What To Do When You’re Traveling To An LGBT-Unfriendly Country

Whether it's for work or family—or just curiosity—it pays to know the lay of the land.

Before every Olympics, the 193 member states of the United Nations negotiate the terms of the Olympic Truce Resolution, aiming to promote good will among nations during the Games. Starting in 2014 with the Sochi Winter Games, Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This year, however, Principle 6 came under attack: Egypt and Russia, two countries that actively persecute LGBT people, threatened to refuse to sign the charter if Principle 6 wasn’t removed. Fortunately, their efforts failed.

Of course, Russia and Egypt are hardly the only nations with horrible track records when it comes to LGBT people: According to a International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) report, 71 countries criminalize same-sex relations. In more than a dozen—Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and parts of Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Iraq—homosexuality is punishable by death.

But what’s on the books and how LGBT travelers are actually treated can diverge greatly: “The Maldives, though an Islamic state—similar to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates—tend to have lax views on LGBT visitors as long as they are discrete,” says John Clifford of International Travel Management. Turkey, on the other hand, where homosexuality is legal, “has taken a turn for the worse in the last few years, stifling free speech and gatherings,” he adds.

Photo by Izzet Keribar/Getty Images

He’s felt tensions in Taksim Square, the center of many protests, where authorities have broken up peaceful demonstrations with rubber bullets and tear gas.

In many regions, those living with HIV—regardless of sexual orientation—face an entirely different set of obstacles: For travelers planning to visit most countries as a tourist—meaning for less than two weeks—there are generally few restrictions. But anyone seeking an extended stay abroad—for work or pleasure—may need to submit the results of an HIV test upon arrival. According to the Global Database on HIV-Specific Travel & Residence Restrictions, dozens of nations bar HIV-positive travelers who seek to stay 90 days or more, including Australia and Germany’s Bavarian region.

LGBT travelers can find themselves headed to unwelcoming places because of family or work obligations, or simply of an interest in exploring new cultures.

“The reality is that travel is such a personal decision and many LGBT people choose to travel to places that aren’t LGBT friendly because they want to experience all that the world has to offer and don’t set limitations based on orientation or identity,” explains Loann Halden of International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA).

“Any time we post queries on social media about this topic, it’s always a spirited debate: Many of us see that travel can be a catalyst for change and also that it doesn’t benefit the LGBT people in those countries to be cut off from their tribe.”

Jack Harrison-Quintana, director of Grindr for Equality, has been to 58 countries working to support local activists on LGBT health and human rights issues. (That’s him below in Belize, where homosexuality was illegal until last year.) He agrees with Holden’s assessment: “For me, travel has been an incredibly rewarding part of my life. I’m not really afraid to go anywhere and I’m not sure I would recommend anyone definitely avoid very many places. I think there are a few, but they would be the same places most straight travelers wouldn’t be eager to go to either.”

Jack Harrison-Quintana

Harrison-Quintana says he’s never been worried, but he is aware there is danger.

“I’ve been in bars that were raided by the police. They never did anything to anyone. But, in some of the places where being LGBT is illegal or dangerous, the activists I’m meeting with are also trying to fly under the radar. It can be very underground.”

“If part of your concern is not spending money that may contribute to a homophobic regime, there are websites to help you figure that out,” he explains. Purple Roofs, for example, lists LGBT-friendly inns other accommodations. “It can help you figure out what hotels might be run by, say, an just an old couple,” says Harrison-Quintana.

If you do decide to travel to a problematic destination, Clifford says, “first and foremost, be discrete—and be respectful of local laws and customs.”

“The best way we can open hearts and minds to those who don’t share our beliefs is by being humble and respectful guests,” he shares. “Be eager to learn about their culture, share food, grab a drink, ask to speak with an elder of the family. Listen, listen, listen.”

IGLTA president John Tanzella recommends doing your homework before you go “so you understand the laws and culture of your destination.” The U.S. Department of State provides good resources, and ILGA documents worldwide laws related to sexual orientation.

Adds Tanzella, “an informed traveler is much more likely to be a safe traveler.”

Bryan van Gorder usually writes about the places he's been or the famous people forced to talk to him.