The challenges of being an LGBT activist and non-profit leader can be overwhelming. After days, weeks, months, and years of activism, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting an uphill battle with no end in sight.

With a world made up of nearly 7.5 billion people holding varying positions on social topics, and an LGBT community that makes up only an estimated 5-10% of that population, I’ve wondered if the world will ever see full equality in my lifetime.

While I dream of a world that loves unequivocally, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression, that’s all it seems to be – a dream. Or, at least it used to feel that way.

SHINETwo weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s (IGLTA’s) 34th Annual Global Convention, SHINE, at Marriott’s Renaissance Vinoy in St. Petersburg, FL.

The luxurious pink resort with its green rooftop was filled to the brim with over 400 LGBT people from around the world. From Japan to Guam, England to Mexico, Australia to Thailand, and everywhere in between, travel agents, visitors bureaus, international media, and hoteliers gathered together for a three-day convention to learn about the newest LGBT travel trends.

Although I was originally invited to attend as media, at the very last minute I was asked to attend as the event photographer. Joined by fellow photographer, Jesse Smith, the two of us spent nearly 80 hours snapping photos, mingling with guests, and learning about anything and everything LGBT travel related.

By the third day, I was amazed by the number of people I had met, friends I had made, and experiences I had shared. As a bisexual woman from the suburbs of both Pennsylvania and Florida, I danced with a young lesbian woman from Malaysia, shared drinks with a handsome gay man from Paris, took a selfie with a sophisticated and stylish transgender woman from North Carolina, and exchanged cheek kisses with a cheerful ally from New Zealand.

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SHINE attendees from around the world paint a mural on the Pinellas Trail. (Image via Rachel Stevenson)

Each day that passed brought all of us closer together. As a group, we viewed artistic masterpieces at the Dali Museum, danced at the Mahaffey Theatre, toured the Metro Wellness Center, sailed on Tampa Bay, visited the Chihuly Museum, shared drinks at the Canopy’s rooftop bar overlooking St. Petersburg, connected with women from around the world at the Dog Bar, and painted loving messages of unity along the Pinellas trail.

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SHINE Sponsor gifts (Photo Credit: Rachel Stevenson, OUTCOAST)

I traveled around the world in those three days without leaving the zip code. I brought home souvenirs from several countries, including the finest bittersweet chocolate from Ecuador, a miniature nativity set from Peru, and hats from Puerto Vallarta. The world grew smaller during that convention and my perspectives on the world’s future changed.

It’s been two weeks since I attended the convention. After hours of photo editing, sorting through my treasures and keepsakes, and friending connections on Facebook, the afterglow is still there.

I see a world of possibility, love, and friendship. I see a world that is much smaller and more united than I oringally thought. And I can’t wait to attend the 2018 TOGETHER conference in Toronto, Canada to experience this adventure all over again.

To learn more about the IGLTA, click here.

To learn more about TOGETHER, click here.