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In an era of marriage equality, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and Call Me By Your Name, it might seem archaic for LGBTQ people to have to worry about where they travel.
But a scan of headlines — hangings in Iran, roundups in Egypt, bashings in Brazil — provides a reality check. Violence against lesbian, gay, transgender and queer people has soared to all-time highs, according to New York-based Anti-Violence Project. And while travel carries risks for anyone, LGBTQ travelers face a whole different set of variables. Are anti-gay laws on the books? Is it safe for a woman to mention her wife? Can you use a public bathroom that matches your gender identity?
With that in mind, gay media brand ManAboutWorld this week launched a huge digital initiative around travel safety. Its centerpiece: a 44-page LGBTQ Guide to Travel Safety sponsored by AIG, the insurance giant. In chapters like “Safety and Security”, “LGBTQ Travel Etiquette”, and “Traveling While Trans”, the guide peppers practical advice with anecdotes from travelers like New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan, Marriott International director of risk management Jack Suwanlert, and pharma executive Dionysios Bouzos (“take off the LGBT hat and put on the good global professional”). Teaming with OutRight Action International, a global human-rights group, ManAboutWorld will also launch Is It Safe to Go To…..?, an online resource dedicated to helping travelers mitigate risk around the world.
Wouldn’t it be easier just to tell travelers not to go somewhere risky, we asked ManAboutWorld co-founder Billy Kolber?
“That’s not what we do,” he said. “Iran was on the cover of our magazine in 2016. I don’t think people should have parts of the world cut off to them. We try to make sure LGBTQ people understand the risks, and what they can do to travel more safely.”
In general, Kolber said, “things have become better” for LGBTQ travelers. “More people are out. More hospitality businesses around the world are prepared to welcome them, sometimes very specifically. Places like Jamaica, once the most homophobic place on earth, have made more of an effort.” In fact, Disney Destinations is a lead sponsor of 2018’s international convention of the International Lesbian and Gay Travel Association, an industry group, in Toronto this May.
That said, things have declined precipitously in parts of the world, Kolber said. Aceh, the northernmost province of Indonesia, had always been “relatively dangerous. But now, it’s horrible for queer people,” he said. “And the extreme religious conservatism in Aceh is trickling down to a place like Bali, making it much less safe and comfortable.”
Within a destination, Kolber said, levels of acceptance can also swing wildly from urban areas to the hinterlands. “Remember that even if places with legal equality and protection, you can encounter homophobia and transphobia outside of large urban areas,” he said. And a traveler’s own “presentation” can also affect their experience. “Effeminate men and non-typical-gender-presenting people have to think more carefully about where they visit. They can travel in a group to be less conspicuous, or just choose another destination.”
Even in the US, “there’s a growing level of intolerance” which can affect travelers, Kolber noted. In April 2016, the UK government updated its travel-advice site to warn LGBTQ travelers about intolerance in some parts of the US. “There are places in this country where queer people don’t have equal rights or protections, and the risk is greater for visitors – some red states, Southern states, rural places,” Kolber said.
For Jim Smith, a gay-travel pioneer whose Palm Beach-based Coda Tours has led groups to exotic destinations for three decades, no destination’s off-limits, provided travelers know the lay of the land. “There’s no place in the world gay travelers should avoid, even where they’re not accepted,” he said. “It’s only a question of comportment. You have to abide by a place’s rules, laws, and social expectations.” Even in Iran, where Smith led an LGBTQ group last year, “we were never made to feel uncomfortable. The visa process was the most nerve-wracking part of the trip.”
Does travel to countries with anti-gay governments signal tacit support of their laws? “It’s only been about 50 years since we stopped arresting gay people in the US,” Smith said. “These countries are decades behind us socially. Persecution is usually the result of a politicians’ desire to appease some faction. The average person couldn’t care less. And I don’t feel like boycotting will have any effect for local gay communities.”
ManAboutWorld’s Kolber offered a few ground rules. “Remember your phones and computers are increasingly subject to inspection. Bring a burner phone if you’re traveling to dangerous places. Or remove apps altogether and reload them later. Use an informed travel agent. Someone who’s on the ground and knows the destination is invaluable. And remember that people can still get gay-bashed in the friendliest places. Stay aware.”
A few countries also warranted specific tips from Kolber for intrepid LGBTQ travelers who want to visit, or must for business:
Egypt is known for targeting people who use dating apps like Grindr or Scruff. “The most cautious advice is to not use those apps. If you’re going to use them, try to verify social profiles and communicate with people before you meet them. Only meet people you can verify.”
Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law means LGBTQ travelers should “avoid promulgating the fact that you’re gay with things like t-shirts or flags.” If you wear a rainbow flag pin in your lapel, think twice about it.
In the United Arab Emirates, avoid public displays of affection of any kind, “which is true for a lot of Arab world. Tourists, gay and straight, have been arrested for public displays of affection.”
Indonesia Do your homework; a formerly accepting spot has become “a very dangerous place for LGBTQ people right now.”
Tanzania has, yes, outlawed lubricants, apparently to stop man-on-man sex. It sounds ridiculous, but make sure you double-check your Dopp kit and luggage.
“As Western tourists, we travel with a lot of privilege,” Kolber said. “We’re much less likely than locals to get harassed or arrested. But we can put the locals we interact with at risk. Just be aware of that.”
Photo by @isaaclowey via Twenty20
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