As an individual who enjoys traveling and has the privilege to travel around the world for both my profession and personal interests, I often find myself in locations that are exciting, unique and at times, a bit uncomfortable. Fortunately, for me, most of my travel (particularly abroad) is done with my wife (another queer woman of color). Having her as my travel companion means that I am not navigating new and foreign spaces alone. It does, however, add another set of unique considerations when traveling together.
We both navigate the world as cisgender women, so we do not face discrimination related to our gender identity, as opposed to some people who identify as trans, and we recognize our privilege in our cisgender-ness. No less, we approach travel to new places well-informed and ready for anything. For folks who identify as LGBTQIA, choosing travel destinations is not necessarily as simple a process as answering the questions “Where do I want to go?” and “Which culture would I like to experience?” Oftentimes, LGBTQIA travelers must consider their personal safety (beyond the information available on the U.S. State Department’s website site) in ways that heterosexual individuals do not.
Those identifying as LGBTQIA must be more aware of the social environments of the places they travel to. For example, we have to think about:
- Are they LGBTQIA friendly?
- Is being gay illegal? Yes, there are still some countries where it is.
- How do police treat LGBTQIA folks?
- Can I kiss my lover in public?
- Is it safe to hold hands?
- Will my presence be policed?
…these are just some of questions that are asked before booking that flight.
So when I (and my wife) travel, I often find that my “color” has more impact on interactions and perceptions of others when traveling abroad, than my sexual identity. This may be because depending on where we are, my wife and I do not hold hands or display public affection for each other. So without these cues, those looking at us may think that we are sisters or simply friends traveling together.
The places where being a person of color traveling was the most uncomfortable were two separate trips: one to Budapest and the other Northern Italy. Both trips were work related – we were attending a conference in Budapest and were conducting research in Italy. Yet, it didn’t matter where we went or what we did, we were stared at. And not the “I don’t want you to know that I’m looking” stare, the “I am going to turn my head and break my back to look” stare. It was bizarre (coming from the U.S. when we are used to being stared at, but only when we hold hands), uncomfortable, and frankly felt unsafe.
Despite these experiences, traveling as a queer person of color has also afforded us some benefits. For instance, in 2014 we went to the Dominican Republic for Christmas. Upon checking in to our flight we struck up a conversation with the airline rep who happened to be a gay person of color. After a few pleasantries, we realized that he had bumped our seats up to the extra leg room seats without us even requesting an upgrade. We have also received free drinks, discounted meals, and other “I see you” gifts from people around the world. More than anything, my wife and I have found ourselves in spaces where there is a mutual recognition whether it be domestically or abroad and this recognition (at times) can be associated with perks.
For those who do not identify as LGBTQIA, but want to be allies for those who are…my only suggestion is to simply recognize, accept, and appreciate the humanity in all people. This recognition, acceptance, and appreciation will lead to behaviors of an ally.