Traveling should be about discovering the world, but the world isn’t always a welcoming place for queer people. Even in progressive countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, discrimination is widespread — from hotel owners not letting gay couples share a bed to attacks on transgender people using public restrooms.
LGBTQ people making their voices heard has helped the progression of equality, but straight allies are important, too. If we want to live in a world where people are accepted without exception, we all need to be part of the solution. We need everyone to speak up and put their words into action — it’s the only way to change the hearts and minds of those around us.
Allyship isn’t always straightforward or easy. In the age of digital activism and corporate sponsorship, public displays of support often come under fire for being shallow, insincere, and opportunistic at worst. It’s easy to look good on social media with a rainbow filter on your profile photo and woke #LoveIsLove Instagram posts, but there are more impactful ways to make the world a more comfortable and accepting place for everyone. Here’s how to be a real queer ally on the road.
1. Put LGBTQ businesses on your itinerary.
When you’re planning your trip, add businesses that are run by LGBTQ people to your itinerary. The International LGBTQ+ Travel Association has a huge list to choose from, including accommodation, transportation, travel agents, tour operators, and events.
As well as supporting smaller LGBTQ-run businesses, shop with bigger companies that don’t just target queer people as customers but talk about equal treatment for LGBTQ people year-round. IKEA co-created a UN Standard of Conduct that addresses discrimination in the workplace, while American Airlines actively supports anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and offers nonbinary gender pronoun markers for customers and employees. Supporting these kinds of organizations means you’re giving power to the community. After all, it’s much harder to suppress and ignore a group when it has money behind it.
2. Stand up to discrimination.
LGBTQ people still face terrible violence and discrimination. In 2019, at least 331 transgender people were murdered worldwide — and attacks on same-sex couples are shockingly common, even in countries that support the LGBT rights declaration. So what can you do?
Perhaps the most important way to be an ally is to stand up to discrimination when no LGBTQ people are present. Being an ally isn’t just about celebrating and partying at Pride — it’s about being an educator in your own community and calling out things like transphobic or homophobic jokes or comments.
You could speak up if you hear an LGBTQ person being ridiculed or harassed for their orientation — but only if it’s safe to do so, and you’re sure it’ll help the situation. If not, there are other ways to assist, including staying nearby and calling the police.
If there’s a physical or sexual assault, help the person find medical assistance, and if additional support is needed, you can contact the local embassy. You could also consider sharing their story to spread awareness of the injustices LGBTQ people still face worldwide — but remember to discuss this with the person involved and ask for consent if they want to discuss it at all.
When addressing homophobia in another country, bear in mind it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change a person’s deep-rooted cultural views overnight — nor will it always be safe to do so. Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries, so it’s wise to know your rights before you take action. If you’re not sure what to say or do, just being present and attentive is often enough.
3. Raise the most marginalized voices in the community.
It’s important to celebrate those who are most marginalized within the LGBTQ community, including people of color, trans and gender-nonconforming people, sex workers, and the homeless.
You can show your support in lots of ways, including by buying art, books, and magazines; attending exhibitions, concerts, or talks; and sharing articles and blog posts. You can publicly recognize important days for marginalized people, including the Transgender Day of Remembrance and UK Black Pride. You could also support charities that help the people who need it most, like The Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicides among LGBTQ youth. Spread information and help amplify everyone’s voices — not just those we’re more used to hearing.
4. Educate yourself.
If you meet a queer person while traveling, it may be tempting to unload all your unanswered questions at once. But queer people aren’t educators or spokespeople — and the community is diverse, so one person doesn’t represent everyone. People’s sexuality or gender isn’t their identity, and it’s not anyone’s duty to discuss LGBTQ issues at any time.
The best way to be an ally is to continually educate yourself, first and foremost. Follow LGBTQ people on Twitter and Instagram. Read novels, attend talks, and watch documentaries featuring queer people telling their own stories. Book publisher Penguin has a great list of titles by LGBTQ authors to get you started, and Gay Times has one for films. When it comes to TV, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Orange is the New Black, and Sex Education bring modern-day LGBTQ lives into the mainstream, while retrospective art exhibitions and literature help us understand the difficulties queer people faced in the past.
5. Ask questions, but don’t get too personal.
You can learn a lot from talking to people. Don’t shy away from questions, but remember to focus on perspective, rather than overly personal things.
As a good rule of thumb, ask yourself if you’d ask a cisgender heterosexual person about their genitals, sexual preferences, or quiz them on a similarly personal topic. If the answer’s “probably not,” then err on the side of caution. And always assess your own motives: Do you want to find out about someone’s experience so you can be a better ally — or are you just being a bit nosy? If it’s the latter, then consult the internet instead.
6. Give LGBTQ people space.
This is a tricky one. Should heterosexual people go to queer spaces? Well, maybe. But in most cases, probably not. While you may think going to a gay bar is harmless fun and a good way to support a local business — and in some instances, it can be — it’s also important to remember these spaces offer LGBTQ people a haven from the heterosexual gaze. As one drag queen eloquently puts it, “These spaces allow queers to talk, flirt, and unwind without drawing sneers, slurs, curious stares, or even unwanted support — My son is gay, too! Gay bars are the one space that an LGBTQ person can enter without scanning the crowd for potential trouble.”
It’s always good to support businesses like LGBTQ-owned cafes, shops, galleries, and events, but when it comes to specifically queer spaces, see if there’s somewhere else you can drink instead. If you do end up at a gay bar or drag show, remember to tip performers well and behave respectfully. If in doubt, you can always ask the venue, event organizer, or attendees.
Speaking of spaces, binary toilets and changing rooms can be stressful places for nonbinary people, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding trans presence in these spaces. Giving rights to one group of people doesn’t mean taking rights away from another group — and the assertion that trans people represent a threat to cisgender people is unfounded. People suggesting otherwise are simply whipping up unnecessary panic.
7. If you do make mistakes, don’t make them about you.
Sometimes, you might use the wrong pronoun or ask a clumsy question. Don’t stress — we all slip up. The difference between it being okay and not okay is how the situation is handled. Remember that mistakes are part of the learning process, so don’t give up, get defensive, or over apologize and make it about you. Mistakes are easier for everyone when we acknowledge the error, apologize, learn from it, and move on. It’s as easy as that.
8. Be aware of your surroundings.
Just because someone’s come out to you in private, it doesn’t mean you can out that person yourself in public. In some places, this could pose a safety threat to everyone involved. Likewise, be aware of your surroundings when discussing LGBTQ topics. Some trans or nonbinary people might not be out at home or work and prefer to be addressed differently in those places. By asking when and where it’s safe to use someone’s preferred pronouns, you’ll save on any awkward situations.
9. Look beyond Pride, and festivals in general.
Turning up to Pride parades around the world is a great way to be an ally, especially in countries where the celebration is still taboo. In addition to Pride, consider adding a few more LGBTQ events to your calendar. There’s a huge array to choose from, from Midsumma, a festival of queer art and culture in Australia, to Cheries Cheris, an LGBTQ film festival in Paris. Cast the net a little further and you’ll not only learn more about how to be the best ally you can be — you could get to spend time with some incredibly inspirational people.