Whether you are traveling to Nebraska or Nairobi, going to a new place comes with a number of cultural and logistical questions. How will I get around without speaking the local language? What should I do if I get lost, or stuck somewhere late at night? How can I best stay safe while in an unfamiliar city?
But to imagine what traveling is like for a trans person, take the sum of all of those concerns and uncertainties — and multiply it by 100.
As a trans tourist, you worry about whether you will be outed and targeted. You worry about whether you will be accepted by locals or served by a restaurant. A person’s gender may not be easily identifiable through voice or name, which can heighten anxiety around frequent introductions or new connections while traveling. Acceptance, familiarity, and safety are not guaranteed.
This is something both of us experienced firsthand — and it’s one of the many reasons we both came to work at Airbnb. We have seen many companies take important steps on equality for transgender employees, most notably with access to health care. But it isn’t enough — because it isn’t full inclusion. For people who have had to wonder if our gender identity would prevent us from belonging anywhere, hearing Airbnb’s mantra — that everyone should be able to belong everywhere — was like being seen for the first time.
Even for a company so fundamentally dedicated to promoting acceptance around the globe, there is always room to do better, to be better. One of us learned this at the beginning of his tenure at this company, which coincided with his personal transgender journey. Just a few months into working at Airbnb, Kelly asked a coworker about shifting the pronouns on his Airbnb profile, not only in his personal bio but also in past reviews.
It may seem like such a little thing to someone who is not transgender — but with a platform in which reviews are an essential part of not only booking your accommodations but also ensuring acceptance while traveling, it was a necessary step in his transition with no true protocol in place.
And rather than putting the needs of just one employee (among thousands) on the back burner, our company dove right into adjusting Kelly’s platform, ensuring his pronouns were changed within minutes.
To us, that was the true sign that Airbnb was not only talking the talk but was actually pledging itself to putting allyship in action. And it was the start of something much bigger than just one employee’s internal question about changing pronouns.
From there, we realized that creating an inclusive environment for transgender employees within our company wasn’t just about good politics — it was about getting it right internally so that we could also get it right for the millions and millions who use our platform every day. Kelly was likely far from the first Airbnb user to wonder how to update his profile to reflect his gender identity — but because he spoke up, he could ensure that he was the last.
That captures the commitment of our Transgender Employee Resource Group, which we founded following Kelly’s experience — and, to our knowledge, remains a relatively unusual fixture in the corporate world. We want to bring down the barriers that so often separate transgender and gender-noncomforming people from their cisgender counterparts — and that can prevent the important conversations like the one Kelly first had.
And in just a year, we’ve already seen the difference that step toward inclusion can make. Some of our work has been more educational, from helping our members to navigate binary forms to even supporting them in coming out to their team. We have highlighted the power of diversity and community in the workplace, bringing Sarah McBride, the first openly transgender person to serve in the White House, to our San Francisco headquarters to make that very case.
We have even found new ways to teach each other about advocating for ourselves and using gender-neutral language. In just a few weeks, we will host a “gender”-bread seminar at our headquarters, to provide a safe and fun place to discuss gender using gingerbread cookies — an environment in which we can make mistakes and learn without fear of judgment.
But all of this work has also built a foundation for real and pervasive change, thanks to a responsive and supportive senior leadership team — change that we have long hoped to see not only across the travel sector, but also should take place around the world. Since Kelly’s successful effort to change his own pronouns on the platform, Airbnb has implemented a policy by which any transgender employee, guest, or host can easily do the same. We have introduced email signatures with preferred pronouns for staff to better facilitate conversations around gender identity. Our headquarters now hosts gender-neutral bathrooms.
Too often, we can easily forget the T in LGBT. We are a small and therefore often invisible community — and as a result, our rights are leaps and bounds behind our gay, lesbian and bisexual peers.
So what is it to have found a company so eager to support our transgender journey — to push for progress within and outside of its walls; a company that places such value on both the human connection through travel and experiences, and the importance of creating the pathways by which those connections can take place? That is a privilege.
KELLY EUSAINT LEWIS is an organizer at Airbnb in New York, and AL YUEN is a software engineer at Airbnb in San Francisco. They are the founders of the Trans Employee Resource Group at Airbnb.