Friday, 14 June 2013

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.’s 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:

Since the roundtable, got the inside scoop through this exclusive interview with 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?

JM: 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?

JM: 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 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?

SR: 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 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.

JM: 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 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?

JM: 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.

SR: 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 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.

SR: 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.

Finally, 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.

GT: 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?

JM: 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 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.