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In the wake of a recent survey suggesting that the American LGBT community travels more frequently and extensively than the general US population, the US State department is putting a focus on providing information specifically geared towards gay travellers, who sometimes face specific risks when visiting foreign countries.

On 20 February, the State Department held a roundtable talk in Washington DC to learn how it might better inform lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens about the practical considerations of travelling internationally. Among the experts speaking were John Tanzella, president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and Kenneth Kero-Mentz, the former president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies.

“We’re collecting stories from individual travellers and consular officers about their experiences through social media and other methods, and we plan to use that feedback to be more proactive and systematic in our informational outreach,” said Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs of Overseas Citizens Services.

On 15 February, the State Department added an LGBT section to its consular information website, which informs US citizens of international conditions that may affect their safety and security. The recommendations include asking gay travellers to consider carrying “legal/health documents that facilitate authorisation for medical treatment or access in the event of a medical emergency while abroad” because a hospital in a foreign country may not consider a same-sex partner “next of kin” and may bar an LGBT person from visiting their partner in an emergency room. They also suggest  that LGBT parents pack documents “regarding parentage and/or custody for accompanying minor children” when visiting a country that doesn't automatically grant those rights to same sex relations.

Officials say the goal of the initiative is to spread the word that a US embassy or consulate may be able to help LGBT travellers who run into problems overseas and don’t feel as though they can approach local authorities. And according to Bernier-Toth, to date, not much consular information has addressed the special considerations of the group.

Throughout 2013, the State Department also plans to update its country specific sections – which list general advice, travel warnings and travel alerts – with information relevant to LGBT travellers. The section will note if there have been recent attacks against LGBT-identified people or, more generally, whether local laws permit consensual sexual relations between two people of the same gender.

Currently only a handful of country sections include such information. The State Department’s information for Russia, for example, already notes that “harassment, threats and acts of violence have been targeted at LGBT individuals” and details how one person was recently fined in St Petersburg for displaying a sign supporting LGBT rights.

“[The initiative] is a great first step that effectively says that LGBT travellers are just as important to protect and inform as everyone else,” said Ed Salvato, editor of the gay-focussed iPad travel magazine Man About World and former editor of Out Traveler magazine.

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