Exclusive Interview about LGBT Travel Safety and the U.S. Department of State

By Sophie Needelman

The LGBT travel niche has become a thriving economist force in tourism
both domestically and abroad. Given the diversity in backgrounds and
experiences around the world, LGBT travel safety is being promoted more
and more on a political level to promote awareness and education across
all realms of society. For better or for worse, a destination’s attitude
toward the LGBT community is an important factor to keep in mind when
planning travel and tourism details. The U.S. State Department is
spearheading the efforts of promoting and circulating LGBT travel
information online by developing resources and support regarding travel
for the LGBT community. Consequences for engaging in homosexual activity
vary around the world, so it is important to have an understanding of
the context of where you are traveling.

CEO Steve Rohrlick was recently invited to a roundtable with the State
Department in D.C. to discuss the importance of promoting LGBT travel
safety for Americans traveling abroad. This roundtable consisted of a
variety of government officials and leaders from the gay travel
community to start a dialogue on how the government can facilitate
travel safety awareness. Specifically, the State Department has put
together an online forum of resources:http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/lgbt/lgbt_5887.html

the roundtable, GayTravel.com got the inside scoop through this
exclusive interview with GayTravel.com CEO Steve Rohrlick, as well as
Jack Markey, the Division Chief for Africa in the U.S. Department of
State’s Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management about
LGBT travel safety. Check it out!

GT: How did you get involved in the State Department’s roundtable on LGBT Travel Safety abroad?

I am a division chief in the Office of American Citizens Services and
Crisis Management.  This office – publishes information about safety and
security concerns for U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad.  Our
State Department Travel Warnings and Country Specific Information
documents are two good examples.    We recently started a systematic
expansion of the information we provide to LGBT travelers through our
Country Specific Information sheets. A roundtable discussion on how U.S.
citizens obtain important travel information overseas was a great way
to highlight this, in addition to highlighting the debut of our LGBT
travel information page.

GT: What sort of perspective were you able to offer the group on the needs of the LGBT travel community?

An informed traveler is a smart traveler.  LGBT travelers needed access
to official, accurate and timely information that is also relevant to
the specific concerns facing LGBT travelers overseas.  It’s important to
know whether certain over-the-counter medications are banned in some
countries, or that certain styles of dress are frowned upon by the local
community.  But it’s even more critical for travelers to know whether
there are cases of harassment, threats, or violence directed towards
LGBT persons in a particular country, or that a country criminalizes
consensual same-sex sexual relations, with legal implications.  Finally,
it’s important for LGBT travelers to have the assurance that they can
turn to consular officers at U.S. embassies and consulates for help if
they run into trouble abroad.

SR: The team at gaytravel.com
fully supports what it is the state dept is doing. One of the things
that became apparent from the meeting is that it takes about 6 months
for the State Department to update any changes in a specific location.
That is understandable with all the destinations they are covering.
However things can change significantly in a six month period. I
suggested that With the power of the internet gaytravel and other LGBT
travel related websites could help facilitate feedback from LGBT
residents and travelers in a real time fashion, thus enhancing the great
work the State department is already doing.

GT: What are the goals of the State Department regarding LGBT travel safety and how are you able to contribute to their efforts?

The state dept. is responsible for all U.S. citizens once they leave
the United States. The travel safe program is good for all travelers,
and with the recent developments also address specific issues relevant
to  LGBT travelers. We plan to utilize the power of internet and our
network of millions of travelers at GayTravel.com-to track on the ground
changes in a more timely manner. As part of our site redesign this
Fall, we plan to add an RSS feed from the State Department, along with
our own updates with regard to attitudes and treatment of LGBT
individuals around the globe.

One of the top priorities of the State Department and the Bureau of
Consular Affairs is protecting the lives and interests of U.S. citizens
abroad.  Keeping travelers informed and updated with the latest and most
accurate information helps U.S. citizens travel safely.  One of the
best ways for U.S. citizens to stay connected to this information is
through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which also allows loved
ones in the U.S. to locate you in times of distress or emergency. 
Additionally, travelers should also visit travel.state.gov
to get the latest country-specific information, and make sure they have
adequate  health and travel insurance for emergencies. LGBT travelers
should read our LGBT Travel Information page, and review the linked
resources.  Our Country Specific Information for LGBT travelers is
undergoing a systematic expansion.  All of this information is reviewed
and updated at least every six months.

GT: Will you/how will you continue to stay involved with the State Department and its efforts to promote travel safety?

As I mentioned earlier, my office – the Office of American Citizens
Services and Crisis Management – publishes information about safety and
security concerns for U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad.  In
addition to our Country Specific Information and Travel Warnings, we
also publish information for niche market travelers, available on our
Bureau of Consular Affairs website.  We have information for older
Americans, Americans retiring abroad, medical tourism, voluntourism all
on our website, and a related website for students planning overseas
studies or travel.

GayTravel.com will definitely stay in touch with the State Department-
they are providing a valuable service to all U.S citizens. We plan to 
harness the power of the global LGBT community to provide additional and
more current safety related information on the gaytravel.com
website in a more real time version as an enhancement to what the State
Department is doing. The work both organizations do are complimentary
to  one another so it is absolutely a priority a priority for us to
remain involved.

GT: How should safety and homophobia influence travel for the LGBT community?

JM: Safety should be a top priority for every overseas traveler.  We
never tell U.S. citizens that they can’t travel to a particular
location, but we do make every effort to provide them with an accurate
assessment of safety and security concerns abroad for them to use in
determining their own acceptable level of risk. LGBT travelers should
carefully consider the laws, customs, and culture of the countries they
are planning to visit, and decide what measures they want to take in
order to protect themselves.  Good judgment and knowledge of local laws
and customs before traveling abroad will help ensure personal safety.
LGBT persons traveling abroad for leisure have the option to decide
where they will travel.  Business travelers and younger persons
accompanying their parents may not have the same flexibility in choosing
where to travel, and may find themselves in a country where the culture
or custom  where there are criminal penalties simply for being LGBT.

At the end of the day that is really a question that each traveler
needs to answer for themselves.  A smart traveler is a safe traveler, so
you have to do your homework in advance.

GT: What resources are available for the LGBT community regarding travel safety abroad?

JM: The State Department publishes Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts,
Country Specific Information, and a wide range of facts sheets on our Travel.State.Gov
website.  We also have an LGBT Travel Information page that identifies a
number of resources, both general and LGBT-specific, for LGBT
travelers.  You can download our free Smart Traveler App, available
through iTunes and Google play, to have this travel information at your
fingertips. If you sign up for our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program
(STEP), you will also have up-to-date safety and security messages sent
directly to your email inbox when you’re abroad by the nearest U.S.
embassy or consulate. 

but very importantly, you can contact the American Citizens Services
(ACS) Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.  Consular
officers there may be able to help you if you run into problems
overseas, especially if you feel that you can’t approach the local
police or encounter difficulties with local authorities.  Consular
officers will protect your privacy, and won’t make generalizations,
assumptions, or pass judgement.  They also monitor and record incidents
U.S. citizens report to them about the treatment they receive from host
authorities.  Our embassies regularly raise issues of concern,
especially inappropriate treatment or harassment of our citizens, with
relevant officials.

What can members of the LGBT community do to promote travel safety both
at home and abroad? How can LGBT travelers get involved in these
efforts of the State Department?

Perhaps the best thing that individual travelers can do is to research
their travel destinations before leaving home, and make wise decisions. 
And by all means, let your friends and family know about the
information on our website and the resources, like STEP and our Smart
Traveler App, that we offer.  LGBT media, travel, and business
organizations can place our icon on their websites to direct visitors to
the LGBT information on our website.

SR: We plan to proudly display the LGBT State Department icon on the gaytravel.com
site and to provide access via an RSS feed. We will also have a
methodology on the next version of our site for LGBT travelers and
citizens to inform the LGBT community at large as to their observations
on the ground wherever they may be.