June 23, 2016

As same-sex couples gain increased benefits in more locations around the world, the complications when traveling abroad to countries without the same recognitions only increase, as well. Acceptance of LGBT lifestyles and same-sex marriage does not extend to all countries of the world; in some countries identifying as such can lead to harassment or even arrest. Yet, from visa applications to at-the-border immigration forms, members of same-sex couples are repeatedly asked: Are you married?

Security-aware LGBT travelers are left wondering what the safest answer is. At this point, there is no clear answer. On public forums and through anecdotal accounts, married same-sex travelers report that answering visa and immigration forms either "yes" or "no" has not led to complications, but concerns remain. On one hand, a "yes," could potentially increase a travelers exposure as a member of the LGBT community, which may also lead to complications. On the other hand, identifying as "no" will mean lying on an official form.

A Google or Facebook search could reveal to a foreign government that a traveler had misrepresented him- or herself, and some visa forms ask for a travelers spouses name, which could reveal a same-sex marriage. With this in mind, same-sex married travelers report that they continue to measure each situation with an eye to the local laws and cultures; not identifying as married if they think it may attract official or public attention to their sexuality, and identifying if they feel safe.

With regard to LGBT travel advice for making this call, countries fall into one of four categories, depending on the measure of acceptance for LGBT behavior and same-sex marriages:

  1. Countries that have laws granting same-sex couples civil unions or legally recognized marriages
  2. Countries that do not recognize marriages or unions but generally accept LGBT people
  3. Countries where homosexuality is not officially criminalized, but it is not culturally accepted
  4. Countries where homosexuality is illegal and not culturally tolerated

Same-sex unions or marriages are legally recognized and/or LGBT people generally accepted

Same-sex travelers in countries of the first two categories have been unaffected when identifying as married publicly, even when marriage is not recognized by the host country. However, in extreme situations, married couples in countries that do not legally acknowledge the relationship may not be able to access the same level of assistance or benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. Even in these cases, the visa or immigration form is unlikely to affect the situation.

Homosexuality not illegal, but not culturally accepted

In the third category, travelers who identify as married could draw additional attention to themselves if they are traveling with a same-sex spouse, but it is unlikely to lead to legal trouble. As an addendum, once through the legal traveling process, travelers publicly identifying as married and LGBT could draw ire from the public, and security forces may not be sympathetic.

Russia is the prime example of the third category: While homosexuality is not technically illegal, the Russian government passed a law banning homosexual propaganda in 2013, and reports of violence against the LGBT community have increased over the last year. Members of same-sex marriages report that they have chosen to not identify as married to avoid attention, though there have been no official reports suggesting that the government is attempting to identify same-sex couples via their visa applications.

Anti-LGBT legal and social attitudes

Countries of the fourth category are a serious threat to the security of LGBT travelers. In these countries the acute anti-LGBT legal and social attitudes pose a continuous and multifaceted security threat, and locals identify LGBT people through a range identifiers including types of drinks (Cameroon) and their specific clothing (Uganda). While there is no evidence suggesting that government officials are actively seeking out members of the LGBT community through visa or traveler applications, the potential effects of being exposed as homosexual are heightened.

At this point, the official situation remains in flux. The US Department of State has a blanket advisory for all travelers to answer official forms honestly, but also advises all US citizens traveling abroad to be mindful of their safety. The State Department has made its own concessions to the Supreme Courts ruling United States v. Windsor, which found unconstitutional the federal governments designation of a marriage as between one man and one woman. The State Department has issued policy on Next of Kin assistance that embraces same-sex marriages, and dictates partners of these marriages will receive the benefits of assistance if a spouse has an emergency when traveling. With that established, the State Department reiterates that US citizens traveling abroad must respect the laws of the host country including laws governing interpersonal relationships.

As same-sex marriages become more common in some countries, those with staunch anti-LGBT policies may look increasingly at visa and immigration forms in order to pursue anti-LGBT agendas. However, it is more likely that governments, recognizing the importance of the LGBT traveler community, may not change their process. In this case, as the number of marriages continues to grow, there may be an increasing number of travelers in same-sex marriages deciding to check the box "yes," next to the question, Married?


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