LGBTQ+ Safety Guide
Policies and public acceptance of LGBTQ+ people vary widely from country to country and even within some countries. Laws and attitudes can impact the safety of LGBTQ+ people but they also can affect the perception of safety in destinations around the world.
The reality is that LGBTQ+ people face unique travel issues in every destination — but with a little planning and awareness of where you’re visiting, you can enjoy your travel experiences just as much as anyone else. In fact, learning about the unique challenges and experiences of LGBTQ+ people within the destinations you’re visiting brings us closer together as a community and helps to build empathy for our LGBTQ+ siblings around the world.
Selecting Your Destination
Research the local LGBTQ+ policies and social attitudes before traveling. Keep in mind that all travel articles are written by individuals who come with their own unique identity-based perspective. A black trans man from Washington, D.C. will experience the world differently than a white cisgender lesbian from Cape Town. No single person can be representative of a collective of diverse people. While researching, keep in mind that your identity and preferences may be different than the author’s, so seek out multiple sources of information.
The first step is determining if you are comfortable traveling to a destination where it is illegal to be LGBTQ+. Some may argue that visiting destinations with anti-LGBTQ+ policies in place provides tourism dollars to undeserving locations. Others argue that local LGBTQ+ people exist in every destination in the world and by visiting you’re exposing locals to new ideas and customs. Ultimately it’s up to you as a member of the community to decide what feels right for you.
You may want to consider one of several questions LGBTQ+ people should ask before settling on a destination. Do you pass as straight or cisgender? Are you comfortable closeting yourself on the road? How important are public displays of affection on this trip? Are you traveling as a couple? The answers to these questions will help you narrow down the best destinations for you.
What Countries Have Legalized Same-Sex Marriage?
As of the publication of this article, same-sex marriage is legally performed and recognized in these 31 countries (nationwide or in some jurisdictions): Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States, and Uruguay.
Planning Your Itinerary
Using LGBTQ+ welcoming and affirming tour operators and service providers will always alleviate some of the anxiety associated with traveling as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. IGLTA is home to travel providers in more than 80 countries that have made a commitment to celebrating and welcoming the LGBTQ+ community. You might consider traveling with an LGBTQ+ specific group tour if you’d like to experience the destination through the lens of LGBTQ+ culture. Or maybe you’d prefer a general group or private tour but want to ensure they’re welcoming and affirming of all identities. Either way, IGLTA has a variety of members that will suit your needs.
Is it Safe to Travel to Countries Where Being LGBTQ+ is Illegal?
Traveling to countries that have anti-LGBTQ+ laws or social views can sometimes be risky or outright dangerous. However, it’s also possible travel to many of these countries safely in some cases, if you follow some precautions. It’s important to point out that every country is different and it can be difficult to generalize when providing advice. It’s even possible that some regions within the same country may be considered generally safe for LGBTQ+ people, while others distinctly not. For example, Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and has a relatively large and developed LGBTQ+ scene, albeit somewhat ‘underground’ and not visible to the general public. In this sense there is some amount of tolerance within this part of Hungary even if discrimination is commonplace. However, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and sentiment has been on the rise throughout Hungary in recent years, and in smaller towns and the countryside intolerance is now the norm. On the other hand, Singapore is another interesting example of a place where homosexuality is still outlawed between gay men, but the law is rarely used for prosecution. The general sentiment and practice in the nation-state is more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and could generally be considered safe for LGBTQ+ visitors.
Another point to consider for a tourist is one’s ability and comfort in “passing,” or rather their ability to pass as cis/straight or heterosexual. In other words, is a person comfortable and capable of being perceived to not be LGBTQ+ by locals within the destination, thereby avoiding any potential risks or discrimination by those they encounter during their travels? If you’re comfortable and capable of “passing” and keeping your sexual orientation private, it’s likely possible to travel safely with minimal risk to most destinations with anti-LGBTQ+ laws and attitudes. Some LGBTQ+ and allied individuals choose to avoid visiting destinations of this type because they prefer that the economic activity of their visit go towards a country with more favorable laws. With that said, this decision should be made on an individual basis, evaluating the facts and current sentiment and situation of the destination in question.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are complex topics and one’s outward appearance to others may impact someone’s comfort in traveling to a place that is known for being unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ people. While this could apply to any member of the LGBTQ+ community, trans people in particular often face the greatest risk. The best advice when deciding to visit a destination is to do your research in advance. There are a wealth of destinations that are known for being welcoming and tolerant to the LGBTQ+ community so those places may provide the best option for your trip. Still, it’s worth mentioning that some LGBTQ+ people may want to visit well-known or historic places known to be anti-LGBTQ+. The pyramids of Egypt, the beautiful beaches of Jamaica or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia are just a few examples of incredible experiences to consider. If you do choose to visit destinations like this you may also be able to find LGBTQ+ welcoming hotels, tour operators and tourism businesses who can assist in ensuring your trip is planned with safe and welcoming options.
How Can I Safely Travel to Countries that Might be Considered anti-LGBTQ+?
There are many other destinations where LGBTQ+ people may not be afforded equal rights and where acceptance or tolerance of homosexuality is not widespread. The attitude towards LGBTQ+ people in these countries is not always uniform and acceptance can vary dramatically. Viewpoints are often influenced by religion, age, education, background as well as a multitude of other aspects of life, which are difficult to quantify. If you’re interested in traveling to one of these countries, the first step is to do your research and confirm you will be comfortable traveling to and navigating the destination while there. One of the best ways to ensure you find welcoming tourism and hospitality businesses that welcome the LGBTQ+ community is to find a hotel, tour operator, or other tourism business that is a member of IGLTA. Companies and organizations who join IGLTA agree to a code of conduct stating they will conduct business with honesty, integrity, and fairness with respect to customers, clients, employees, and business associates alike. Each member will protect their customers' or clients' confidentiality and will not discriminate as to sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The business owners or management of these companies are usually LGBTQ+ owned or allies of the community and are willing to go out of their way to ensure you are safe and enjoy your stay in their destination.
Immigration and Security Travel Safety
Every country has different rules regarding immigration and airport security. Passengers at most airports are asked to go through some combination of metal detectors and/or the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) booth. In many countries, AIT is voluntary and travelers may opt out of the imaging process. If you opt out, or one of the machines detects something unusual, you will be required to go through a pat down by a security officer of the gender on your government-issued identification.
If you are transgender, there are several issues you may want to consider during the immigration and security process. For example, having an accurate gender marker on your ID will help alleviate some potential issues. If it is not possible to travel with an up-to-date ID, make sure you have a signed doctor's note with you while traveling.
In many countries, if you are selected for a screening, you are entitled to a private screening. Always bring a travel companion into the room with you when you are being screened. You may always ask to speak with a supervisor at any time in the screening process.
Be mindful of the perceptions of LGBTQ+ people when you’re considering what you are packing in your carry-on luggage. Keep in mind that any bag you have on your person can be searched at any time in an airport. Also, be mindful of the laws and cultural acceptance of traveling with sex toys and forms of contraceptives.
Most major hotel chains have LGBTQ+-affirming policies in place and are actively improving their staff diversity trainings. But some travelers may feel most comfortable with LGBTQ+ owned companies that specialize in hosting LGBTQ+ travelers. Regardless of your preference, start your research by browsing through our accommodations providers to ensure you’re staying with a hotel that is LGBTQ+-welcoming.
Every country has different cultural expectations concerning clothing and fashion. Nearly every country has some gender expectations for clothing as well. Knowing those expectations and the local customs regarding fashion will help you decide the safest course of action for your travel plans. For example, in countries where most women wear a head scarf, it may be wise to follow suit. When traveling, it is always safer to try and blend in with local people, because if you’re blatantly disregarding traditional expectations, it draws unnecessary attention to you. That said, honor your gender expression in the way that feels most comfortable and the safest to you while you’re traveling abroad.
Using LGBTQ+ Dating Apps & Social Media
Dating apps and social networks are a great way to connect with local LGBTQ+ people while traveling. You’ll be able to find the local hangouts, best parties and learn about local culture from people who live in the area. Unfortunately, apps and social media have been used to target and entrap LGBTQ+ people in areas where it is illegal. If you choose to use these services in countries where you’re worried about your safety, you may want to consider making your accounts private or downloading a VPN service onto your phone. VPN, while not foolproof, allows you to avoid government censorship and issues of entrapment in other countries.
In the Event of an Emergency
Be prepared for an emergency by ensuring that you have emergency contact numbers in place. Consider keeping a wallet card of phone numbers and emails of important people and photocopies of your documents in case something happens to your tech devices. Before traveling, keep your cash separated and have an emergency credit card hidden somewhere in your luggage. It is always wise to purchase travel insurance in advance for extreme situations because the company will be able to help financially and also as another point of contact in medical or political emergencies. In extreme situations you can contact the local embassy from your home country, and they may be able to assist you in the event of medical or political turmoil.
Explore LGBTQ+ Rights Around the World
IGLTA has partnered with Destination Pride, a data-driven platform that reimagines the Pride flag as a dynamic bar graph, then uses it to visualize the world's LGBTQ+ laws, rights and social sentiment. The platform brings together thousands of data points from around the globe—including marriage equality laws, census data and real-time social sentiment—to generate a Pride flag visualization for each destination.
About the Author
Meg Ten Eyck is an LGBT travel advocate and community educator. Meg and her wife Lindsay run the number one lesbian travel blog, DopesontheRoad.com. Meg’s LGBT subject matter expertise has been featured in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Go Magazine, Out Traveler, Gay Star News, Buzzfeed, Matador Network, Elite Daily, Korea Observer, and India's The Quint. Her passion lives at the intersection of travel, queer culture, and new media. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @megteneyck
Featured image by @alcorvi