7:42 PM EDT, May 21, 2013
At the kickoff of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association's annual convention this month, that organization's strides — not to mention the entire nation's — were no more clear than on a simple United Airlines banner beside the lectern that read: "Diversity flies with us."
When the association began in 1983 as a collection of travel agents trying to foster an industry more welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers, sponsorship from a major corporation would have been, to put it kindly, unlikely.
"Thirty years ago, it was, 'Good luck to you, but we don't necessarily want to be sponsoring things or partnering in that kind of outreach,'" said Tanya Churchmuch, chair of the association's board.
Three decades later, United fought to sponsor the convention's launch with a press conference on the 99th floor of Chicago's Willis Tower. Dave Hilfman, United's senior vice president of sales, joked at the microphone that he didn't know it was possible to sponsor a press conference.
But in the lucrative gay and lesbian travel industry, many major players want a seat at the table. A parade of warm wishes at the event included United, the city of Chicago and Jack Markey, representing the U.S. State Department, who noted that his agency recently released travel recommendations geared specifically for LGBT travelers.
Such progress resulted from a shift in societal attitudes and the money that gay and lesbian travelers spend, Churchmuch said.
Among the most pro-actively gay-friendly corporations and chains are Kimpton and Hyatt hotels and United and American airlines, Churchmuch said.
"People started to understand the LGBT travel market has such a high dollar value," she said.
The benefits to the gay and lesbian traveler can be as simple a hotel clerk not responding quizzically when two people of the same gender request a room with one queen bed.
"As a lesbian who travels frequently, I can't tell you how many times I've had that conversation," Churchmuch said. "Now it's quite the rarity. And it's amazing."
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