written by Josefina Artigas and Giuliana Gentile
It goes without saying that, unfortunately, we still live in a world where LGBTQ+ people might face different levels of discrimination wherever they go: there is no country or region where every single person is respectful towards this community. It’s a tough reality we all need to be aware of.
So what does this mean for queer travelers?
Facing different legal frameworks
There are many countries in the world where the very existence of a queer person is considered a crime. So they would not only face discrimination, but also the possibility to be thrown in jail. In fact, the legal framework of each country determines the degree to which LGBTQ+ lives are acknowledged, tolerated, accepted, or granted some fundamental protection.
For instance, some countries adopt measures of protection to criminalize violence against queer people – such as, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden. On the other hand there are countries – such as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia – that punish same-sex relationships with jail or death penalty, while others don’t even mention the issue in their legislation – like Italy, Cuba, and Thailand. In some countries, it’s illegal to discuss LGBTQ+ related topics. That’s the case of Iraq, Russia, and some states in the US – the “no promo homo” laws in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Around the world there are also different levels of recognition and acceptance of same-sex marriage, adoption, and transgender identity. As you can see, the search for the perfect destination for a queer traveler can be quite complex. It might help to consult LGBTQ+ travel safety indexes and related articles.
Violence and harassment
In most cases, the legal framework of a country doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual living conditions of the LGBTQ+ community. At the same time, it’s not fair to generalize those living conditions to all the areas within the country in question: the living conditions in one particular city can be completely different from other cities within the same area – both negatively and positively.
Unfortunately, episodes of violence and harassment can happen everywhere, whether they’re criminalized or perpetrated by the local government. Below you can find a series of examples divided by regions of the world.
Please keep in mind that these are just a few examples to provide some reference, and in no way fully represent all realities worldwide. Until most countries keep maintaining such low levels of awareness regarding this issue, the real numbers behind the episodes of violence and harassment will always remain partially unknown. Additionally, each country has its own definition of hate crimes, and what actually constitutes as violence, so it’s tricky to compare the data collected in different parts of the world.
The Polish LGBT organization Lambda Warsaw and the University of Brescia (Italy) commissioned a study on behalf of the Call It Hate project. It was conducted among 10 European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom), and reached the following results:
- 54% of the population surveyed believes that lesbians, gay men and bisexual people avoid holding hands with a same-sex partner on the street for fear of being attacked.
- 55% of respondents think that transgender persons avoid expressing their gender identity through their physical appearance and clothes for the same reason.
- A similar number believe that hate crimes have more severe consequences than other crimes.
- Six in ten respondents believe that crimes motivated by bias based on sexual orientation should be punished more severely.
A study conducted in Kenya in 2019 found that 53% of respondents had been physically assaulted in the previous 12 months, yet only 29 per cent of those had reported the physical assault to the police. Additionally, the data collected in the study shows that one in four lesbian women and one in four gay men had been sexually assaulted in the previous year. The research reports that “this is more than triple the percentage of women in the general population, and six times higher than the level of sexual violence experienced by men in the general population.”
In South Africa, 49% of black members of LGBT communities are likely to know someone who has been murdered for being queer. At the same time (as of 2017), 51% of South Africans surveyed agreed that LGBT people should be afforded the same human rights as the rest of the population.
United States & Canada:
According to 2019 data released by the FBI, in the US sexual orientation and gender identity are respectively the third and fourth motives behind the country’s reported hate crimes; the first one being ethnicity, and the second one religion.
In Canada, data from 2018 shows a drop of 15% from the previous year, but it does do not include crimes motivated by transgender or gender identity. Additionally, the majority of sexual orientation-based offenses recorded by the police were violent in nature (53%).
Brazil is the country with the highest number of lethal crimes against LGBTQ+ people in the world. It may come as a surprise because São Paulo (one of the principal Brazilian cities) holds the record for the biggest pride parade in the world.
Data collected between 2002 and 2016 in Brazil shows that over half of the homicides of homosexual individuals were committed in small towns and cities. This is a very representative example of how the same country can display such diverse realities depending on the region.
Places to avoid
In the past couple of decades, we’ve seen significant advancements in LGBTQ+ rights worldwide, with an increase in visibility and acceptance. Yet, people continue to experience harassment, violence, and discrimination in all corners of the globe. Even in the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been rollbacks of protections for LGBTQ+ people. For example, in 2020, Hungary ended its legal recognition of transgender and intersex folks. Although we wish we could tell you exactly where to go and where not to visit, the picture is much harder to figure out. While the unfortunate reality is that there won’t be a place that you are fully guaranteed not to experience harassment, discrimination, and even violence, there are some places to be wary of. We’ve compiled a shortlist of places to be aware of due to harsh and extreme penal punishments written into law.
- Extreme penalties for sexual orientation (up to 14 years in prison & death penalty in states under Sharia law)
- Discussion of LGBT rights & gender expression is criminalized
- Nigeria’s prohibition of same-sex marriage in 2013 → increase in violence and extortion towards LGBTQ+ folks
- Severe punishment as interpreted by Sharia law for sexual orientation – death sentence, whipping, and banishment
- Flogging for cross-dressing
- Severe punishment for sexual orientation (up to 20 years in prison, whipping & fines)
- Specific forms of gender expression are criminalized
- As recently as 2019, the tourism minister of Malaysia has denied the existence of gay people in the country
- Recent proposals to increase penalties against LGBTQ+ folk
- Extreme punishment for sexual orientation (up to 14 years for men and up to 5 for women).
- Pro-LGBTQ+ organizations are banned.
- Only 3% of Malawians said their city is a good place for gay and lesbian people
- Prison time of up to 3 years for sexual orientation
- Prison time for ‘imitating the opposite sex.’
- Pro-LGBTQ+ organizations are banned.
- Prison time of up to 10 years with hard labor under their ‘ buggery law.’
- Violence against LGBTQ+ folk, particularly trans women.
How to choose your destination
Do Your Research
LGBTQ+ Accommodations & Tours
Look for laws that criminalize same-sex activities/relationships and/or people based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. In addition, some places take advantage of laws such as ‘vagrancy,’ ‘public nuisance,’ and ‘public morals’ to target and criminalize LGBTQ+ folks. Beyond laws, you can also research the social norms present in the place you plan to visit.
When booking your next vacation, here are some options for LGBTQ-friendly hotels, tours, and cruises.
Some Things to Keep In Mind While Traveling
Immigration and passing through security checkpoints are already a hassle but can be even more inconvenient for transgender and non-binary folk. One way to make it easier is by updating your gender marker on your ID. If you cannot have an up-to-date ID, you can also have a signed doctor’s note while traveling. You can also opt out of the Advanced Imaging Technology scan and request to be patted down in a private room. Make sure that you bring a friend in with you during the screening process.
Be aware of your surroundings, and depending on where you are, be discreet. Keep in mind that public displays of affection between non-hetero couples might be frowned upon in certain places.
In an emergency, you can contact or visit your nearest embassy or consulate, especially if you don’t feel comfortable going to local authorities.
The reality we must acknowledge is that folks that are part of the LGBTQ+ community, even on vacation, aren’t always able to take a break from the discrimination they face in their everyday lives.
If you’re a person who identifies as queer, and feel the need to visit the countries you’re “supposed to avoid”, it could truly be a valuable experience, both for you and the people around you. At the end of the day, being exposed to diversity is what pushes progress forward. The world can be a scary place, but it’s not meant to be this way, so don’t be scared to change it.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.
Want to learn more?
The 150 Worst (& Safest) Countries for LGBTQ+ Travel in 2021 – Asher & Lyric
Hate Crimes against the LGBT Community in the Commonwealth – Equality and Justice Alliance
Does travel mean going into the closet? LGBTQ+ tourists face tough choices – National Geographic
Human Rights Watch Country Profiles: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – Human Rights Watch
Sexual Orientation Laws in the World: 2020 Map – The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association
LGBTQ+ Travel Resources – AFAR