In most modern LGBT travel guides, you may find a short section dedicated to travel by members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community. The section will typically note the LGBT-friendly restaurants, clubs, bars and neighborhoods. Sometimes, the guide may note some of the less-friendly places for LGBT travelers. And usually, the guides will offer some standard safety advice, such as, “Be aware of your surroundings.” Understanding the legal and social landscape of a given destination is crucial for LGBT travel safety, as it enables them to protect themselves from hate crimes and systemic discrimination.
The threats to LGBT travel safety vary by location, often requiring the travelers to take a more flexible and nuanced approach to their security and planning. In some destinations, local laws could single out members of the LGBT community for punishment. In others, the state mechanisms may not extend the protections offered to most citizens to members of the LGBT community. In the latter case, local police may not respond, for example, when an LGBT individual is in danger or is the victim of a crime. Another possible scenario is that the local government could be officially supportive of the LGBT community, while local social groups have strident anti-LGBT beliefs.
In some countries, homosexual acts are illegal. Laws usually focus on acts rather than identity. So, having an open identity on a social media site or being known as gay, bisexual, or transgender, is unlikely to result in any kind of official sanction. Acts, on the other hand, such as engaging intimately with a member of the same sex, regardless of whether the partner is a local or a fellow traveler, can lead to a traveler being arrested. What constitutes an intimate act can vary, too. In some locations, the definition can include electronic communications. In some countries, open support for LGBT rights constitutes a violation of the law. In fact, in at least one case, a foreigner has been arrested and deported for activism.
The US State Department’s policy is to encourage all travelers to abide by local laws; if an LGBT citizen is arrested, the embassy or consulate will assist as it would for any other US citizen who breaks the local laws; however, the embassy or consulate can’t explain to the local government that the traveler would not be treated in such a way under US law. At best, they can help a prisoner connect with LGBT rights groups and hope that external pressure may assist the traveler’s case.
When traveling to a country where the LGBT community is officially marginalized or openly banned, travelers can take a few steps to protect themselves.
- As the travel guides say: Be cognizant of the surroundings. Before departing, travelers should educate themselves on the laws and enforcement in the country of destination, as well as the expected punishments for violations. The crowd-sourced interactive map at http://equaldex.com/ is a resource for quickly checking the situation in a country.
- Second, travelers should abide by the laws. Again, the type of protection offered in the US is not found in all countries. Violating local laws, regardless of whether they seem right, is not a legally defensible position.
- Even in countries where sexual behavior is heavily regulated, gay communities and social spaces exist. However, travelers should evaluate the threats inherent in visiting these venues. As a primary concern, engaging with an outlawed community can bring a traveler to the attention of the authorities. Furthermore, the places where an illegal LGBT community gathers could be in less reputable areas, and visiting these locations could be dangerous.
- Travelers should plan ahead for emergencies, particularly if the traveler’s primary contact person is a same-sex partner. The State Department recognizes same-sex partnerships and will assist same-sex partners in reaching a traveler in the hospital or jail. But it’s highly unlikely that local authorities will have the same respect for same-sex relationships, which could hamper the kind of access a same-sex partner gets.
Anti-gay laws in Russia, Uganda, and Cameroon may get a lot of media attention, but for the majority of LGBT individuals, the more direct threats to LGBT travel safety and security come from members of the public, not necessarily the authorities. Travelers in countries with broad anti-LGBT sentiment are at risk of becoming the victims of hate crimes.
In the most volatile combination, anti-LGBT social sentiment combines with anti-LGBT official government policy, to create a perfect storm of state-sanctioned discrimination and hate crimes. But even in countries without anti-LGBT laws on the books, some governments choose not to engage and protect the LGBT community, allowing an environment where casual hate crimes go unreported. The threat goes up and down, based on the traveler’s interaction with society and society’s awareness of the traveler’s sexuality.
- Travelers have to gauge situations individually. There is no “one size fits all” when interacting with a homophobic society. Some travelers may decide that the best way to deal with the situation is to reveal nothing about their sexual orientation. Others may find that option difficult, particularly if they are staying in a foreign country for an extended period. The US State Department advises that travelers make their safety the primary concern when dealing with societies that harbor anti-LGBT sentiments.
- US embassies and consulates will be able to offer some assistance in interacting with local governments on issues stemming from gender and sexuality, even though they cannot act as supplemental law enforcement.
- Local LGBT rights organizations may be able to provide support, but engaging with them may also open travelers up to increased public exposure.
When we travel, we all make judgement calls from moment to moment. “No, I won’t go to that neighborhood.” “Yes, this bus should be fine.” “I think I should contact the Embassy.” “Everything is ok.” And for cognizant, security-aware travelers, there are few locations that can’t be safely navigated.
For members of the LGBT community, some places–those with openly hostile government policies, and those with deeply-rooted anti-LGBT sentiment–present a different threat environment than they do for non-LGBT travelers. However, that doesn’t mean that travel needs to be curtailed. By taking steps to understand how anti-LGBT sentiment might manifest itself in a given destination, LGBT travelers should be able to make informed judgements about how to guide their travel, and how to protect their safety.
A version of this article was originally published for AssistAmerica's SecurAssist newsletter, Powered by WorldAware.