New digital tools are helping travelers avoid discrimination

Black and LGBTQ+ travelers are leading the charge to build inclusive technologies that help their communities explore safely.

We plan vacations with TikTok, receive flight updates via text, book tickets through apps, and scan our faces to board a plane. Technology often makes our trips easier, but that’s not always the case for travelers from marginalized communities. Rideshare bookings are canceled more often for Black people than white people, and for LGBTQ+ riders compared to straight users. Black travelers are more likely than white ones to have their Airbnb booking denied. Research shows that the facial scanning technology becoming increasingly popular in airports is more likely to misidentify people of color, and TSA body scans can either out trans travelers or flag them as security threats.

The industry’s major players are working to address the issue. Airbnb, for example, terminated more than 1 million users for not accepting its nondiscrimination policy and launched an internal initiative that dives into users’ history in order to measure acts of racial discrimination. The findings aid the company in creating new tools and policies to virtually eliminate inequities. But affected travelers are not waiting for the mainstream services to deliver a solution. They’re taking tech into their own hands to create inclusive tools you can use to plan your next trip.

Digital directions

Victor Hugo Green’s seminal guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book, helped Black Americans find safe spaces while traveling under Jim Crow laws from the 1930s through the late ’60s. These laws are gone, but for Black travelers, the difficulty of navigating unknown spaces persists. 

Stefan Grant, a Jamaican-born rapper based in South Florida, experienced this firsthand when the police showed up at his Atlanta Airbnb in 2015 after a neighbor called the cops to falsely report he and his friends were robbing the house. He shared the traumatizing experience on social media, and it went viral.

Socially defined “white” and “Black” spaces “are very common in the United States,” says Mia Bay, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance. “Travel can often disrupt those kinds of social divisions.” She adds while Jim Crow limited where Black people could go, the laws made clear where they would be welcome—modern tourists face greater uncertainty.

Black entrepreneurs are tackling this uncertainty by adapting the spirit of Green’s guide for the digital age. Grant’s harrowing experience led him to create Noirbnb, a vacation rental platform aimed at travelers of color and allies. The site aims to educate, empower, and provide economic opportunities to create an inclusive community for travelers, says Grant. People who use Noirbnb will know “the person who provided this space respects my humanity and respects my dignity,” he says.

(Here’s how Black travel has evolved since the “Green Book.”)

Other programs such as Green Book Global offer city guides from the perspective of Black travelers. EatOkra connects users with more than 11,000 Black-owned restaurants. Blapp and SupportBlackOwned.com offer information on a host of different businesses, from yoga studios to retail stores, searchable by city. Culture onShore, a travel activity database set to launch later this year, aggregates cultural experiences run by minority owners. 

“If inbound travelers visiting the destination are not aware of the small soul food restaurant or Caribbean food restaurant, or the small Black heritage tour operator or the small Black museum, then those dollars don’t trickle into those communities,” says Stephanie Jones, creator of Culture onShore and founder of National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative.

The Green Book Project, an app from software engineer Christian Lowe, allows travelers to determine how inclusive a business is through a unique search system based on how users identify themselves, indicated by a hashtag they place on their reviews. For example, a queer vegan traveler could filter a restaurant’s reviews for insight into how their specific needs are addressed by the staff.

“Just because a place is safe for me as a straight Black male doesn’t mean that my sister, who is a queer Black woman, would also have the same experience and feel safe there too,” says Lowe.

Some large platforms are also working to improve their search capabilities, although these efforts are far from perfect. GoogleMaps, OpenTable, and Yelp allow users to filter businesses by LGBTQ+ ownership—and on Yelp, users can also filter for gender-neutral bathrooms. While Google’s “woman-led business” tag is searchable, tags including “LGBTQ+”, “transgender safe,” and “Latino-owned” and “veteran-owned” businesses are not. Google is working to make more of these attributes searchable, according to a company spokesperson.

(Learn how travelers of color are smashing stereotypes.)

Beyond the latest apps and tech tools, travelers can simply search for specific hashtags on Instagram, says Martinique Lewis, president of the Black Travel Alliance, who is adapting her 2021 book, The ABC Travel Green Book, into an app.

Looking up hashtags such as #BlackInParis, #BlackInAmsterdam, #BlackInNewYork, or #BlackOwnedNewYork and #BlackOwnedAmsterdam will, she says, help you “get a pulse on who’s there, what are they doing, where can you eat, where can you party, where can you take that Black history tour.”

Out on the town

Gay travelers navigate similar difficulties, says Robert Geller, founder of the LGBTQ+ vacation rental platform FabStayz.

Geller says his site and others, including Misterb&b and Ebab, provide a sense of security for travelers so that they don’t have “to look at a listing or a property and try to figure out: Is this a welcoming space?” he says. “The mystery is gone, the anxiety is gone. It’s like staying with a friend.”

The Spartacus International Gay Guide, published annually from 1970 until 2017, when it became an app, highlights LGBTQ-friendly businesses and pride events in thousands of cities around the world. The company’s Gay Travel Index grades countries annually on how friendly they are to LGBTQ+ travelers. TripIt, a travel logistics app, and GeoSure, a travel safety app, also rate neighborhoods on LGBTQ+ safety.

Resources specific to transgender travelers include Equaldex, a community-driven database on LGBTQ+ rights that addresses whether non-binary gender identities are legally recognized. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s Trans Legal Mapping Report details the laws regarding trans rights in more than 140 United Nations member states. The Man About World LGBTQ+ Travel Guide, accessible through the site or app, includes tips from trans travelers, such as signing up for TSA Precheck to reduce the likelihood of getting flagged during security screenings, joining The Facebook Transgender Alliance, and searching social media for #TravelingWhileTrans.

(Visibility mixes with vulnerability for many transgender travelers.)

No matter which apps you use, Kayley Whalen, who runs the travel blog Trans Worldview, recommends connecting with trans advocacy groups in your destination via social media. Organizations like Asia Pacific Transgender Network, which operates in 15 countries, from China to Mongolia, can provide a boots-on-the-ground perspective of how trans people are treated and facilitate local connections. 

Reaching out to FTM Vietnam and the local ICS Center before a trip to Vietnam, for example, gave her an instant friend:  “A trans woman associated with those groups met me at the airport on her scooter, took me out to dinner, and took me to my Airbnb on my first night in Vietnam to make sure I felt welcome there as a trans person,” she says in her vlog.

Whalen adds that by creating these inclusive digital spaces, travelers from different backgrounds are able to feel connected with others while traveling, instead of feeling like an outsider.

“I think travel is a way to feel affirmed for trans people. [It shows] that gender doesn’t look the same in every country,” she says.

Alexandra Gillespie is a travel journalist based in southern California.

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