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LGBTQ

Queer Women Have a Lot to Worry About When They Travel for Work

Why more than half of LGBTQ people say they have to choose between being visible and being safe when traveling.

by Marcie Bianco
08 January 2020, 10:10am

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Patricia King travels a lot for her job. She says where she stays, how she flies, and what cars she drives when she’s on the road matter to her. And as often as she makes sure the airlines, car companies, and hotels she uses have LGBTQ-friendly policies for their employees, she also makes sure she knows the local LGBTQ-related laws of the places she travels to.

“I will not stay at a hotel with a track record of discrimination,” said King, a speaker and consultant, and “I do make myself aware of the laws [of the states] where I am traveling to.”

King’s experience as a trans woman who regularly travels for business aligns with research revealing that a majority of LGBTQ businesswomen encounter compound forms of harassment and discrimination while traveling on the job, and often find themselves doing research their straight and cisgender counterparts don’t have to do.

According to a 2019 SAP Concur Survey of 7,850 business travelers, both female and LGBTQ business travelers cited safety as their number-one concern. A few more noteworthy figures from this report:
  • Three-quarters of women business travelers report having a negative experience related to their gender, “most commonly being asked if they’re traveling with their husbands (42 percent)
  • 39 percent say they'd been ignored by service workers
  • 31 percent say fellow business travelers assume they are hotel employees
  • 31 percent report being catcalled
  • Nearly all LGBTQ respondents, (95 percent) say they've hidden their sexual orientation for traveling, especially for safety (57 percent) or because they felt it would be easier to get work done if they hid their sexual orientation (54 percent).”
  • 85 percent of LGBTQ+ business travelers report changing their accommodations “because they felt unsafe,” compared to 53 percent of non-LGBTQ people

The survey’s findings emphasize how systemic and culturally-accepted forms of discrimination impede LGBTQ women when it comes to their jobs. Bias at work, in this regard, can extend beyond the parameters of the place of work itself, for LGBTQ women who frequently travel for business.

“The findings are not surprising,” King said. In explaining that trans women carry the combined burdens of traveling as a double marginalized identity, her gender—unlike sexuality—can not be hidden or covered. “For many in transition, there is no closet to retreat to, even if they wanted to.” Early in her transition process, and particularly before her identification documents matched her identity, she said she worried about access to bathrooms, and, with air travel, was often concerned about dealing with TSA screening.

“I think every woman who travels, especially if she is traveling on her own (as most of us do when we travel for business), takes personal safety into consideration,” said Tanya Churchmuch, who travels frequently for her work as president of a PR firm. “It’s a fact of life and one that women who are part of the LGBTQ community will consider even further. I am quite publicly out in my life, but when I go to places where homosexuality isn’t generally well-accepted, I have definitely avoided conversation that would push me to talk about my personal life. It’s just easier and sometimes during a business trip when you’re already stressed about the work you need to do, avoiding the conversation just makes life simpler.”

Like King, Churchmuch, who is a lesbian, takes precautionary measures to ensure her safety. “I stick to well-lit or popular locations in the evenings, rarely drink alcohol, take cars if I’m going more than a few blocks after sunset, and don’t wear headphones if I’m walking so I’m more aware of my surroundings.”

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the ways women experience danger and try to stay safe while traveling, seemingly merely for being a woman in the world. A woman’s queerness while on business travel heightens the threat of this danger. “It’s still illegal to be queer in 70+ countries and [remains] culturally unacceptable in the majority of the world,” said Meg Ten Eyck, a queer public speaker and LGBTQ travel expert. Eyck receives “hundreds of messages from queer women each week asking travel-related questions.” Safety, she finds, is queer female travelers’ most-pressing concern, and for which she receives innumerable requests for advice. “The most common question regardless of destination is, ‘Will I be safe traveling there?’”

For Ten Eyck, “while traveling in higher-risk destinations, the choice to come out is a continual balance between being true to my identity and self-preservation. I will always choose my safety first.”

Safety concerns create undue responsibility during business travel. “I always carry multiple documents that properly identify me (my driver’s license and my passport card),” King said. “I often use the same safety tips that many women do. I park under streetlights; I do my best not to use the restroom alone when I can; [and] I am careful to not leave a drink unattended.”

June Crenshaw, a lesbian and the executive director of the Wanda Alston Foundation, travels on business an average of three times a month. “I have been asked multiple times about my husband’s occupation, whether he was traveling with me, and whether he approved of my travel,” she said. For Crenshaw, who is Black, the biases she faces are also made more severe by racism: “I have also been mistaken for hotel staff, and in meetings where I served as the project lead [I have been] mistaken for an administrative person.”

Churchmuch, who travels about a dozen times a year on business, acknowledges that her whiteness “affords [her] privilege around harassment, [including] not being mistaken for a hotel employee.”

To note, the SAP Concur Survey did not include questions about racial identity or racism encountered by business travelers. But racism experienced while traveling, including while staying at hotels, has been well-documented, and undoubtedly affects LGBTQ businesswomen of color.

The consequence of this omnipresent bias and the threat of discrimination is additional work—safety logistics, emotional labor—for women generally, and LGBTQ businesswomen more specifically. “Medical researchers have found that frequent business travel can cause so much stress that it poses health risks, including anxiety and depression,” said Kim Albrecht, SAP Concur’s Chief Marketing Officer. “LGBT employees face even greater threats to their health as they deal with the additional stress of bias in the workplace and as they travel.”

“Companies need to be aware of the safety concerns their LGBT business travelers may have, and consider them in corporate mobility and travel safety protocols,” said Beck Bailey, director of the Workplace Equality Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Albrecht hopes the survey will provide crucial data points to businesses that endeavor to protect their employees. “I want employees to feel secure and empowered on the road,” she added, “so they can not only do their best work, but enjoy it.”

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