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There are a lot of good things to get out of traveling as a queer person. Mostly meeting other LGBTQ+ people and learning what queer life can look like in other parts of the world. I recently visited eight countries—from Sweden to Turkey to America—to write a book about queer culture in the West. What the experience showed me was that, wherever you go, it’s possible to find people to connect with and relate to within the wider, global community. It also showed me that, in less accepting countries, there’s often a thriving underground queer scene to be discovered, if you can work out how.
On the flip side, traveling when you’re queer can be stressful. Interviewing queers across the West, I saw and heard how countries have starkly different climates and laws for LGBTQ+ people. And that was only the West – the world beyond can be much less accepting, often for reasons to do with culture and religion. We as queer—and particularly gender non-conforming people—have to strike a balance between enjoying ourselves (which anyone has the right to when traveling), and not disrespecting another culture or compromising our own safety.
It can be a tricky balance to hit. Below are some tips on how to navigate this.
Before you travel, it might be worth thinking about how LGBTQ+ friendly your destination is, or even picking your destination on the basis of this question, depending on why you’re traveling. If you’re going on a romantic holiday with your same-sex partner for your anniversary, then traveling to a largely homophobic country might not be a good—or sexy—idea. As well as your travel partner, your presentation may play a role in how safe you feel.
My friend Kai Isaiah-Jamal, a Black trans person from London, explains:
“Where is and isn’t safe isn’t a straight-cut question. Bad things can happen in places with accepting climates, and pockets of acceptance can be found in places that don’t. But knowledge is power, so do your research. Look at the list of countries that still criminalize homosexuality. Look up the LGBTQ+ Danger Index for rankings of accepting countries. Look at the Home Office’s LGBTQ+ Travel Advice. Google is your friend. And as Kai points out, choosing to travel with a friend or partner can help for safety. If you’re looking out for a queer friend, look up the embassy phone number for where they are going and make sure they carry it with them at all times.”
Hotel chains—especially the big international ones—could and should mind their own business. The good news is that some companies have asked their employees to sign an anti-discrimination pledge.
Only we queers can make a judgment call about where it is and isn’t safe to PDA. Sadly a lot of us have been making those calls our whole lives. If you’re from a city like London like I am, where you might feel a bit safer holding hands with a partner, it can be easy to forget that in Belgrade, for instance, where I recently traveled with a girlfriend, it might not be so safe. Only when I received glares from onlookers on the street did I remember my safety could be compromised. Check yourself, and take calculated risks that put your safety first.
Another thing to watch out for is dating apps. In countries like Egypt, Nigeria, and Russia, hook-up apps have been used to entrap gay people—both by law enforcement and homophobic vigilantes. Luckily, apps like Tinder now automatically send you a warning to hide your profile if you’re in a place that is less accepting. You can help yourself too: only meet in public places.
Ultimately, there can be a lot of great things about traveling as a queer person. Often just by going to a gay bar and striking up a conversation. It’s moving and educational to see how queer people do things in other countries—from drag shows in Iceland to queer techno clubs in Berlin to Sydney’s Mardi Gras.
Nothing beats old-fashioned word of mouth, so before you go somewhere ask your queer friends if they have any advice, post on Instagram asking LGBTQ+ people for the best and safest spots, or see if anyone knows anyone queer where you’re going, who you might be able to bribe with drinks to be your tour guide.