In Trailblazers

Trailblazers Q&A: LGBTQI Activist and Writer, Heather Cassell, of Girls That Roam

LGBTQI Activist Writer Heather Cassell Girls That Roam

Off the beaten path travel is increasingly difficult to find as time marches on. Mass tourism is impacting everything from our favorite cities to the seas that surround them. All the while locals and the environment are often an afterthought. This series, Trailblazers, checks in with writers, photographers, filmmakers, activists and environmentalists who are passionate about off the beaten path travel.

Heather Cassell: Girls That Roam

Heather Cassell is an LGBTQI activist, writer, and co-founder of Girls That Roam. She co-founded the digital media site with her girlfriend, Geena Dabadghav, in 2012. Heather is also a freelance travel writer, international LGBTQI news columnist, and a general assignment reporter with the Bay Area Reporter.

Without A Path LGBTQI-specific travel seems to be increasingly popular. What are your impressions?

Heather Cassell You’re absolutely right. LGBTQI travel has gained interest from the travel and hospitality industries since the recession hit in 2008. It’s not slowing down either. There are a few reasons for this: One, until recent years, the LGBTQI community was somewhat ignored by the mainstream hospitality and travel industries, despite many LGBTQI people who work in the industries at all levels and the fact that the LGBTQI community loves to travel. Some surveys have shown that LGBTQI people travel more often than heterosexual people travel.

That was until hard times hit and it was discovered that LGBTQI travelers, mostly gay white men, were an untapped market that could help keep the travel industry afloat during the harsh economic downturn. The myth was that the two men were “dual income, no kids” and therefore had disposable income. It worked, and more destinations and hotels have started to target LGBTQI travelers in travel campaigns. Costa Rica is a good example, despite the country already being a popular destination for queer women, representatives announced in September 2017 that it was working on campaigns to increase US travelers, and for the first time ever, LGBTQI travelers. A half year later, the IAHRC Court based in San José legalized same-sex marriage in the Central American country and expanded that order to all of Latin America and the Caribbean that hadn’t already legalized same-sex marriage. Furthermore, the country’s citizens voted for the pro-LGBTQI candidate as president in a landslide against an anti-LGBTQI presidential candidate during a run-off election at the beginning of this month.

Also, within the past two years, the travel industry started to expand marketing campaigns beyond gay white men in an attempt to be more inclusive of queer women, LGBTQI people of color, and transgender travelers. Prime examples are:

1. Fort Lauderdale’s tourism bureau, which lured Southern Comfort, a transgender conference to its city and launched a campaign for transgender travelers;
2. Palm Springs’ visitors bureau has been a longtime supporter of The Dinah, the largest all women’s party in the world, actively promoting it; and
3. MGM Resorts International purchased the Las Vegas Aces, which will draw a large lesbian community to games.
4. Israel launched an aggressive LGBTQI travel campaign a decade ago and its reaped the benefits financially. The country touts itself as the only gay-friendly country in the Middle East with gay-friendly laws and has two LGBTQI community centers that are funded by the local municipalities: Tel Aviv and Haifa. A majority of LGBTQI community centers are funded through donations and grants, making these two centers unique.

There are many destinations that are discovering the benefits, economic and otherwise, of marketing to LGBTQI travelers.

Two, increasingly, more countries and cities are passing pro-LGBTQI laws, which casts them in a positive light for LGBTQI travelers. Recent examples are Ireland, Australia, and Taiwan. Ireland and Australia are the only two countries that passed same-sex marriage by public vote. Taiwan’s highest court ordered same-sex marriage to be legalized. Immediately following the marriage equality victories, these countries saw an uptick in LGBTQI travel. This year, Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which celebrated its 40th anniversary, had its largest attendance in history. Taiwan experienced the same increase in attendance at its annual Pride event last October.

Three, growing acceptance of the LGBTQI community. The Williams Institute, an LGBTQI think tank based in Los Angeles, released a new study this month using a methodology to measure global acceptance found that acceptance of LGBTQI people has grown in 80 out of 141 countries since the 1980s, 46 countries experienced a decline and 15 experienced no change. When the LGBTQI travelers feel more welcomed, the more likely they will travel to that destination or stay in that hotel.

WAP Tell us about Girls That Roam.

HC Girls That Roam is an online women’s travel magazine that also provides travel services.

I casually started Girls That Roam in 2010 because one of the first things I noticed when researching for press trips was that women travelers were very segregated by sexual orientation, race, and interests online. It wasn’t the world that I live in (San Francisco) where we are very integrated but also respect each community’s space. I wanted to create a place online where women who love to travel or who are interested in traveling could find information and be inspired by other women travelers to explore the world. I also wanted to support women in the travel and hospitality industry by telling their stories.

WAP What inspired you to get more involved in talking about LGBTQI travel?

HC Being one of the few queer women travel writers, I’m invited to speak on panels to talk about queer women’s travel and it’s something that I like doing. However, before being invited to speak on panels at travel conferences, whenever I was on a press trip I would be asked by travel and hospitality professionals about how to attract LGBTQI travelers to their destinations, hotels, or tours. That’s now leading to consulting with hospitality and travel businesses about LGBTQI travelers.

WAP How can we respectfully differentiate gay travel from lesbian travel and travel for other communities?

HC Be inclusive in the language and photographs you use in marketing campaigns and have staff trained on being culturally sensitive.

For marketing campaigns, the first thing we see is the imagery. Instead of having only gay white men in advertising and marketing materials, include LGBTQI travelers who are a couple, an interracial couple or family, a couple or family who is of color, or a solo woman traveler. In the ads, don’t just slap a rainbow in the image somewhere, use real LGBTQI models and signals to hint that this person, couple, or family is LGBTQI. Advertise in LGBTQI, gay, and lesbian publications. Attend Pride celebrations, sponsor community events, and much more. Get involved in the community. For other marketing ideas, I suggest reading the “Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality: A Guide for Business Practice” or I’m developing online classes to work with travel and hospitality companies with their marketing to LGBTQI and women travelers.

For cultural sensitivity, take online workshops or in-person workshops to become TAG-certified, an LGBTQI hotel sensitivity training offered by Community Marketing Incorporated. Or connect with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, which also provides workshops and can connect travel professionals with experts in marketing to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming travelers and communities.

WAP How can the travel industry be more inclusive of all travelers, including those in the LGBTQI community?

HC It comes down to respect and common sense. For example, the clerk at the former Hilton Hotel in Sonoma asked my girlfriend if she wanted separate beds when she checked us in. My girlfriend was shocked and annoyed, especially since it was a TAG-approved hotel and the clerk appeared to be a member of the LGBTQI community. It is as simple as that detail that could make someone feel unwelcomed or on edge, which spills into their whole experience while on vacation.

With that said, LGBTQI people are people too, just acknowledge when you make a mistake and usually it will be forgiven, and we can learn from each other.

WAP What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced since getting involved in covering LGBTQI travel?

HC Small towns and what they have to offer LGBTQI travelers. One of the positive effects of the great recession was people returning from their experiences in the cities and the world to their hometowns and opening up businesses that revitalized their towns. I’ve also noticed a shift that there is a growing number of LGBTQI people who are starting to feel that they have to run off to the big cities to live their lives away from hate from their families or communities. They are being accepted and they are also contributing their queer eye and experiences to revitalizing their towns.

One of the sad effects of assimilation is that many LGBTQI people aren’t supporting the historic LGBTQI businesses. We have been seeing the closure of gay and lesbian-owned businesses from accommodations to bookstores (started in the late 90s) to destinations. The LGBTQI communities have started to push back to avoid being erased by claiming and marking gaybourhoods, like the Castro in San Francisco has its Rainbow History Walk with bronze plaques commemorating people in LGBTQI history in the sidewalks and rainbow crosswalks. With recent political events, LGBTQI people are starting to realize that they have to support their businesses in order to have safe places to go to find community because even in America, LGBTQI people aren’t always accepted and it can sometimes be dangerous.

WAP Do you have a favorite destination you recommend for LGBTQI travelers?

HC I would have to say Madrid right now. Aside from Spain being one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage and pass other pro-LGBTQI laws, Madrid is amazing. It has a great gaybourhood in the center of the city, an amazing food scene, nightlife, great art galleries and museums, shopping, its clean, has a very good public transportation system as well as being walkable, and no one bats an eyelash if you are walking down the street holding your partner’s hand. It’s no wonder the city was host to World and Euro Prides last year.

WAP When will your job be done?

HC As long as there are people who hate LGBTQI people in the world, my job won’t be done.

WAP Could you offer a tip for readers who might be traveling with their same-sex significant other for the first time?

HC Do your homework, safety is number one. Know the laws, cultural customs (i.e. no public displays of affection or for women don’t go out after dark in some destinations), and social attitudes of LGBTQI people in the destination. There are a number of ways to find out by looking up the LGBT Equality Index, the Williams Institute’s reports, the Human Rights Campaign’s Global arm, OutRight Action International, and the UN World Travel in partnership with the IGLTA publishes a report on LGBTQI travel — these are all really good places to start online. Read local LGBTQI publications or find organizations in the country and contact them. Check the visitors bureau’s website and see if it has a dedicated page devoted to LGBTQI travel. It’s really easy to find information about a destination and its LGBTQI community these days.

WAP What are you working on at the moment or what are you most looking forward to?

HC I’m working on a number of exciting projects, but perhaps the most exciting one is developing the agency side of the website to bring together women-only travel as well as women-owned accommodations, tours, and other businesses into one space. Right now, these businesses are scattered on the web without a single place for women to find them and book them. It’s been a longtime goal of mine and right now is the right time to do it with the number of women-only travel companies starting up and women wanting to travel only with other women right now with the #timesup, #metoo, and the Women’s March. Feminism is back and empowering women to connect and see the world is our mantra: Just Connect. Women + Map = Revolution.


This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Photo courtesy of Heather Cassell.

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