Why We Need to Talk About Making Work Travel Safe for LGBTQ Employees

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Liv McConnell
Liv McConnell
When Emma Schwartz proposed to her then-girlfriend, she couldn’t wait to share the news with her team. A senior product director at a diverse tech and media startup, Schwartz was close with her coworkers and had always been open about her personal life with them. She knew they’d be excited for her.
There was, however, one problem. 
Schwartz’s boss had recently decided to send her, along with a few other colleagues, to scout out what he called the “best dev shops” in the country — which, ostensibly, was an exciting career opportunity. Where the shops were located, though, was decidedly less exciting for Schwartz; each was in a zip code known for promoting anti-LGBTQ+ or racist ideology. And she learned she was to arrive in one such location, a suburb outside of Dallas, directly from the trip where she would be proposing to her partner.
“I thought, 'Couldn’t you have found the best dev shop in Hawaii — or at least someplace where I would have felt safe?'” Schwartz said during a Tech Inclusion New York panel on Wednesday (June 27). “The fact that I wasn’t part of the process in choosing locations, and that there wasn’t a conversation where this could have been included early on, is a function of needing to be more proactively inclusive.”
Despite having “never been more excited about anything” as she was about her engagement, Schwartz spent three days in Texas keeping mum to her coworkers, choosing only to share the big news once she was back in a safe environment. And this self-editing is something Schwartz’s fellow panelists have employed in their own careers as a means of protection while traveling in potentially hostile environs, as well. 
“I love the jacket I’m wearing today, but when traveling, there’s a question of: Will this pass?” panelist Jaime Woo, a senior communications manager at Digital Ocean, said, gesturing at his colorful blazer. “Sometimes when I’m passing through security, I think, ‘Do I look too queer? Am I going to draw the attention of someone on their bad day who’s looking to make my life a little tougher because they don’t like how I look?’” 
Woo noted that he could choose, if neccessary, to wear a subtler jacket if the area he was traveling through was known to be hostile toward LBGTQ+ folk. But there’s another element of his identity he can’t as easily camouflage. 
“I can’t hide my Asian ethnicity,” Woo noted. “It winds up being a constant checklist around the different dimensionalities we have: which, in this situation, is going to be a problem? And when I go to conferences, I kind of always have to do a checklist, or algorithm, for how much ‘respectability’ I have to play and what’s okay to share.” 
For panelist Marion Daly, an engineering manager at Mozilla, these nuanced considerations can often manifest themselves in one particularly prominent way. 
“I’m a Jewish transwoman, and there are states I can’t pee in,” she said. “Often, managers trying to find new candidates (at conferences) don’t really think that through, because they’re not thinking of the entire spectrum.” 
Of course, this is to say nothing of the complications at best and hazards at worst that work travel can pose for LGBTQ+ folks traveling outside of (or into) the U.S. For that reason, Daly emphasizes the importance of international companies rotating which countries they host conferences and events in, and to not make employees feel pressured to attend; at Mozilla, she noted this particularly came to a head for non-white, internationally based employees following Trump’s “Muslim Ban" and, more recently, the separations taking place at the border.
“We make it clear that it’s optional to come to the U.S. for our meetings, and we’ll also have meetings outside of the states, as well; our next is in Berlin,” Daly said. “Don’t force people to travel to countries they’re not comfortable traveling to, and do your best to accommodate those who aren’t comfortable.” 
Another duty of employers, according to panelist Colleen Finnegan, a manager of recruiting marketing at Squarespace, is to be fully aware of where you’re sending employees in the first place (“It’s your responsibility to know what the conference is all about”) and also to invest in one basic — but extremely important — security measure.
“Get TSA pre-checks for employees,” Finnegan urged. “That’s one thing you can do that’s so simple. Body scanners are not a pleasant experience for a lot of people — especially non-cis people.” 
Additionally, they continued, don’t force employees to bunk together in shared rooms for out-of-town work events. Having to share a room with people whose ideology you may not be familiar with can be distressing, and not only to LGBTQ+ folks; as a sober person, Finnegan noted that having to share a room with coworkers who've been drinking is uncomfortable in and of itself.
Once the need for these types of measures is promoted not as a fringe topic, but as a key component of protecting employees’ well-being, Woo concluded, work travel can begin to be a more inclusive experience for all.
“These measures are a checkbox,” Woo said. “The inclusivity of every decision you’re making is part of that process — not some additional addendum that gets attached to things."