The Future Is Genderless

This is the text of Billy Kolber’s remarks at the TED-Style IGLTA Travel Talk, closing out the IGLTA 2019 Global Convention, Delivered April 27, 2019.

You can’t provide personalized, authentic service to LGBTQ people if you don’t understand who we are, and feel comfortable engaging with us.

When travel destinations and brands say they’re LGBTQ+ friendly, what they really mean is they’re very comfortable serving the rich, white gay men who have been visiting them for the past decade. Most have no idea who the T, Q or all the people represented by the + are, let alone how to welcome us respectfully and personally.

My business partners Kenny Porpora and Ed Salvato and I have spent much of the last three years developing a diversity and inclusion curriculum, and delivering it to tourism and hospitality professionals around the world. And I’d like to take a moment to recognize Kenny and Ed — you inspire and challenge me every day, and it’s an honor to share this journey of learning with you, and to be working with so many incredible colleagues here.

It’s been the most meaningful work of my long career. Hospitality people are empathetic, sympathetic, caring people, who have never had a professional conversation about who queer people are, what we experience when we travel, and how to be more comfortable engaging with us. We give them the knowledge and the tools to be more comfortable, it’s has inspired three people to come out to their colleagues during our sessions.. And it has demanded we look hard at our own biases and information gaps, to be the change we want to see in the world. And it has led me to the conclusion that the future of travel needs to be genderless.

Our industry is one of the most heavily gendered, with ideas about hospitality and respect that date back to the Victorian era. Virtually everything we know about travel is built on a paradigm of the heterosexual couple, mostly white, mostly American, British or German, traveling around the world.

We hold doors and pull out chairs for women, and hand wine lists to men. We market spas to women and adventure to men. For years, hotels have given couples two pairs of slippers – one big and one small. And queer friendly hotels are proud to give lesbians two small slippers and gay men two large slippers, not realizing they’re solving for the wrong problem. You can’t give everyone slippers that fit if you’re deciding the size by gender.

When we divide people by gender, and perpetuate gendered service standards, we contribute to the persistent inequality of women. And we deny the humanity of our non-binary friends and colleagues. One in 2000 babies are born with indeterminate genitalia. And that’s just one way that someone might be born non-binary. When you add up all of the ways someone might not be definitively male or female, non-binary people are as common as people with red hair – not very common, but not very rare either.

This February, the International Air Transport Association issued guidelines for the acceptance of non-binary passenger ID. And on March 22nd, United Airlines became the first airline in the world to roll out a systems update to incorporate them – if you go United today to book a flight, you’ll see two additional gender options, Unspecified and Undisclosed, in addition to Male and Female. It’s an amazing advance, and does so much to recognize and validate the existence of the non-binary community. But it also begs the question of why we’re asking airline passengers their gender in the first place? In this age of biometrics, why does a passport even need to note our gender?

The only way to combat our own implicit biases around gender is to constantly ask ourselves if gender is playing a role in our thinking or actions, and if so why? I mostly believe Joe Biden when he says there’s no sexual intent behind his physicality with women. But if he’s only kissing women on the back of the head, and not men, what does that say?

This questioning around the gender-neutrality of our actions is also useful for reducing the sexualization of our work environment. This is particularly relevant and timely for our community. The LGBTQ Travel industry promotes a shockingly sexualized work environment. I say shocking – because our friends and family who work in virtually any other industry would be fired immediately for behavior that is pervasive and accepted in ours.

When I joined this organization in 1992, we didn’t have so many gay group social outlets, and there were few boundaries between professional, social and sexual. The IGTA conventions were a cruising ground for many of us, myself included, and in our relatively homogenous group of gay men in that very different era, it wasn’t a problem. The times have changed. Our behavior not so much.

Today, we’re trying to make our organization welcoming to a much more diverse group of people, We are living through a pubic metoo era of accountability. We are partnering with mainstream companies like AIG, Airbnb and Google – whose cultures around inclusion and harassment are much more evolved than ours. The young gay men in this organization are being aggressively sexualized and pursued by men in positions of power and it makes it difficult for them to speak up.  We must have this conversation. And we must change. 

Last month, I was at my sixth WTTC Global Summit. The WTTC gathers the most senior leaders in our industry, and for six years, I have been lobbying its members to put diversity and inclusion on their agenda. Finally it happened, and I was on the main stage talking about queer travelers. Another highlight of my long career.

I joined a celebratory dinner at a hidden gem of a restaurant on the closing night of the conference. There were 14 of us  – including good friends, colleagues, clients and a couple of potential clients. Many people I’ve known for years, and a few I just met. Some senior leaders from some of the most powerful travel brands in our industry. The wine flowed, the conversation flowed, and then someone at the other end of the table passed around their phone to share a meme. It was two naked guys on the beach. A black guy with a big penis, a white guy with a small one and the caption “how racism started” “Um, inappropriate” I said. Someone asked if I was serious. “well, Kinda… if you worked in banking, you would lose your job for that.” Someone said “that’s why we’re not in banking. ” A couple people laughed. I started doing the math. The people at that table represented at least $150,000 in current and potential revenue for my company. Am I putting that at risk by taking a prudish stand on a meme that didn’t offend me personally at all? Am I the only one here who sees this as inappropriate? Would taking a stand literally jeopardize by seat at the table by making me the party pooper who doesn’t get invited to dinner anymore? Was the woman who shared it trying to show that she was just one of the guys? Is that how she got her seat at the table?

Where do we draw the line?

Diversity is easy. It can be legislated and mandated. I think about the school bussing that happened here in the 60s. Those black kids going to white schools made those schools diverse. But did those kids feel welcome? Did they feel like they belonged? Inclusion is hard. It demands a fearless inventory of our implicit biases. It demands a constant effort to evaluate our own behavior against benchmarks of fairness that we have trouble seeing. It demands a commitment to have the hard conversations. And to really, really listen.

Because it’s not about learning where the lines are. It’s about understanding why the lines are there, and learning how to judge ourselves and our interactions against the issues that are the reason for the boundaries. I don’t have easy answers for you. These issues aren’t black and white. They’re complicated. And we’re complicated. To be champions of equity and inclusion, we must make our own professional spaces and engagements equitable and inclusive. They must be desexualized. A gender-less future isn’t one where we don’t have gender, it’s one where gender doesn’t impact access or respect. Let’s start talking about it and being the equity and inclusion we want to see in the world.

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