business trip

LGBTQ+ Business Travelers Navigate Complexities

As she was preparing for a long-term assignment in Algeria, Kristina Martinez received from her employer a one-page document on local laws and customs that was supposed to be informative but instead was jarring.

“The one-pager had, as the first bullet point, that homosexuality is illegal, and I was shocked that there was no further information,” said Martinez, who has traveled around the world for nearly the past two decades while working in the oil and gas industry. “Imprisonment for homosexuality in Algeria is up to two years if convicted, and I remember thinking, ‘Will the company’s lawyer defend me? Is this safe for me?’ “

Knowing the additional dangers the assignment presented to her as a lesbian, Martinez wrestled with the decision of whether to go. She knew it was a great opportunity that would look good on her résumé, and she also wondered whether turning it down would hurt her standing in the company or opportunities for future assignments abroad. To supplement the limited information her employer had provided, she took it upon herself to reach out to other female travelers, including two out lesbians in her company who had worked in Algeria, and they were able to answer her questions and ultimately give her the confidence to accept the assignment.

Navigating the Map

Martinez was one of several LGBTQ+ travelers to share their experiences at a BTN Group virtual symposium last month, part of an ongoing series on diversity, equity and inclusion. As her example illustrated, some challenges faced specifically by LGBTQ+ travelers are literally about life and death. Consensual sexual activity between individuals of the same sex remains illegal in 69 countries, in some cases punishable by death, according to LGBTQ+ rights monitor Equaldex. One hundred and four countries offer no legal protection from discrimination to LGBTQ+ individuals at all, and many other countries offer an inconsistent patchwork of protections. In the United States, for example, the Supreme Court held in a narrow 2020 ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides protections against firing an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but there remains no blanket law offering LGBTQ+ individuals protection from discrimination throughout the United States—and some states seem eager to move in the opposite direction.

Will I be safe? Am I traveling to one of the jurisdictions that criminalizes me as a trans woman?”

– S&P Global’s Emma Cusdin

“We’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go, especially at that state level,” said Emilie Kopp, director of strategic partnerships for Deem. “Legislators are pulling out every trick in the book to chip away at what few protections we have as well as make advancements on making it legal to treat LGBTQ people unfairly, and particularly around trans people—and, even more tragically, around trans youth.”

The recent suspected homophobic attack and beating death of 24-year-old nursing assistant Samuel Luiz in A Coruña in Spain—a country where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005 and that is considered one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly in the world—also was a sobering reminder that LGBTQ+ individuals still can face violence anywhere.

Emma Cusdin, who advocates for trans and non-binary issues in the corporate world through the organization Global Butterflies and is a frequent business traveler as people director with S&P Global, said she always goes through a mental checklist on those issues when traveling.

“Will I be safe? Will I be outed? Am I traveling to one of the jurisdictions around the world that criminalizes me as a trans woman? How will I be accepted?” Cusdin said. “So, there’s a lot of stress and angst for traveling.”

Sometimes that comes down to not traveling at all. Cusdin said she has told her line manager that she will not travel to Dubai due to its strict anti-trans laws. Martinez said she once turned down an assignment in Saudi Arabia.

“It was a tricky thing for me,” Martinez said. “I love to travel, and I love to see the world, and this would have been a great opportunity. I thought by saying, ‘No,’ that I had closed that door forever, but two weeks later, I got an opportunity to go to Australia. So, it opened the door to another opportunity.”

Cusdin said her current employer is understanding of her wishes not to travel to certain destinations, though she could not say the same for all her previous employers. She sees bringing those issues to management, however, as an opportunity in itself, such as when she rejected the opportunity for a promotion that would have required her to live in one of the more conservative U.S. states.

“I turned it down, because I said, ‘Why should I reduce my legal support?’ It actually turned out to be a very good conversation with my line manager, who didn’t know what they’d been asking,” she said. “I’m a huge believer in the power of conversation.”

Handling the Burden of Research

Travelers speaking at the symposium said they were appreciative of any company efforts to inform them more fully of potential risks posed to them as LGBTQ+ travelers.

Grant Caplan, president of Procurigence, said he was a fan of the GeoSure tool, which breaks down safety data to a neighborhood level, including information specific to LGBTQ+ travelers. It proved useful in several recent trips to Istanbul, he said.

“I think it’s kind of cool that you can see the different types of grades that they get for the different types of threats that could be against you as a traveler,” Caplan said.

Martinez’s wife, Austin Ayers, also is a frequent business traveler, and her work with a financial services company requires mostly domestic U.S. travel. She’s also been working with her company on its own DE&I initiatives and would like to see destination-specific information provided.

“Although my company’s incredibly inclusive, the burden of the research for my safety does tend to fall on me,” Ayers said.

Of course, many companies likely are not fully aware of their LGBTQ+ traveling populations, as those employees might not be out at work. About 95 percent of LGBTQ+ travelers in an SAP Concur-sponsored survey last year of nearly 8,000 total business travelers indicated that they have hidden their sexual orientation while on a business trip. Martinez said during an assignment in West Papua, Indonesia, she “learned very quickly to jump back into the closet” when working onsite alongside 10,000 workers, among whom she was the only Western female.

“To say I was a minority would be a huge understatement. I was a unicorn,” Martinez said. “To the credit of a few female coworkers back home, they recognized the situation that I’d be walking into and discussed my safety with a [cisgender] male coworker who was also going to site. He would be my constant companion and help divert any unwanted or harmful attention away from me.”

Kopp said that when traveling with her wife, both domestically and internationally, there frequently are moments when they are harassed or feel unsafe, and hiding their relationship is the natural reaction.

“It’s just when you feel that people are noticing you, and then that’s when you get goosebumps or that spidey-sense that, hey, it’s not OK to be your authentic self right now,” she said. “You are taking a part of your identity and choosing, and there’s a mental burden that goes with that.”

You are taking a part of your identity and choosing, and there’s a mental burden that goes with that.”

– Deem’s Emilie Kopp

The travelers in general were supportive of having the option of identifying themselves as LGBTQ+ in company travel profiles, so their travel managers would have access to that information. 

“For me as a traveler, having the opportunity on my travel profile to say I’m LGBTQ+ is helpful for you and for me, because then ultimately having information sent to me about LGBTQ+ issues and safety is really important,” Cusdin said. “Even just saying that your policy is LGBTQ+ friendly and making a statement about it is a really good first step, because I’ve often seen travel policies that don’t even say that.”

For Ayers, providing that information in her profile is not currently an option, though she said she would be slightly uneasy about all suppliers having that information.

“I’d be open to it, but it probably wouldn’t be something that I’d be as open to as other people on this call,” she said. “Then again, I travel to a lot of red states, so I’m just a little gun-shy with some past experiences.”

Balancing Stress with ‘Zen’

Challenges faced by LGBTQ+ business travelers are more than the overarching safety and security issues, the travelers said. The airport journey can be especially stressful for transgender travelers, Cusdin said. 

“How will I be received through passport control and security?” Cusdin said. “What about the pat-down, and if I get patted down, how do I feel about that?”

In Cusdin’s case, the gender specified in her travel documents matches her actual gender, but that is not always the case for transgender travelers, which can cause additional stress at checkpoints, she said. What’s more, security processes around the world are not always set up with transgender and nonbinary travelers in mind.

Carlos Rios, a human resources professional, experienced this firsthand on a recent trip to visit family in the Dominican Republic. There, passport control was split into separate lines for male and female travelers, and Rios, who is nonbinary, had to make the decision to go to the “male” line.

“I’m not trying to have a protracted conversation with a security officer in another country around my gender identity and how it does not align with what I was assigned at birth,” Rios said. “I had to make a choice that felt as safe as possible for me, but it still doesn’t feel right.”

This likely will be a growing issue in the business travel world as more Generation Z employees enter the workforce, Cusdin said. Surveys have shown that as a high as 15 to 20 percent of U.S. Gen Z members identify as trans or nonbinary and “definitely see gender as a spectrum,” she said. The U.S. State Department this month implemented the ability for U.S. citizens to choose either “male” or “female” gender association on their passports, rather than having it assigned according to their birth certificate. Soon, the department announced, it would also add a nonbinary option, but the start date was not clear. Even so, such declarations may not be recognized outside the U.S. and it is a question how nonbinary individuals would choose to represent themselves should they need to travel to locations where nonconforming gender identification is criminalized. 

Security checkpoints can be a stress point for LGBTQ+ travelers for other reasons too. Those who are using prescribed medications for HIV or HIV prevention can encounter problems as well, Caplan said. Despite decades of education and advances around HIV, some people still consider it a “gay disease,” and when security officials in some countries see the medication, it essentially outs the travelers, he said. There have even been instances of the medications being seized at borders, according to Caplan.

Microaggressions in business travel can add up, too, the travelers said. Both Kopp as well as Ayers and Martinez said they have had uncomfortable conversations with well-meaning front desk employees at hotels who, when they are traveling as a couple, insist upon changing their pre-arranged king bed reservation into two queen beds, assuming they are doing a favor for two female friends traveling together. For Kopp, one trip in China with her wife required a conversation with four clerks to get the king-sized suite they reserved. Ayers said while it’s understandable that an employee would want to double-check room preferences, it sometimes is done in an indelicate manner, with the employee asking, “Are you sure you just want one king bed?”

“It’s in the lobby of a hotel, and their voice carries, so there’s that embarrassment,” Ayers said.

For Cusdin, there’s also the constant possibility of being misgendered, such as being called “sir” by an airport ticket agent, taxi driver or hotel desk staff. As such, there’s one extra item she always makes sure to bring with her while traveling.

“I have a little saying as I’m going through the airport: I’ve packed my bag, but I’ve packed my Zen as well,” she said. “I just have to chill out and roll with things, and if I get misgendered, it’s not the end of the world, and I’m continuing my journey.”

Panelists agreed that being able to discuss these issues with their companies was an important step in the right direction. Being a part of her company’s DE&I team and the related monthly meetings, has been helpful for Ayers, as it fosters an environment where she would be comfortable raising issues that arise while traveling, she said. 

“Making it more human and having my direct leader start bringing up challenging subjects has made me more open to sharing my experiences, more than it just being a policy,” Ayers said. She encouraged businesses and managers to start talking about these issues more openly as a way to support to LGBTQ+ individuals should they encounter problems while traveling on business. “I’m starting to see [that],” she said, “and that’s exciting.” 

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