I am not a big fan of Pride Month, and never really have been. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply appreciate the sentiments that exist somewhere beneath the glitter and tank tops but, more often than not, Pride events for me exemplify aspects of the LGBT community that I don’t particularly like or can even relate to. That being said, spending the last month staring at thousands of rainbow flags emblazoned across social media once again started me thinking about LGBT travel and how the travel industry can, and should, do a better job of working with those of us in the community. The post will probably be a little complainy, a little rambling but that’s ok, I think some of these sentiments need to be shared and hopefully they’re taken in the positive way in which they are ultimately intended.
What is Gay Travel?
I don’t often write about gay travel because it doesn’t really make sense to me. What do we mean by gay travel? How is it that I travel differently from my straight friends and family? I don’t do other things in a way that would be called gay, well not everything. I don’t gay drive my car, I don’t gay shop at PetSmart so why is it that I have to gay travel? Aside from twinks attending circuit parties, gay travel in my opinion doesn’t refer to a specific place or event. No, instead it’s a reference to those aspects of the travel experience that we in the LGBT community would like to see. But this is not how the travel community usually portrays gay travel, which shows me that they don’t ultimately understand the issue. Instead most marketing materials are either glittery, festooned with rainbows and/or surrounded by hot shirtless guys. I mean, that’s fine, at least they’re trying I suppose but that’s not gay travel. That’s not how I travel, it’s not how anyone I know travels and at its worst, by ignoring the systematic problems and instead paying attention only to the stereotypes, many travel companies are doing more harm than good.
No, gay travel doesn’t refer to a specific place or event, not usually. (There are exceptions.) Instead, it’s how I want the travel world to treat me when I decide to board a plane and be flung halfway around the world. What many of us in the LGBT community want, crave really, is ease of travel. We don’t want confusion, we don’t want to be harassed, we just want to be left alone. More often than not, when I check into a hotel we are asked if we want two beds instead of one. Do they ask straight couples that? I doubt it. Cruise lines and hotels usually have built-in messages for guests either on the TVs or in the form of letters, but they’re geared towards straight customers. While receiving a note for Mr. and Mrs. Long isn’t the end of the world, it annoys me deeply and is even insulting. Coming out is a personal and difficult experience and, frankly, I don’t want to have to do it every time with whoever is manning the registration desk that day. It’s none of their business. Travel companies need to get away from using certain pronouns and honorifics automatically and instead tailor the experience to the individual.
Does the Industry Really Care?
Pride month is the opportunity for many companies to announce their continued support of the LGBT community. No surprise there, since as a market we spend a lot – a lot – of money on travel. We’re important to their bottom line and they need to make sure we feel included in their business. I’m positive that a great many people who work for these companies deeply care about LGBT issues and that their intentions are good. But ultimately, do the companies care more about our travel experience or their bottom line? It’s a tough question to suss out, because the two are so inextricably linked, but we can look to what they do as indicators. Changing a social media avatar to a rainbow flag isn’t enough, not even close. If anything, it can many times be a signal that the company knows they don’t do enough and are looking for any way to pretend they’re truly committed to issues important to the LGBT community. Then there are other companies, like United, Celebrity Cruises, Marriott International and Preferred Hotels, all companies with long track records in working cooperatively with the LGBT community to further our goals instead of just picking our pockets. That’s ultimately what we in the LGBT community need to pay attention to. It’s up to us to find and then patronize companies who care about us 12 months a year and not only in June. It’s also up to us to find and patronize the increasing number of travel companies owned or managed by others within our community. Whether it’s Out Adventures or Out in the Vineyard, there are scores of companies and experiences that were created from within our community and so understand what we want from the travel experience more than anyone else.
Pride in Travel
Although you’ll never find me at a circuit party and I certainly won’t be shirtless in the middle of any street, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deep pride in who I am or recognize the importance of Pride month. I do. What many straight people don’t understand is that our concerns as gay people traveling the world aren’t confined to information on art galleries or boutiques. It’s about feeling included, it’s about being respected and it’s about being safe. The sad fact is that in many countries, if not most, around the world being an out and proud gay man is a dangerous thing. Not only do many countries consider being gay illegal, but there are any number of instances of violence committed against LGBT travelers in every corner of the planet. Those instances are thankfully rare and there are many LGBT world travelers out there showing that the world can in fact be a safe and welcoming place. That’s great, but as a gay traveler I will always have a certain apprehension in mind that my straight friends don’t have. Maybe it’s generational, but I’d never feel safe holding hands or kissing in public. That fear is too deeply ingrained, but Pride is all about trying to diminish those concerns. Pride is about our community, about how we see ourselves but also normalizing who we are with a sometimes-skeptical public. I think here in the US we forget just how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. When I was in high school no one, no one, would ever have dreamed of coming out. Even in college it was rare. Those days I think are largely in the past, but those concerns continue. These concerns and more are what the travel industry should be focused on, more than anything else. Ultimately, gay people don’t travel too differently from anyone else. We go to the same landmarks, eat the same food and patronize the same hotels. What makes marketing to us different is assuaging our concerns while also respecting us as human beings. It sounds simple, even basic, and yet in large part it still happens so rarely that when I find it I’m overjoyed.
Hopefully there’s some coherence here and I’ve accomplished my mission of getting my points across. I wrote this post though to emphasize the fact that I’m very proud of who I am and very proud of the global LGBT community, a remarkably diverse group of individuals who have accomplished a great deal in the past two decades. But that pride doesn’t have to necessarily define who I am as a person. Every day we as a group tell the world that being gay is just one aspect of who we are as individuals while simultaneously conforming to rigid stereotypes. That bothers me, but it’s not my place to tell others how to live. Instead I can only be who I am, and ask that others respect that. But I will say one last thing to the travel and tourism industry – you MUST do a better job of reaching out to the LGBT community. Some do well, albeit in fits and starts, while others fail miserably. It’s partly our own fault though. We do not do a good enough job of telling the world who we are. We are husbands, fathers, professionals, athletes but we’re also dancers, drag queens and young twinks who only want to party. We are too diverse to categorize into one type of messaging and the more we come out and show how boring and normal we really are, the better the world will be.