Come fly with me… just not there, or there

Travel risk assessments should account for the prejudice faced by Queer scientists

By Connor Butler, he/him/his

Note: In this article the word ‘Queer’ is being used as an umbrella term for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

(c) M-H Jeeves

When organising a work trip or a holiday abroad, there is a long list of things to consider. Flights, visas, vaccinations, accommodation, car rental – but most of us don’t give much thought to whether we can freely be ourselves. This played on my mind as I walked into a busy café in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I had travelled overseas for a statistics workshop and on the first day, I went out for lunch to meet the other 15 participants. We were sat in a busy café getting to know each other, when someone turns to me and asks, ‘do you have a girlfriend?’. I freeze. For many people, this is a trivial question. But I am gay and I’m in a country where homosexuality is illegal and where cultural views can be hostile towards the Queer community. If you were in my situation, in a crowd of strangers you’ve just met, how would you respond?

The culture of Queer people ‘coming out’ is always described as if it’s a singular event. But in reality, we are in a life-long continuum of coming out. With every new interaction we have with someone, we have opportunities to convey our gender and sexuality. But the prejudice that Queer people face means we often have to navigate conversations carefully to avoid divulging our sexualities, relationships or gender identities – and that can be stressful.

It often surprises people to learn that there are still over 70 countries that criminalise same-sex behaviour, with 11 that still offer the death penalty as a possible punishment. And let’s not forget that harassment and hate crime is still frequent in the UK. Even the simple act of going to the bathroom may be dangerous, or even illegal, for people who are nonbinary or transgender. So if we are sending LGBTQ+ staff or students to countries that persecute Queer people, that should be in the travel risk assessment. In fact, by making this a mandatory box on all travel risk assessments, it may make it easier to facilitate a conversation between Queer students or staff and their supervisors. This also ensures that anyone who chooses not to divulge their gender or sexuality to their supervisors is covered under the risk assessment.