As an LGBT+ traveller, here’s why I still have to consider my safety before every trip

·6-min read
Calum in Lake Bled,  Slovenia (Calum McSwiggan)
Calum in Lake Bled, Slovenia (Calum McSwiggan)

I was just a teenager when I first went to a country where it was illegal to be gay. My parents had invited my then-boyfriend along on our family trip to Morocco, and it wasn’t until we were already in the country that we realised our very existence was considered criminal. We had been holding hands in public, not realising the danger in doing so, and it’s frightening to me now that we had been so blissfully unaware.

There’s an understanding that Morocco’s strict anti-gay laws are rarely enforced, but just a few years ago, in 2016, two teenage girls were arrested and faced prison time after their same-sex kiss had been caught on camera. That’s the sort of reality that LGBT+ travellers have to face in many countries – too many countries – around the world.

According to the Human Dignity Trust, 71 nations currently criminalise same-sex sexual activity between men, and 43 between women. 15 criminalise transgender identities, and 11 carry the death penalty for those charged. LGBT+ travellers have to consider this every single time we book a flight, as even transiting through a country that upholds these laws could put us in immediate danger.

It’s more the ethical dilemma of visiting, and putting money into the economies of, countries that actively persecute their LGBT+ citizens

The reality is that a large portion of the world is still off-limits to us. Although avoiding these countries may seem easy, it becomes difficult when your brother moves to Dubai and wants you to visit; when your best friend is having her wedding in Nairobi; when your friendship group has invited you to join them on a cruise around the Caribbean.

On a personal level, it’s always been my dream to visit every country in the world, but I’ve started to realise how naïve that dream may have been. From a very young age, I was collecting models of the pyramids, citing Egypt as the place I wanted to visit more than anywhere; as an adult, I realise that may not be on the cards for me. It’s less an issue of my personal safety – I can somewhat easily disguise my sexuality – and more the ethical dilemma of visiting, and putting money into the economies of, countries that actively persecute their LGBT+ citizens.

Visiting Panama’s rainforest (Calum McSwiggan)
Visiting Panama’s rainforest (Calum McSwiggan)

And not everyone has the privilege of hiding their identity. Same-sex parents travelling with their children, trans people and gender non-conforming people all face difficulties which can make travel impossible. Luxeria Celes, who documents her transition online, had to have an official letter from her surgeon after having facial feminisation surgery overseas to explain why she may look different to her passport photo. “Although the letter was absolutely beneficial to my journey, it also outed me to border control, security and airport staff,” she tells me. “I wouldn’t have been able to travel through a country where being trans was illegal without being detained, and that’s an incredibly insidious thought. Being trans is beautiful, but it absolutely can come at a price.”

I wouldn’t have been able to travel through a country where being trans was illegal without being detained, and that’s an incredibly insidious thought

Luxeria Celes

Although it’s uncommon for LGBT+ tourists to be arrested overseas, it’s not completely unheard of. The UAE, for example, has a history of arresting transgender tourists and those perceived to be “cross-dressing”. This includes the arrest of trans women from Singapore and a British man who was detained for wearing skinny jeans. Another was sentenced to prison just for touching another man’s hip.

Travel may be even more difficult for queer people of colour, too; where a blind eye may be turned to white LGBT+ tourists, those from ethnic minority backgrounds may be at a higher risk. Just recently, queer Asian Tiktoker Cylovesfrogs shared her experience of travelling to Paris with her partner, only to cut the trip short after being “treated horribly” and met with “jeering and harassment” on multiple occasions. “The worst part of all of this is that it was ultimately unsurprising,” she said in an emotional video voiceover. “Even having lived in many progressive areas, I have been harassed for my appearance, my race, my gender. I had also visited Paris in Europe before and experienced a ton of anti-Asian rhetoric.” She said she wasn’t sharing the experience to create discomfort, but just “to warn any openly queer people of colour, especially if you’re travelling as a couple, about the dangers of travelling anywhere and to stay hyper-vigilant.”

Black LGBT+ travel writer Kwin Mosby notes “I have noticed that I do get profiled and pulled out of line more, whereas my white colleagues casually glide by effortlessly” – though he also recognises his privilege as a cis man. “My counterparts of colour – who are Black and identify as lesbian, trans, or nonbinary – are more likely to encounter much more scrutiny when travelling. Travelling as an LGBTQ+ group or couple has its drawbacks, too, because you have to temper public displays of affection or be more reserved in places that may not be gay-friendly.”

Volunteering in South Africa (Calum McSwiggan)
Volunteering in South Africa (Calum McSwiggan)

These concerns for LGBT+ travellers aren’t exclusive to the legalities of the countries we visit, either. A recent study from shows that 71 per cent of LGBT+people have experienced less-than-welcoming experiences when travelling. Even places with a positive legal track record can have cultural differences that could make us a target just by being ourselves. During a recent holiday romance with a guy in Romania, I was told it wasn’t safe to hold his hand in public; and in Slovenia, I was removed from a “gay-friendly” nightclub after security saw me kissing another man. “We don’t do that here,” we were told after being separated and shown the door.

In Slovenia, I was removed from a “gay friendly” nightclub after security saw me kissing another man

LGBT+ rights are present and upheld in both of those countries, but the official laws don’t always match up to the attitudes of local people. Even at home in the UK, I’m used to the occasional unwanted glance, but when travelling in an unfamiliar place, it can be difficult to discern whether or not those looks could turn violent.

That being said, there are, of course, many wonderfully accepting cultures around the world too. Countries like South Africa, Mexico and Thailand have left me feeling nothing but welcomed, and it’s always my advice to visit countries where LGBT+ people are accepted in both the eyes of the people and the eyes of the law. But if, like me, your dream is to visit every country in the world? Until we see dramatic reform on a global scale, the sad truth is that we may have to put those dreams on hold.

Calum McSwiggan is the author of Eat, Gay, Love.

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