Traveling to anti-LGBT countries: why you shouldn’t avoid it

This month we went on a fantastic trip that took us to three nations in southern Africa and a one night stay in the middle east. We landed in Johannesburg, South Africa and trekked through Botswana and Zimbabwe before spending a night in Doha, Qatar on our way home. This trip was unforgettable and different from a lot of places we have traveled over the years. Besides the incredible beauty of the landscapes and the animals we encountered, we loved the cultures we experienced along the way. Still, we were acutely aware of the fact that we, a gay couple, clashed harshly with the laws and culture of 3 of those 4 nations. Yes, we were traveling to anti-LGBT countries and we had an amazing time.

This wasn’t something we realized during the trip. We were prepared for the fact that 3 of these countries were anti-LGBT. We briefly looked into the severity of their laws and human rights issues surrounding them, but ultimately decided that we wanted to book this trip. Deciding to visit these tourist destinations in anti-LGBT countries wasn’t easy. Still, we didn’t hesitate for long. Yes, we could have boycotted certain countries for the laws of their government, but there are plenty of reasons why that would be a mistake. Here are some elements of our rationale and tips to consider when LGBT and traveling to anti-LGBT countries.

Be safe traveling to anti-LGBT countries

No matter what, the most important thing when traveling anywhere is to always be safe. It’s a simple statement and rather broad, but never go anywhere that makes you feel unsafe. That said, don’t believe everything you see on television, in movies and even Western news media. Besides active war zones, the world isn’t as scary as portrayed by the media.

For example, we traveled to Russia earlier this year and many people we talked to since were shocked to hear about it. Because of the media portrayal of Russia as a dangerous place for LGBT people, many people expected the worse for us in Russia. Around the time of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, there were many media stories shedding light on the negative climate for Russian LGBT youth. However, as gay travelers, we had no issues and we even went to LGBT nightclubs while there. There was extra security at these clubs and we were treated incredibly well by locals we met all over the city. Furthermore, our tour guides and service staff definitely knew we weren’t two close friends in our 30’s traveling together for the Easter holiday. They knew who we were and while we maintained discretion in some instances, we never felt distressed.

In Russia, the law no longer offers protection from harassment for LGBT people and it forbids organizing and protesting. You should not attend any kind of protest or public pride celebration in Russia, but traveling as a gay couple presents no issue. You can’t see The Hermitage from your own country, so don’t avoid travel to Russia over unfounded fears.

World laws pertaining to homosexual relationships and expression

Click on the map above for more information on the rights of LGBT people across the world.

Don’t make yourself a target while traveling to anti-LGBT countries

There are malicious homophobic people everywhere, and unfortunately, they can be violent. Hate crimes are always an underlying risk for LGBT people in their home countries and abroad. Gay travelers often know to keep a low profile and avoid standing out in unfamiliar countries. It’s a sad, but simple reality, yet it shouldn’t cause LGBT travelers to stay home. Just make sure you are not a target and always be vigilant.

Whoever you are, it’s always smart to gather information for your country’s embassy in the nation you are visiting. Have a digital and printed copy of your personal travel documents and always know the laws where you travel.

|Here is a link to the global directory of embassies and consulates worldwide.

Respect culture and religion wherever you travel

I know many people reading this will think, “you should never hide who you are,” and that’s sweet. In reality, not every country, culture and region of the world is the same as where you come from. Even heterosexual couples may have to alter their behavior in many areas of the world. Public displays of affections by any couple are tolerated less in America than in Europe.

When I visited India, I took note of the customs for visiting holy sites. For example, in Pushkar, India there are many restrictions for conduct. This holy city restricts eating meat, showing bare arms and legs for men and women and photographing pilgrims. And most notably, all couples are prohibited from showing public displays of affection.

The restrictions in holy Hindu cities are a reminder that many laws and local regulations are based on respect for religious beliefs. Whatever personal beliefs you hold, they should be put aside in order to respect the local customs and especially the laws. Only the local population should be advocating for changes to laws, including ones that affect LGBT travelers. The idea that you can ignore local and religious customs is cultural colonialism. Even the biggest LGBT-rights advocates realize that’s not the way to travel.

Boycott traveling to anti-LGBT countries?

We have considered boycotting travel to anti-LGBT countries. However, we quickly realized that avoiding countries with laws we didn’t like was a mistake. This is for a few reasons, but most importantly that isolation doesn’t change political, cultural or economic systems. If you want to change the world, you can’t do it through avoidance. Travel changes your worldview, but also the worldview of those you meet along the way. For locals who may never make it to your home country, you visiting theirs is a subtle but powerful window to the rest of the world.

Economic opportunity is important to creating an open society and staying home can hurt local economies. A rising middle-class is crucial to societal progress, and tourism can be a vital economic vehicle for many countries. Boycotts to these countries would do little harm to government officials in charge of legislation. Instead, boycotts would take money from locals that depend on tourism. Locals that face poverty, move closer to religion and extremist views which only makes societal change harder.

After decades as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, Botswana recently decriminalized homosexuality. This occurred just after our visit to the country and despite a very religious Christian populous. Without a strong tourism economy, it’s hard to say that stability and social progress would have been possible.

Unspoken acceptance in anti-LGBT countries

One big thing to remember when you travel is that local populations are not the same as their government. A foreign government that holds up laws you don’t agree with is different from the people living in that nation. Many Americans are probably thankful for that in 2019, but the same understanding should be applied elsewhere.

That said, even a country like Zimbabwe, where homosexuality has been illegal since 1891, does not have a homophobic populous. We stayed at a resort in Victoria Falls and the staff definitely knew that we were more than friends. Sure, we did not show it, but from the concierge to the bartenders to the manager, the staff were all aware of who we were and the embraced us.

We had a similar experience in Morocco where we stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Marrakech. We traveled there with another gay couple and a third gay male and received top-notch treatment. The couples shared beds and paid for each other throughout the trip. The nature of our relationship was somewhat obvious, but of no matter to the staff. As long as our money was green and we followed the rules, they didn’t care who we were. The “wink and nod” acceptance from service staff is present everywhere and when traveling to anti-LGBT countries, that’s enough for me.


Parting words

Overall, there are ways to travel to anti-LGBT countries and enjoy your time. If you want to go somewhere, go! You should go and see the world and it’s not only possible, but important to travel to these countries. Spreading culture through travel is a fantastic way to open the world and create social progress for people who live there. While you should make sure you are safe and not a target, there’s no need to boycott anti-LGBT countries. While you travel, you should always follow local laws and customs that are both cultural and religious. In the process, you’ll find far more acceptance of LGBT people from local populations than from some governments. Travel does have the power to change the world, so be a force for change and travel.

Interested in doing your own tour? Check out deals from GAdventures here, we absolutely loved our experience with their Botswana & Falls Adventure.

Find out how our trip almost ended in disaster here.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe gay travel traveling to anti-LGBT countries
Exploring Victoria Falls despite Zimbabwe’s anti-LGBT laws

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Where do you stand on traveling to anti-LGBT countries? Comment below and let us know.

4 thoughts on “Traveling to anti-LGBT countries: why you shouldn’t avoid it”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I will add a caveat though: you guys look manly enough. You look ‘normal’. So do I. But other LGBTQI’s don’t fit superficial gender (look) expectations and they are more likely to feel the discrimination.

    Just keep common sense and you’ll be safe.

    1. Sure, I am aware of that too. I still think in tourist destinations, on western tour groups and international hotel chains individuals that present differently would be welcomed and face no issues. People also have to be willing to adapt to local customs too, we definitely dress differently in certain cities and countries.

  2. Obviously. Adapting to some extend to the local context is paramount. I’m in Richmond, VA at the moment and I’m not gong to wear speedos at the pool. Which I would do in Australia :).

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