Supporting LGBTQIA+ participants on outdoor and travel experiences
Outdoor education, travel and adventure experiences are for everyone. And it’s important for organizers of these programs to plan how they will help ensure good safety outcomes—physical and psychological—for both participants and leaders. Understanding good practice in supporting members of the LGBTQIA+ community to have positive outdoor and travel experiences is part of this work.
We’ll provide a brief introduction to these good practices here, and describe sources for additional information.
The primary focus here is on young persons in a school setting who are trans*, but the principles apply to people of any age and in many settings, from outdoor recreation and adventure tourism to educational travel and beyond.
("Trans*" refers to a number of identities within the gender identity spectrum. A trans* person is not a cisgender boy, man, girl, or woman, but could be, for example, genderfluid, agender, transgender, transmasculine, or transfeminine, among others.)
We use the abbreviation LGBTQIA+ to refer to persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and more. Another term, 2SLGBTQIA+, includes those who identify as two-spirit.
Understanding how to effectively support members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the experiential or travel context is particularly important, as, in many parts of the world, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ face discrimination, harassment, bullying, violence, and criminal penalties, just for being who they are.
In some places, the law prohibits discrimination, such as with the UK Equality Act 2010’s prohibition against certain discrimination against trans* people. But in other places, discrimination or violence, or both, is condoned, promoted, or the law.
Image: Gender Spectrum
General Good Practice
Before anyone heads out on an excursion, there are some things that we can do to be considerate of and respectful to people of all sexual orientations, genders and gender identities—at any time.
For example, if a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is a learner at a school, faculty and staff of the school can use the person’s correct pronouns—the ones the person prefers to be used in reference to themselves—and the person’s correct name.
Their name might not be the original name that was registered for them at birth. For example, a trans* person might change their name to better reflect their gender and gender identity.
And the name and pronouns a learner uses at school and with peers might be different from those they use with carers or guardians or parents at home. This can occur, for instance, if carers/parents fail to support a trans* person’s gender identity.
It’s also a good idea to avoid unnecessary gender-based divisions—for example, by asking boys to line up on the left, and girls on the right.
Faculty, staff, and other responsible persons should intervene with bullying, microaggressions, and other forms of misconduct.
And the school or educational institution can provide inclusive options on forms.
This can look like, for forms that ask about gender identity, options for female, male, transgender woman/trans woman, transgender man/trans man, genderqueer/gender nonconforming neither exclusively male nor female, and additional gender category (or other), and asking individuals to check all gender identities that apply.
Similarly, forms asking about sex assigned at birth can list female, male, and intersex.
And forms asking about a person's pronouns can include she/her, he/him, they/them, and not listed (or other), and ask individuals to check all that apply.
General Good Practice—Outdoor & Travel Experiences
A school or other organization that offers an excursion to participants should communicate with the LGBTQIA+ participant, and ask: What do you need? With what do you feel comfortable?
The individual may be able to guide leaders as to what kind of support they wish to see.
For program participants who are legal minors, the organization can consult with the participant’s carers/guardians/parents about how to support the participant. However, this generally should only be done with the young person’s consent, as some family members may not be supportive of the young person with respect to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The organization should also talk with the carers/guardians/parents of other youth who are participating in the excursion. Without identifying any specific person, the organization can let carers know that, for example, participants on the trip may be trans*, and can discuss how safety and well-being will be supported for all individuals.
If a third-party provider, such as a venue or an activity provider, is contracted to offer services to the group, a similar discussion should be held with them, to share needs and expectations.
It’s also helpful for the school or other organization arranging the experience to communicate about their inclusion and risk management practices early. This can include content on the organization’s website, in enrollment materials, in a handbook provided to participants or their carers/guardians/parents, and elsewhere.
Finally, because good practices regarding inclusion for individuals of any sexual orientation, gender or gender identity continue to evolve, and because every outdoor or travel situation is unique, it’s a good idea to make case-by-case decisions about how to support LGBTQIA+ participants on outdoor and travel experiences.
Issues with venues—such as camps, adventure or activity centres, lodges and the like—include inclusive sleeping accommodations, toilets, showers and changing areas.
It’s also important to consider whether venue staff will be appropriately trained and supportive of LGBTQIA+ guests, and if other persons (such as guests from other groups) on site can be expected to act appropriately.
Organizations should check in with LGBTQIA+ participants in advance of the experience, during the trip, and afterwards.
Pre-excursion communications should include an opportunity for organizers to advise participants in advance regarding what to expect, and for participants to share with organizers their needs and expectations.
Organizations should also reach out to the venue early in the planning process. Organizers should determine what kind of facilities are available (such as sleeping accommodations and private changing areas), what operating policies are in force, and the knowledge, skills and values of venue personnel with respect to fostering physical and psychological safety for persons of all sexual orientations, genders and gender identities.
Organizations should also get a briefing from the venue regarding the nature of other groups that might be encountered while at the venue.
And the organization should consult with the venue and other sources as necessary to assess the risks of encountering negative media attention, hostile government authorities, or other adverse parties.
Image: Gery Lovász
It may be helpful to provide a briefing sheet to the venue, helping them prepare a welcoming and inclusive environment for the group.
This could include information noting that, for instance:
Our group may have trans* leaders or participants
Outward appearances of group members may not match their actual gender or gender identity
Various pronouns may be used
Venue staff should not assume gender, gender identity or pronouns
Venue staff should keep this in mind with swimming, toilets, changing rooms, and sleeping accommodations
Venue staff should help make the experience supportive, comfortable and positive for all
We are happy to answer your questions and provide additional information as needed
It’s typical to simply identify that one or more trans* persons may be present; generally, it’s not appropriate to identify the specific persons who are trans*.
Gender-Inclusive Sleeping Accommodations
There’s not one best approach to ensuring access to gender-inclusive sleeping accommodations. It’s typically a good idea to talk to all participants before the excursion, to establish what they will need in order to feel comfortable, and what their needs are around getting changed, privacy, and sleeping arrangements.
Organizers should also communicate with carers/guardians/parents of all participants in advance, and take their views into account.
Image: Kenny Peavy
One approach that has worked well for school group trips, including with minor participants, is to permit participants to select their housing preference. Options could include same-gender accommodations, a gender-inclusive (mixed-gender) arrangement, or no preference.
It’s typical to segregate accommodations by age group; for instance, legal minor participants would not sleep in the same area with legal adult participants who are not immediate family members.
Staff selection can be based on housing preference, gender identity, and gender expression.
In all cases, it’s apt to attend to appropriate communication, procedures, and supervision.
It may work well for a trans* person to be in lodging with individuals of their gender. Or, a trans* participant might prefer to share a communal space with a few close friends, who could be of any gender.
Single sleeping areas (for example, one-person tents) may be an option.
Gender-neutral sleeping arrangements under tarps or under the stars may work, if privacy while changing can be maintained.
Open-plan settings, however, are sometimes not suitable due to privacy reasons. A private room for a trans* person might work, but may not be ideal, since it can set them apart from other group members.
Since interests and comfort levels can change during the course of an excursion, it’s wise to have backup options—such as spare empty rooms or tents—available as alternative housing options, if changes to accommodation plans are needed.
An ideal situation for access to gender-inclusive toilets includes having three types of toilets available: single-sex toilets, a block of lockable floor-to-ceiling cubicle/stall toilets (with menstrual product bins) for everyone, and accessible toilets.
Some organizations bring their own signs to identify gender-neutral toilets, and place them over the gender-specific signs at the venue’s bathrooms.
When a group is traveling or at a venue, staff may choose to enter the bathroom before their trans* participant does and advise as to the availability of lockable toilet cubicles/stalls. Depending on the organization’s safeguarding policies and the participant’s wishes, the staff person may remain in the bathroom near the toilet stalls, to provide support if needed.
Shower Facilities and Clothes-Changing Areas
A key objective with showers and clothes-changing areas is to support the privacy and confidentiality needs of trans* persons. If a person who is trans* wishes to keep their trans* status confidential, the setting should accommodate that need. In some cases, a private changing area can be helpful with this.
Ideally, trans* persons have access to changing rooms that correspond to their gender identity.
In rare cases, an excursion with an LGBTQIA+ staff member or participant will attract negative newsmedia attention. It’s important for the organizing institution (and associated entities, such as the venue) to be prepared for this possibility.
If negative newsmedia attention, for example from transphobic media outlets, or resulting from bigoted actions of venues, activity providers, or others, is considered to be a possibility, it can be helpful to prepare media statements in advance. These messages can include references to work to promote inclusion and equity, and to provide a place safe from discrimination and bullying, where everyone feels valued.
Organizations should take steps to promote the confidentiality of LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Partial excerpts from recent news media reports in Oregon and California USA, respectively, are illustrated below.
Practices for Venues
Venues may find it helpful to communicate their policies and how their accommodations can support LGBTQIA+ guests early on, for example through website content.
In addition to describing the venue’s procedures for supporting an environment that’s inclusive for all, it can be helpful for the venue to provide background information on why this is helpful, for those who have limited prior exposure to the issue and its importance.
Nature Camp of Virginia USA does a particularly good job of explaining the why and how of gender-inclusive housing (a partial excerpt of which is illustrated below), using content developed with the support of Transplaining.
Image: Nature Camp
Transition Time & Gear
Trans* young people may take more time to get ready in the morning or after activities, for example to adjust binders or other clothing or prosthetics, or to apply makeup in order to be seen by the world as who they are.
Program organizers should provide sufficient time for these activities, help participants manage their time efficiently, and avoid rushing participants.
Program organizers should also support arrangements for cleaning and managing gender-affirming undergarments and prosthetics.
Attaching a chest binder
Harnesses & Facilitators
A good practice is to have participants engaging in vertical or technical activities like ziplining or rock climbing to put on their harnesses at the activity site immediately before an activity, not in a more public area. Activity leaders should emphasize it’s okay to remove harnesses as soon as a participant is done with an activity.
In some cases, it’s best if a trans* person does their own harness fit-check for snugness and attaches carabiners themselves. Facilitators should get consent before checking harnesses by touch or attaching carabiners.
Organizers should ensure the activity provider’s facilitator staff are aware that the group may include a trans* person, and that they should be conscious about making assumptions regarding pronouns and genders.
Typically, it’s not necessary to identify the specific person who is trans*.
Swimming & Gendered Spaces/Activities
Trans* persons should be able to wear the swimwear they are comfortable wearing. In some cases, this might include a t-shirt or baggier swim shorts.
Program organizers should speak with venues or swim activity providers in advance about expectations and requirements, to help ensure that providers support inclusive practices and a psychologically welcoming activity.
Individuals may bring an extra dry chest binder to change into after swimming. These persons should be provided the time and space to change garments, or the opportunity to use an alternative while in the water.
When an excursion organizer is planning the program schedule, sports and games selected should not enable gender stereotypes.
General activities can be assigned to likewise break down harmful stereotypes. This can be accomplished, for example, by using a chore wheel/chore rota so that boys are involved in cooking and cleaning, and girls are engaged in carrying luggage or managing the campfire.
If an urgent medical situation arises, it’s useful to speak with the person affected about their wishes, and how program leaders can support them.
It may be helpful for the adult accompanying a young person to advise emergency personnel of the patient’s gender identity, pronouns, and any clothing elements such as a chest binder that may be in use. Program leaders should consider how they can help ensure appropriate privacy, staff presence, and support during medical care.
In some parts of the world, trans* people may be refused treatment, or be treated in a gender-non-conforming space.
If this may be the case, it’s a good idea to talk to the participant, and possibly their carers/guardians/parents, and make a plan in advance for how to respond should this situation arise.
A number of issues can arise during travel.
If a person does not appear to match the gender listed on their identification document, this may lead to questioning and delays.
A passport may indicate a non-binary gender, a category which may not be recognized in a country of transit or one being visited.
In some locations, such as certain states in the USA, transphobic bathroom laws can restrict individuals from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender.
In some parts of the world, it is illegal to be openly LGBTQIA+, and criminal penalties for doing so may be in effect. Authorities may condone violence against LBGTQIA+ persons.
During border crossings or searches, clothing items such as binders, or prosthetics, can trigger searches when a person passes through a scanner.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) provides detailed resources regarding LGBTQIA+ risks, laws, and rights. Image: ILGA
Organizations should conduct an LGBTQIA+-based risk assessment of transit locations (stopovers) and destinations before travel.
Travelers, to the greatest extent practicable, may seek to have the gender listed on their passport and other identification documents match the gender associated with their appearance.
Travelers should bring additional identification documents, such as a birth certificate, in case the documents presented are not accepted.
As much as possible, the names on travel tickets and identification documents should be an exact match.
If body searches or pat-downs are anticipated, this possibility should be discussed with the traveler in advance, and, as appropriate, with the minor traveler’s carers/guardians/parents.
It can be helpful to have a staff person go through an airport scanner immediately before the individual who may be subjected to a search, so they are available to support the individual and speak with security personnel.
In rare cases, such as when there is a risk of violence or incarceration for an LGBTQIA+ person, evacuation may be needed from a country. If this is a potential, a plan should be developed in advance for this, established by the trip organizer and the traveler, and the minor traveler’s carers/guardians/family members.
The material above represents a highly abbreviated introduction to safety and inclusion issues regarding outdoor and travel programs with LGBTQIA+ persons. Many additional high-quality resources are available; links to a selection of resources are provided below.
Viristar is grateful to the organizations listed below for sharing good practice information that informed the content in this article.