River Michaels and the lesbian business travel experience
By Melissa Lowery | Photos courtesy of River Michaels
“Opportunistic silence.” “Straight passing.” “Read the room.”
These are the terms River Michaels, Ph.D., uses in her dissertation exploring the potential challenges and professional barriers that lesbian businesswomen may face when they travel offsite and how they manage their sexual identity disclosure in a heteronormative society.
“I was drawn to this topic because of my travel experiences while serving in the Navy,” Michaels explained. “I served before and during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, so I was constantly aware of my pronouns when talking about romantic partners.”
Michaels served in the United States Navy from 1985-1995, earning two Navy Achievement Medals, her Enlisted Aviation Warfare Specialist wings and was named the 1994 Sailor of the Year at Naval Station Mayport (Florida). Over the course of her military career, she served as an Aviation Electriciansmate and Naval Aircrewman and was part of the female integration trials where the Navy selected 50 women from the West Coast to conduct carrier operations on the USS Enterprise in 1986. In 1989, she was one of the first few females accepted to attend Naval Air Crew Candidate School, a grueling training program she called “the most physical and psychological endurance experience of my life.”
Michaels enjoyed her work and the crew that became family, but the dangers of being a lesbian in the military ultimately proved too damaging to her mental and emotional health.
“After nearly a decade of service, it always felt like a dark cloud hovering over me,” she said. “Even though I was a decorated sailor, I could still be humiliated and disgraced. One slip up, and I could receive an Other Than Honorable discharge.”
The constant strain of making sure to refer to her girlfriend by a man’s name and with male pronouns, of never being able to bring a legitimate date to a Navy function, of knowing that who she loved was enough to erase all her accomplishments led Michaels to leave the Navy on her terms. She ended her Naval career with an Honorable Discharge and a Bachelor’s degree.
At age 28, Michaels moved to Maryland, where her mother had relocated and enrolled in graduate school. She earned her Master’s degree and, in 1998, became a full-time IT instructor at the Pentagon, teaching Microsoft Office applications. Her professional life back on track; Michaels was also caring for her mother who was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. She passed away on September 5, 2001, timing Michaels believes was fate.
“I was supposed to be at the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, but a series of personal events caused me to be late, and I avoided the terrorist attack,” she said. “I’ve often wondered if the timing of my mother’s death somehow saved my life.”
Michaels continued to work at the Pentagon for another year before moving back to Houston, where the rest of her family lived. Her father and her sister, Tamara West, worked at the Johnson Space Center. West was the Executive Assistant to the Director of the JSC until her unexpected death in 2019. Dr. Ellen Ochoa – the first Hispanic female in space and a former Director of JSC – was the guest speaker at West’s funeral. A humble and gracious woman, Michaels said she would have been surprised by the impact she had on so many people.
While grieving the loss of her sister, Michaels, by then a Ph.D. candidate and subcontractor for the Department of Defense, began working on her dissertation.
“My personal ‘why’ is to be the best person I can be to my wife,” Michaels said. “I didn’t want my ancestry line to be invisible and appear as if I never loved or married in my life. The same is true for my sister’s obituary. I wanted my wife to be acknowledged as my wife and not listed as my partner or friend.”
In thinking about her own legacy, her experiences and her desire to see equality and inclusiveness accorded to everyone, she knew that she wanted to explore the experiences of lesbian businesswomen. From there, she narrowed down her topic to focus on business travel.
“The participants described how they would ‘read the room’ to assess their minority status. If they observed themselves as the only gay person in the room, they would assimilate into the heteronormative environment.”
Michaels’ dissertation, titled Self-Identified Lesbian Businesswomen Who Travel Domestically to Conduct Business in a Heteronormative Society: A Phenomenological Study, is a qualitative, transcendental phenomenological study.
“What that means is that I did not seek to prove a hypothesis, as one would in a quantitative study, but instead gathered the shared lived experiences of other self-identified lesbian businesswomen to allow the phenomenon to emerge naturally,” she explained.
Historically women have been oppressed and discriminated against in myriad ways in business, but Michaels wanted to focus on how the unique intersectional circumstances of lesbian businesswomen with the oppression of gender (female) and sexual orientation (lesbian) shaped participants’ lives.
“It is noteworthy to mention that when I would have conversations with straight white women about my study, they were completely unaware of what a lesbian goes through to protect their sexual identity in a business setting,” she said. “What seemed obvious to me was not apparent to those who never had to implement such a filter in their daily lives.”
She interviewed 11 women aged 31-60+, all of whom have higher education and most of whom were CEOs or senior-level managers and working in an LGBTQ+ friendly environment. Despite multiple degrees and professional success, Michaels identified situations where the participants engaged in “opportunistic silence” regarding their sexual identity disclosure during networking and business social situations.
“This strategy was to avoid- the possibility of negative attention or risk of losing potential business opportunities,” Michaels said. “For heterosexual women, it’s a non-issue and another example of heterosexual privilege.”
Participants reported engaging in opportunistic silence more often early in their careers. Ten of the 11 participants are out at their current workplace and are “happy and thriving with no issues,” Michaels found.
Such is not the case when these women have to travel for work, however. Although most are “straight-passing,” each demonstrated skill at strategizing their sexual identity disclosure to navigate the potential obstacles that may hinder their safety as women first and then as lesbians in business travel situations.
“The participants described how they would ‘read the room’ to assess their minority status,” Michaels said. “If they observed themselves as the only gay person in the room, they would assimilate into the heteronormative environment.”
In the same way Michaels would carefully change names and pronouns when talking about her personal life while in the Navy, the participants in her research study use hat strategy to assimilate into unfamiliar environments.
Michaels’ research is the first of its kind, and while it does not provide recommendations for immediate changes to policy and procedure, it does serve as evidence that more study is needed. For example, one of the 11 participants in her study is a Black lesbian, the only person of color in the group. This woman’s experiences are similar and yet wildly different than those of her white counterparts.
“The only Black participant in the study experienced life-long discrimination, especially early in her career as a Black woman, making it impossible to separate her sexuality from her race; therefore, she is subject to multiple stigmas,” Michaels said. “She revealed that such inequities were also prevalent within the LGBTQ+ communities. Admittedly, that thought had never crossed my mind as I had always imagined a sort of haven within the LGBTQ+ community. She taught me that racism is prevalent regardless of sexual identity; it is inherent in the culture in which we are raised.”
Hearing about this woman’s experiences revealed the gaps in Michaels’ own knowledge and experiences as a cis-gendered white woman. She hopes other academics will recognize the importance of learning from the BIPOC LGBTQ+ community and continue her research.
“My study opened the door for further research of LGBTQ+ issues specifically related to travel and a jumping-off point for the intersectionality of lesbians of color in the workplace or business travel,” she said. “It’s clear that race and other intersecting identities play a significant role when choosing whether to disclose one’s sexual identity. That topic was outside the scope of the study but became a glaring unintentional result that warrants an investigation all its own.”
Additional study would be beneficial for policymakers to ensure organizational travel policies reflect the diversity of concerns for sexual minorities, Michaels said. Training people out of using heteronormative language would make a huge difference, for example. She also noted an emerging trend of online travel agencies collaborating with the LGBTQ+ community to be more inclusive.
“In August 2020, the online LGBTQ+ travel resource, HospitableMe, launched a partnership with Booking.com to offer training to organizations that want to demonstrate their inclusive support for LGBTQ+ travelers and achieve Proud-Certified status,” she said. “I think that is amazing! I’m so happy for all the strides being made to help LGBTQ+ people breathe a little easier.”
Self-Identified Lesbian Businesswomen Who Travel Domestically to Conduct Business in a Heteronormative Society: A Phenomenological Study is available through ProQuest.
Melissa Lowery (she/her) is the Editor in Chief of BEQ Pride magazine and a contributor to other publications focused on economic equality. A native of Kansas, she enjoys subverting stereotypes and is determined to maintain her status as World’s Greatest Aunt to her 13 nieces and nephews.