A community is only as strong as it is inclusive. 

This axiom is true in any setting — and it’s doubly pertinent in the travel space, where we pride ourselves on seeking connection and building bridges around the world. 

But if we can’t seek connection or build bridges closer to home, then traveling is little more than a hypocritical foray into the world, a hollow endeavor to insert ourselves in distant places when we’re unwilling to engage in our own communities.

That’s why travelers need to recognize and attack their own prejudices, why they need to make active efforts to build each other up. It’s also why the travel space needs to amplify the voices of people whose backgrounds don’t match the traditional travel story — people like female travelers, LGBTQ travelers, travelers of color, and travelers with disabilities. After all, these groups can (and do) make significant contributions to the industry.

Of course, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and ableism are harmful, unfounded prejudices when they’re taken individually. But where does this leave the people who fulfill an intersectional identity that experiences two forms of prejudice, like women of color who are constantly barraged by the effects of both racism and sexism? 

This is where intersectionality lives.

What is intersectionality?

To extend the previous example, intersectionality teaches us that women of color live different experiences than men of color and white women do. Although women of color share their racial minority status with one of these groups and their gender with the other, you can’t really understand the discrimination and exclusion that they undergo just by studying racism or sexism. You have to take the two together, remembering that each brand of prejudice complicates and reinforces the other.

The idea that prejudice can be additive is exactly the point that law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw wished to make when she coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989. In a seminal paper, she wrote that black women’s “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism.”

protester holding respect all women sign

Later, in a 2016 TED Talk, Crenshaw added that intersectionality “deal[s] with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.”

But racism and sexism aren’t the only forms of prejudice that might make up an individual’s intersectional experience — and many individuals live at the intersectional identity of more than two forms of prejudice. Whenever any combination of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism rears its ugly head in someone’s life, intersectional concerns are present, and individual lives become much more burdensome.

In a 2017 op-ed, Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO and president of GLAAD, wrote that “every single one of us contains multiple identities, and every single one of us has the right to be loved, accepted, and treated with dignity and equality in all of our communities.”

In a nutshell, Ellis, too, was advocating for intersectionality and its critical role in making life more equitable across all levels of society. That includes the travel space.

Where does intersectional identity reside in the travel space?

Many theorists and commentators have noted that the term ‘intersectionality’ has been warped as the word makes its way into the mainstream. Even so, Crenshaw’s original definition definitely applies in the travel space, although the issues you’ll find in travel are perhaps less systemic than they are in legal systems, hiring practices, and the like. 

For instance, a white female traveler might not realize that women of color have different concerns when they take to the road — concerns like racial profiling and pernicious microaggressions. And a male traveler of color might not understand that his female cohorts are worried about problems ranging from sexual assault to hair care. But all of these concerns (and many others like them) are part of the reality that women of color encounter when they travel.

woman leaning on wallAll too often, people make room in the travel space and elsewhere for their biases, leaving many individuals out in the cold. But we can try harder to tackle those prejudices and create a safe space for everyone.

To succeed, we need to prioritize intersectionality and protect every intersectional traveler’s identity.

The realities of intersectionality in travel

Safety is often a concern for LGBTQ travelers, prompting many individuals to screen their destinations carefully before booking a trip. For people of color, going through airport security or border patrol frequently serves as a poignant reminder that racism is alive and well. And all around the world, travelers with disabilities, diseases, or mental health struggles have to research each destination’s accessibility, pack necessary medication or medical equipment, or put together a contingency plan for emergencies — things that probably wouldn’t even occur to other globetrotters.

No matter any traveler’s characteristics or needs or intersectional identity, that person is part of the travel space. And although the travel space doesn’t currently accommodate or treat everyone as fairly as it should, that doesn’t make discrimination or exclusion of any kind okay.

The travel community has plenty of room to improve, and intersectional travelers understand better than anyone where things desperately need to change. 

For that to happen, intersectional travelers need their allies to listen to them, to learn about their struggles, and to call out injustice wherever it crops up. 

Intersectional perspectives and representation

Again, it’s important to listen to travelers with intersectional perspectives. These perspectives diversify the industry, making it a more inclusive place; they also inspire a wider range of young people to dream big and envision the possibilities for their futures.

Recently, Passion Passport rolled out an initiative to support LGBTQ travelers. When CEO Zach Houghton introduced the initiative, he wrote, “LGBTQ travelers and creatives need to know that they are not alone. Representation matters: without this, the travel industry (and all industries) are limited in perspective.”

We would now add that the same is true for any group of underrepresented people. Women, too, need to see themselves in a variety of roles, careers, and lifestyles, as do people of color, as do people with disabilities. 

traveler using wheelchairAnd, of course, perhaps above all else, the people who belong to two or more of these groups need to see themselves represented anywhere and everywhere that they would like to venture — which is to say that they need to see themselves represented all across the board.

Luckily, the Information Age makes it much easier for people to take control of their own narratives. Thanks to social media, as well as online blogs and forums, more and more people are sharing their stories and talking about the joys and trials that they experience on the road. Many people, including lesbian women, black women, women with disabilities, and others, offer up an incredible amount of travel wisdom on their blogs. And even the intersectional commentators who don’t usually address travel concerns can add valuable perspectives on major events in the travel space.

When taken together, perspectives on intersectional identity can help us piece together what the travel space actually looks like. It’s a diverse community bound together by a shared passion. It’s a global family that cares about the planet’s beauty and culture and vibrancy. 

And at its best, it’s a force to be reckoned with, inspiring hundreds of millions of people — regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or physical or mental health status — to live more fully and engage more deeply.

For the travelers of the world, there’s something beautiful about meeting people in distant places, people whose lives aren’t exactly like the lives we lead at home. And to my fellow straight, white, cis, able-bodied travelers, I would add that there’s something beautiful about listening to and supporting people whose life experiences don’t perfectly match our own — whether we meet these people in our own communities or far from them. 

We’re all human. And the human experience is comprised of many, many stories. So is the travel space. 

It’s time we paid attention to them.

This piece was published two days after World Health Day, 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic develops and disproportionately impacts at-risk and marginalized people, we urge our readers to reflect on what health means to them and their communities as we build a more holistic idea of wellness for our collective future.