Travel advisors who have never encountered a transgender client will most likely have little insight into their unique needs and travel challenges.
“Transgender travelers can have a hard time at mainstream agencies because of the lack of understanding and empathy,” said Darren Burn, group CEO of OutOfOffice.com, a UK-based luxury LGBTQ travel specialist.
“Usually, a transgender customer has had a bad experience with a mainstream agency, which means they are often relieved to come across a company like ours that can help offer honest and impartial advice,” he said.
Zachary Moses, CEO of HE Travel in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a similar view. He believes mainstream agencies have a long way to go, “but thankfully they are trying. Trans-awareness is growing around the world; however, it is still safer to go with a company that specializes in the community,” he said.
Experience counts, Moses argues.
“We’ve spent decades navigating the intricacies of international LGBTQ+ travel. It’s a big world with a lot of different ideals,” he said. “Don’t go with an agency with no history.”
John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, agrees that not all travel advisors are created equal when it comes to advising transgender travelers.
“While some mainstream agents have done their homework, we see that information specific to transgender and non-binary travelers lags behind, even within the LGBTQ+ travel space,” he explained.
That information, according to Burn, includes “a minefield of ever-changing laws and customs.”
Most government travel advisory resources now include specific information for LGBTQ travelers. Australia’s Smartraveller website, for example, points out that attitudes toward LGBTQ travelers can be very different in foreign countries, posing a risk for these travelers.
The site advises travelers to research the laws, customs, and attitudes of their destinations before a trip, noting “penalties can include fines, deportation, imprisonment or, in a small number of countries, the death penalty.”
The Australian advisory points out that laws for trans or intersex people are often opaque, partially covered by regulations regarding same-sex relationships. But in addition, “some countries or regions have laws criminalizing people who dress or pose as a person of another sex or gender.”
The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for LGBTQ travelers also notes “unique challenges when traveling abroad.”
“Laws and attitudes in some countries may affect safety and ease of travel,” the State Department warns, adding that more than 70 countries consider consensual same-sex sexual relations a crime.
For transgender travelers, the site advises updating passports. “Some transgender travelers have reported difficulties entering a country on a passport bearing a name and photo that no longer correspond to their gender identity,” it explains, advising travelers to change to name-only documents or update the gender assignment on their passport.
“Traveling can be a nightmare, especially to non-friendly LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) locations,” Los Angeles-based actress and singer Isley Reust told Skift. “A lot of transgender travelers face discrimination, hurdles, and harassment with basic things that other travelers don’t have to deal with.”
Reust describes herself as a “transgender woman who traveled the world as a musician for many years and now (works) as an adventure photographer and documentarian.”
“I have been the fortunate one to not have issues with traveling, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not been so lucky,” she added.
That “bad luck” has included immigration officials refusing to accept passports showing “the wrong gender,” unfortunate incidents at body scan machines, and customs pat-downs as well as “many instances where transgender travelers will get stopped and harassed.”
Airport screening is particularly problematic for transgender travelers, according to a recent review by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization.
To understand the extent of the problem, ProPublica reviewed publicly available complaint data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website and asked transgender travelers to provide accounts of their experiences at airport checkpoints. The review, which covered civil rights complaints filed from January 2016 through April 2019, found that 5 percent, or 298 complaints, were related to screening of transgender people, even though they are estimated to make up slightly less than 1 percent of the population.
And then there are the destinations that are hostile to transgender individuals and the broader LGBTQ community.
Becoming a Trans-Friendly Agency
Reust advises transgender travelers to seek out travel agencies with a history of working with LGBTQ clients “until we can get the mainstream agencies educated on how to handle the needs of trans individuals.”
She would like to see more awareness of the issue among mainstream agencies.
“My advice (to advisors) would be if you are approached by someone who is transgender and they want you to book their next getaway, just do your research, make sure you are attuned to their needs and concerns,” Reust said. “If you want to take it a step further, have someone who is transgender that travels for a living come and train your staff on how to handle and take care of your transgender travel clients.”
OutOfOffice’s Burn said using a specialist agency like his allows the client to have much more open and honest conversations. “We ask probing questions that other travel agents would be afraid to or worried they’d get something wrong.”
Burn’s advice to mainstream agencies is to ask and research pertinent questions.
“Not asking is more dangerous than potentially saying something in slightly the wrong way,” he said. “It’s important to know how the traveler will present on their travels. Are they from a country where gender is on their passport; are they traveling to a country that will ask their gender? What happens when they get to the passport control checkpoint? All of these things are important to ask and to research.”
Because of the unique challenges, Tanzella at the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association thinks it best that transgender travelers seek out agencies that have a demonstrated history with assisting transgender clients. But for any agencies either looking to expand their offerings or at least to understand the broader market, the association has industry-specific online resources, as well as access to training courses.
Even if their agencies are not looking to expand in the transgender niche, travel advisors should at least be aware of some of the issues and challenges so that they don’t expose travelers to unnecessary risks.