For U.S. LGBT travelers going abroad, the State Department wants you to know that it has your back. That was the message given Wednesday during the agency's first ever roundtable concerning LGBT gobal travel.
"It is important for our LGBT citizens to travel safe and smart," said Janice L. Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, who provided welcoming remarks to the roundtable panelists and participants.
Jacobs also acknowledged the economic impact that U.S. LGBT travelers have on the global economy, which various studies have estimated at $50 to $65 billion.
The non-government panelists included John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), and Charlie Rounds, president of Forward Motion Travel and managing director of Brand g Vacations.
Tanzella and Rounds both commended the State Department for its current work and ongoing support for LGBT equality globally.
In October 2012, IGLTA, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, launched a foundation with a mission to use the power of LGBT travel to build bridges with communities globally. Rounds, who is also serving as IGLTA Foundation chair, stated that he felt the State Department's efforts would serve to help the LGBT community serve as ad hoc "ambassadors" as they travel to places that might not be accepting of homosexuality.
The roundtable coincided with the launch of the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs Smart Traveler Day campaign.
Smart Traveler Day is designed to encourage U.S. citizens to travel smart by learning about their destinations before they travel, and by staying connected when they are abroad by enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which can be done at Travel.State.Gov or through a new mobile app.
As part of the State Department's evolving effort to assist and protect LGBT travelers, it recently issued its first LGBT travel advisory that addresses such issues as what documents LGBT individuals and families should carry when traveling abroad, the policy of the U.S. Department of State regarding the passport identity of transgender travelers, and the HIV entry requirements of foreign countries.
In addition, the State Department is in the process of updating its Country Specific Information documents to reflect information about attitudes, harassment or arrests relating to LGBT travelers.
A new Country Specific Information document for Estonia released Jan. 29 states, "Estonian law prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics, and the government generally respects these prohibitions." However, the document also references incidents of verbal or physical assault and cautions that "LGBT travelers should consider exercising caution when visiting Estonia, especially with regard to expressing affection in public."
Kenneth Kero-Mentz, the State Department's senior advisor on global LGBT issues and the moderator of the roundtable, cited the Estonia document as the type of information that will eventually be included on future Country Specific Information documents. He also stressed that updating documents for countries that criminalize homosexuality will be a priority.
While the State Department's efforts are closely tied to President Obama's broader campaign for LGBT equality, Jack Markey, division chief in the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Overseas Citizens Services, believes that the Bureau of Consular Affairs' responsibility "to make sure that all U.S. citizens have access to accurate and current information when planning overseas travel" will continue to include LGBT travelers even after the Obama administration ends.
Markey, who says he proudly displays a photo of his same-sex partner on his desk, is responsible for overseeing the updating of many of County Specific Information documents.
Many of the roundtable panelists and participants referenced the December 2011 International Human Rights Day speech to representatives of the United Nations by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a solidifying moment in the department's efforts to advocate for LGBT equality.
As part of that speech, Clinton said, "Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."
Bob Witeck, president of Washington-based Witeck Communications and an expert in LGBT travel marketing, believes the State Department is staying true to Clinton's words.
In reference to the roundtable, Witeck said, "I came away impressed by the combined voices of the State Department and private-sector leaders to reach out to LGBT travelers. While these steps are a start, they also are historic and signal how valuable LGBT tourism is to our economy and to our community."