they may be allies and hope to provide an extra sense of safety for their companions. So, regardless of how many queer folks you think you have in your travel programs, it’s important to solve for them.