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Vacation Privilege

The following is a transcript of the sermon written and delivered by Harmony members Gretchen Johnson and Doren Cook on July 2, 2023.

The concept of “vacation privilege” is something I didn’t really think about until fairly recently. And it’s ironic; I was texting with Paul Smith and he let me know he was not going to be here today because he’s in Africa with his family. And he said, how ironic, you’re talking about vacation privilege, and here I am in Africa.

But what we want to talk about today is there’s a lot more, you tend to think about socioeconomics when it comes to where you vacation. There’s a lot more to that and we don’t all have the ability to travel safely everywhere. So Doren and I hope to create awareness and then in discussion talk about how we can support others and be a force for change. 

So it’s said there are three types of wealth in the summer.

Some of you who are older may remember these days. There’s the people that have central air conditioning, likely a lot of us here in this room. There’s the people who have one room air conditioner, usually in the parents’ room. And then there’s people who have no air conditioning, who swelter in a hot room and all fight over who gets to sit in front of the fan. That was my house growing up. So.

Thinking about vacation, I know the pictures are kind of small, but I’m hoping when you look at this, you probably relate to one of the photos. You have taken a vacation in your lifetime. You look at a budget. You pick a destination. You talk about if you’re going to fly or drive.

That’s what vacation is to you. However, according to Bankrate, more than a third of the people in this country can’t take a vacation of any kind. And that was sobering for me. I did not realize it was that high. So they’re bombarded with guilt because all we hear is take your kids on vacation, go on vacation. Your teacher says, where did you go on summer vacation?

And there’s a lot of people who have to say nothing. I didn’t go on vacation. There was an article called Summer Vacation Really Sucks When You’re Poor. And it talked about how expensive it is to be poor in the summer. You’ve got higher electrical costs if you are lucky enough to have air conditioning. You have to figure out how to feed your child because they’re not going to school and perhaps getting a free lunch.

You’ve got guilt because you’re not able to take your kids on vacation or to Kings Island like everybody else. We used to think if you were poor you’d go to the YMCA camp—at least that was the town I grew up in. Most Y camps today cost more than $200 a week. So if you figure that for a summer, chances are you’re not using that for child care. So a lot of folks are working two jobs, three jobs. They have to be away from their kids

So what do the kids do? Unfortunately, a lot of them are either staying home alone, maybe with an older sibling if they’re lucky, or the more fortunate ones are staying with relatives. But it’s certainly not the situation that many of us encounter. So if you’re in this situation, what do you do? You have no money. You Google it. That’s what I did. What do people do when they have no money and want to take their kids on vacation?

And I will tell you, it was very sobering and very sad. And I know some of you who work in social services are aware of this. The two answers that came up first, vacation is expensive. Save 5% to 10% of your income to plan for it. Now, if you are living paycheck to paycheck, you can’t feed your family. Obviously, you can’t do this. And it said, this is a quote, “Almost any family, even lower income ones, can afford to take some kind of vacation if you plan. Even if you’re struggling, it’s healthy to take your family and recharge from time to time.” Again, making people who already feel badly, feel even worse. 

This is the one that really got to me: “Get credit cards. They give you hotel and airline points. So that will help with the cost of your vacation.” So again, you have no money, and they’re telling you to get credit cards. And for those who have those, no. You have to spend a whole lot before you’re going flying on vacation. So essentially, the message they’re getting is you’re a failure if you can’t take your kids on vacation. So go into debt.

Okay, so from that same article about vacation sucks when you’re poor, there were two quotes that they interviewed people and this is what some of them said. When it’s really hot, they, meaning the people in this room, people who have more socioeconomic privilege, can get away. We want to get away too, but we’re not wealthy. 

And the other one. They (us) take the good part of summer, escape the bad, and manage to ruin the word entirely by turning it into a verb. Summer is shit for poor people across the board.

And I thought about that turning it into a verb. And I wish Kif were here, being an English teacher. But, you know, we talk about summering. We talk about vacationing. And how does that make a lot of people feel? So Doren and I worked on this together. We’re going to jump back and forth. So Doren, time for you. I’ll let you move it when you want to. OK.

Thank you Gretchen, I agree with everything that was said. Gretchen was saying there are different types of privilege when we’re looking at vacation. Well, a lot of things, but vacation certainly. Financial, she mentioned, there’s also safety. Can someone travel somewhere safely? Can they travel with dignity?

How many times we’ve gone on vacation and come back and been like, ugh, I feel like things are wrong and I have less dignity for going. Having opportunities within travel, etc. So I’m glad that Rob lit a candle for the LGBTQ community this week as we’re coming off of Pride Month. It was a wonderful parade and it’s wonderful to have those celebrations in June, celebrating diversity, which is what this country is supposed to be about. And so a lot of people traveled this week to be able to share that together and celebrate together.

So, but there are concerns, and especially more so all the time, about travel within that community. I found a wonderful writer, Mark Vanhoenacker, who’s, it’s interesting, he’s a gay pilot who also contributes to the New York Times. He’s an incredible writer, so I think he had a lot of good insight. He said: 

“For many L.G.B.T.Q. people with the time, money and basic freedoms that travel requires, the most straightforward reason to travel is the possibility of meeting other queer people. For those still in search of their identity, a well-worn aphorism — we travel not only to discover distant places, but to encounter ourselves — retains its poignancy. Other queer people travel to escape. Indeed, when intolerance induces a sense of alienation, travel can remind us that L.G.B.T.Q. people, who in the United States are roughly twice as likely to hold passports as the general population, form our own worldwide community.”

I thought that was really interesting. For those who maybe didn’t feel understood or didn’t feel like they had a community growing up, they look for it elsewhere. So that’s one of the positives. They think in terms of large scale communities, finding their community elsewhere. 

So he goes on to say:

“Sadly, universal dignity and rights are advancing unevenly — where they’re advancing at all. There’s no eliding the challenges that L.G.B.T.Q. people may face at home or abroad, from the stress of repeated microaggressions to the threat or reality of imprisonment or violence.” 

So I thought that was a really interesting perspective that he has.

So we’ll start with worldwide travel, looking at what are the safest and least safest places to travel. It’s interesting. Scandinavia and Western Europe tend to hit high marks in so many areas, right? Norway and Portugal and Belgium, Canada also, our neighbor to the north. All are places that are fairly safe, places where the rights of gay people are, you know, are celebrated and are respected. So they often travel to those places. 

And the U.S. is 24, 25, somewhere in there, depending on where I look, which is like, could be worse, I know, but it also should be better. Like we should be in the top 10 and put safest places for this community to travel. We’re not. I think it’s probably going to get worse because the violence against the gay community is increasing. Then what are some of the worst places to travel for the community? Nigeria, Qatar, which just hosted the World Cup and there was a lot of conversation about their rights. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Tanzania, Iran, Sudan.

Another interesting thing, sad thing I should say, is that some of the places we think of as like Jamaica, Barbados, the Caribbean Islands, we think of, oh that sounds so relaxing and that sounds like a great place to go, are some of the worst when it comes to violence against this community and do not have a culture of violence against this community. So it’s interesting to think about, as part of the community and allies, who do we want to support when we choose where to travel. I think it’s something I hadn’t considered a lot, but I think it’s an interesting point to make in general. Now, so, again, as has been said, we’re in crisis as far as the LGBTQ community goes. This year has been, and we’re only, we just hit July, this is by far the worst year in US history for legislation against this community.

There have been 525 bills introduced in this country this year, 2023. 76 have been signed into law, many of them against the trans community and many of them against a teacher educator’s ability to teach about this in a respectful way.

Why this is, it’s just mind boggling. I know it’s hard to understand how this level of hate could be so prevalent. And of course it’s gonna affect traveling because I mean, looking at this map, I mean.

The red states are the ones that are most concerning. I think Florida has been the one, that “don’t say gay” bill, and has been the one sounding the charge in a lot of this. And that’s a place where a lot of people travel to. A lot of people go to Florida for the beach and such. But it’s not that all of Florida is problematic. I mean, Miami is certainly very blue and has a big gay community.

Disney World has gone up to bat against the state. So, say, you know, look at it like supporting them. You know, so I guess you can look at it different ways, but also there’s other places like Tennessee, which is a very common place to travel, which is, you know, Kentucky’s, a lot of us visit there. And the ground we’re standing on now, Ohio, we’ve had two bills in the last two weeks against this community, which is heartbreaking.

And so just looking at it like we’re looking at where this community wants to live and where they want to travel to. But of course there are some more positive, positive places. Chicago, where I’m from, so I put a picture of a gay couple in front of Cloud Gate, having fun taking a picture and like this is how vacation should be. It should be time for those who can afford to go. Hopefully they will have a positive experience and have time with their family and have it be refreshing but you know so that’s why that’s the hope but it’s not always the case. 

There are other states, the northeast like New England tends to be a place that’s safe to travel for that community. California generally not not in every case I’m sure but generally the western seaboard.

So I think, again, I think it’s something to think about. It’s like, what are the safe places? You know, just because one group is safe traveling somewhere doesn’t mean everyone is safe traveling somewhere. And I give it back over to Gretchen.

Okay, we are going to talk about travel challenges for people of color. I’m going to ask you a few questions. Just raise your hand. I’m very curious what some of you have and have not learned in your schooling, you know, grades K through 12, because much of this I had never heard of or did not become aware of until I was an adult. So, sundown towns.

Did anyone learn about that in their education? I did not. We have a young person who did—very good. For those who don’t know, it is a city or neighborhood that still practices racial segregation. They exclude non-white people, usually through violence or intimidation. They recognize that during the day, they need people to work in their factories, clean their houses, babysit their kids. But when the sun goes down, you better be out of town. And I heard nothing about this growing up. 

So my next question, has anyone heard of the Green Book? Oh, very good. This is also known as the Negro Traveler’s Green Book, named after Victor Hugo Green.

It started during segregation to let people know which businesses were safe for them to frequent and was published in a book form from 1936 to 1964. I put a little blurb from the 1954 edition showing Cincinnati. There were two places you could stay, the YMCA and the Manor.

There were two tourist homes, people who opened their homes to people of color. And it was just shocking to me that it was that limited as far as where you were, quote, allowed to visit.

Next question: Where are the sundown towns located? I had a preconception where they would be. I’m curious if you’d raise your hand where you think. Pick the one that has the most. How about the west? Southwest? OK. Southeast? Midwest? And northeast? OK.

If you picked the Midwest, you’re correct. And that was shocking to me. I thought for sure it was going to be the South. So you’re probably thinking, where in Ohio is this? And I’m going to say the names and I may get some wrong. Fairborn, Green Hills, which is part of Cincinnati. Marion, Niles. Redding, also part of Cincinnati. Shelby, Utica and Waverly. 

Now, I’m going to show you a slide here. There is a website that shows where some sundown towns are. They’re rated between like, we know for sure, probably, probably not, definitely not, so that people know where it’s safe to travel.

When I saw this, I was just blown away. I had no idea that the Midwest had this type of an issue. Now, I was aware, for my job I spent a lot of time in different states, and Indiana, wow, especially in the southern part, the amount of racism I saw as a white woman just made me sick.

Martinsville, Indiana, is the home of the KKK. People are very open about it. They have flags at their homes. When IU students go to orientation, it’s shared with them to take extreme caution going through Martinsville, which happens to be the main road through campus. First-hand experience, and I hope I don’t cry here, people on my work team, we were extremely diverse.

When I was traveling with someone, I noticed a coffee can in their back seat. And I said, oh, you know, do you carry this because you drink coffee a lot? I mean, I was kind of making a joke and I had no idea. They said, I carry that can because when I’m in southern Indiana, there’s places I can’t use the restroom. They won’t let me in. So I keep this with me in case I need it. I had the experience of going to restaurants with them where they actually said to me, “you can eat here. You can’t.” I had never encountered that. I mean, it just shocked me. 

And the thing that really bothers me the most, this did happen in Martinsville in front of our corporate building. There were trucks that would drive by with tin cans behind them, like when you get married and it makes the racket. And they had very derogatory signs on them. But that’s not the worst part.

They would throw rocks at folks as they were working if they were people of color. And it’s horrific to read things in the newspaper, but when you actually see it happen with your own eyes and those are people you care about, I mean, it still brings tears to my eyes today. So let me move on for a cry.

This shows probable sundown towns, not the for sure ones. These are probable. And what’s interesting, it doesn’t include the for sure ones. So it’s this many more. Just think about the limitations. One has to be very careful when you’re traveling in these areas. And I’m not sure there’s really anything else to say, except this demonstrated clearly to me the amount of white privilege that I have. Because I can go anywhere and really don’t have to think about this. Moving back to Doren.

Thank you for that, Gretchen. OK. Now we’re going to be talking about women traveling. So I wanted to start with good news, because there’s plenty of bad news. According to Forbes, 65% of travelers are women.

And this is interesting, 80% of travel decisions are made by women, which is, so basically women are deciding where we’re going, women are planning trips, we’re the ones who are on Expedia or whatever, we’re the ones who are running cars, 80%. So that’s really interesting. It says, in the last five years, there’s been a 250% increase.

In the number of travel agencies, the number of women traveling, there’s a lot of women who travel alone, that’s become a trend. There’s a lot of articles written about this. For women who are just like, I’m just gonna go, like, off I go and just want to have, want to be empowered that way. And speaking of people of color, specifically women of color, like I said, there’s those concerns. I mean, being a person of color and being a woman, that certainly can be a safety issue in many places.

But there’s also good news as well as there. So there’s groups like Blacks in Tourism. And there’s a woman named Kelly McCoy who’s the development coordinator. And so there’s a real movement to get more people of color and women in leadership. I mean, think about the boards of the big hotel chains and the airlines and the trains, people who make the decisions that affect how we travel and whether we’re safe and whether we have a good experience. 

And of course, I mean, it has always been a vast majority of white males who are on these boards and who make these decisions and think in terms of, you know, white male visiting, white males and what they need. But there’s a push saying, no, it’s like I said, 80% of the decisions are being made by women and companies realize this. And a lot of people of color, you know, as well. So that’s, hopefully that’s the, you know, there’s good news there that things will be changing in a positive direction.

Okay, so looking at the safety of the women traveling and what are the safe countries for women, again, since it’s pretty similar to the safe countries for the LGBTQ community, it’s Scandinavia and Western Europe.

Whatever they’re doing, we need to emulate. I guess, I don’t know if there’s the motivation here, because they’re much safer places to travel for people who are vulnerable.

But women can be subject to microaggressions. I was just reading this morning, it popped up, probably because I’ve been doing a lot of looking at traveling sites, and it said, there was just, a couple days ago, a situation where a woman is traveling with a child, and they’re like, no, you need to get off, like this was coming from Hawaii, I think to California. They’re like, you and your child need to get off, and if not, we’re calling the police, and they actually said to her, and your child is going into foster care if you don’t get off the plane right now.

They had tickets. I mean talk about microaggressions and I mean this happened two days ago. Some of my difficult times have been traveling with children, small children especially, because other people feel like your kids are not behaving the way they want them to behave, on the plane or whatever.

So, certainly these things can happen. There are other types of microaggressions. It talks about looking at a lot of the State Department’s site, which is really interesting. That was referenced in several places that the State Department wants people, American citizens, people in general, to be safe traveling. So they have a lot of guidelines, ways to try and be safe and what to think about before traveling. And they talk about, try not to give your marital status because a lot of places you’ll be judged by that.

And talking about planning ahead, thinking where you’re gonna be, I mean this is more focused on international travel but I think it works nationally too. Because you may be traveling to somewhere in the country you’re not familiar and may wanna research like what are the safest places to be? How do I, what transportation is gonna be the safest? Where do I wanna go? Especially if you’re traveling alone obviously.

It’s good to think about those things. Some of the suggestions it gives, if you’re traveling internationally, then they say it’s good to have a passport that, it’s good to keep your passport current if you travel internationally, because if it’s less than six months old, you might be flagged and you might have to answer more questions, that kind of thing. Also talks about healthcare as a concern. So if you’re traveling, you wanna think about what do I do if I get sick? If I get injured, what should I do? Can I get care? 

They also talk about pregnant women. If you’re a woman who’s pregnant and traveling internationally, which I know probably not a lot of them, because it’s probably not ideal, but if you happen to be, other countries might have different ideas about healthcare for women or about prenatal care, so it’s something to be thinking about as well. 

I also wanted to say that in terms, it’s interesting, there’s been a real push in Asia to get women to come travel, Japan and Singapore. And they have things like subway cars just for women or hotels just for women. And they’re really pushing, “it’s safe to come here. We want women to come here.” Like I said, everyone knows women are making the decisions. So I think that would be kind of a good idea here too to think about how can we make travel safer for women and for people in general and for companies to be that motivated.

Another thing to talk about, speaking about safety, of course, there’s always gender-based violence and it’s a consideration. The State Department mentions trans women especially. Trans women are at high risk for aggression and assault. So again, another population that has to think carefully about where they travel.

So that’s something we can try to be supportive of, you know, anyone in that community. But also, gender-based violence can be against any woman. And it said they can be at higher risk for sexual or physical assault, domestic violence, forced marriage, some countries you travel to may have issues with human trafficking, although we have it here too. But that’s something to think about. When might you be at risk for different types of violence or traveling with children especially?

How can we make sure the kids are protected, young girls? There is the Office of Overseas Citizen Services. If you’re traveling overseas and you’ve been a victim of a crime, they say, definitely call in, report this, talk to your consulate, make sure, because they want to know if something like this happens, they can offer support. 

We shouldn’t not want to travel because something might happen, but we should be aware of what the resources are in case something does happen. And so it’s just, in general, I think that it’s great to be able to travel, but like Gretchen said, for those of us who have the means to do so.

But also, we want to be able to travel safely and have dignity as we go. 

We’re doing the last one together. How to be an ally when traveling? So be friendly and welcoming to anyone we happen to meet. And I’m going to jump in with a microaggression warning. I experienced this while camping. Withhold unsolicited advice until something could cause harm. There was a family next to us—they were Asian—and people stopped repeatedly to “help them,” like “let me show you how to set up a tent” or things that. I mean, they may well know how to do this, but people assumed since they don’t see a lot of Asian people camping that they would need help. Microgression right there, yeah. So advocate for diversity in advertising.

This is an interesting one that you found, Gretchen. I looked at Outside Magazine, which is about backpacking, camping, outdoors sort of thing. I went through and counted the photos. There were 32 white men in the magazine, three African-Americans. And I should note, all were in ads. None were in the actual articles. There was one Asian person and one woman.

We wonder who these magazines are geared to and why we don’t have a more diverse audience traveling. It made me not feel very welcome. Yeah. So if you could write letters and say, hey, it would be great if you had more inclusion in your magazine.

Speak up if you see mistreatment of anyone or any time. If you see someone who’s being mistreated, stay with them and ask them if they need help and find them the help they need. And educate yourself on realities different from your own. Like the sundown towns being mostly in the Midwest. I mean, they’re everywhere but the predominance of them.

I had no idea, so I definitely need to read more. And if you have not seen the movie Green Book, it is on video, it’s streaming. Excellent movie. I really learned a lot from it. And the TV series Somebody Somewhere on HBO—several LGBTQ characters and it’s really just nice to see life through their perspective. It’s a very positive show. So give that a try. 

I had one more thing. It’s outrageous that we need guides and websites so non-majority people can travel safely in a country who wants to do them harm. A startup organization called Inclusive Journeys aims to create a digital version of the Green Book where people of marginalized identities know they’ll be welcome. And I hope during discussion group, you talk about both experiences, but also how we can be a force for change.