Photo: William Sun
1. Do you feel comfortable closeting yourself when it’s necessary?
I had moral questions for myself when I made the choice to leave the United States. I often thought: How could I live a lie and justify it to myself after so many years of discussing the importance of openness?
Gallup Polls show that people who know an LGBT person are much more likely to be in favor of equality. I justify being closeted to myself because I’ve learned that it is possible to lie about my identity for the sake of self preservation, while still having conversations with the people around me about difference, stigma, and prejudice. This dialogue creates teachable moments, while allowing me to feel safe at the same time.
Many straight people view “coming out” as a one-time thing — usually resulting in tears at Thanksgiving dinner — but the reality is that LGBT people come out over and over and over again. Because of heteronormativity, or the idea that someone is straight until proven gay, we have to make the choice to come out to every single person we meet.
I think Lindsay King Miller said it best in her article My Life As An Invisible Queer: “I wouldn’t necessarily mind people not knowing I’m gay, but I don’t like being thought of as straight — in the same way that I don’t mind people not knowing I’m a writer, but it would be awkward if they assumed I was an extreme skateboarder, because that’s so far removed from the reality of my life.”
Queer travelers have to make this choice for themselves, and there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s what feels most comfortable for you in your travels.
2. Do you pass?
It’s shitty that I even have to go here, but passing as straight and cisgender can be a huge privilege when you’re traveling through one of the 82 countries that have anti-LGBT laws. The simple, obvious solution is to avoid traveling to these countries. But if you did that, you’d be missing out on Jamaica, Russia, India, Indonesia, and the Maldives just to name a few. Areas like Texas and Kazakhstan don’t officially have bans on LGBT people, but they do have laws that look very similar to the Russian anti-propaganda laws the world erupted over during the Sochi Olympics.
Limiting yourself to countries that have anti-discrimination laws in place and are supportive of LGBT identity can be a safer solution while traveling, but this solution results in LGBT people missing out on almost 43% of the world. And that’s not right, these regions are rich in culture. Everyone should be able to learn from and enjoy them.
3. What are the laws and public opinions of the country you’re visiting?
Knowing the laws and policies of the area you’re visiting can help in an emergency. It also helps you make informed decisions regarding where you want to travel. Do they have marriage equality? What kind of anti-discrimination laws do they have in place? Has their government or national leadership made any statements about LGBT people? Check with IGLHRC to start your research, but keep in mind that a lack of laws or policies doesn’t necessarily mean the city or country should be crossed off your bucket list.
Take New York City for example. It’s one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world and is considered the birthplace of the LGBT rights movement, but most of its policy advances have only happened in the last few years. We all know laws don’t necessarily change a society. If that were true, racism would have ended in the US in the 1800s. Keep in mind that the city you are visiting could be more welcoming than the country. Knowing this information can help you tailor your visit to areas that are more affirming of your identity. Knowing some common thoughts or ideas about LGBT people in the area may also help you decide how open to be with the people you meet along the road.
4. How can you reach out to the local LGBT community there?
The internet connects people. Don’t be afraid to use it. Ask around. Is there an active community? Where do people hang out? Which areas should you avoid? Using Facebook, Instagram and other social networks can make this a lot easier. Also, apps like Tinder and Grindr can help, but play safe folks. Follow basic internet safety when meeting people, especially in countries that are more hostile towards LGBT people. Also, cases of entrapment are still common in some areas of the world.
5. Are you traveling as a couple?
Have a conversation with your love about the area you are visiting. Take into account how PDA is viewed in that country. In some countries, holding hands between people of the same sex is a regular occurrence, but kissing or other displays between anyone is considered inappropriate. Have this conversation before you decide to make the trip in an effort to prevent hurt feelings.
When my partner and I first visited South Korea, it was difficult to break the subtle signs of affection between us. She would subconsciously place her hand on my back as I went through a doorway or I would adjust her shirt in a way that displayed intimacy. If you are traveling with your partner, book double beds in advance. Lots of blogs advise you to show up and negotiate the cost of the room with the owner of small hotels or hostels to get a good deal. Unfortunately, this isn’t great advice for queer couples. Subtle homophobia has resulted in some very awkward conversations at check-in counters.
“So two twin beds for the evening?”
“Actually we’d prefer one double bed.”
“…We just ran out…”
We aren’t the only couple that’s had this experience; The Globe Trotting Girls have had some very similar things happen in their travels. Making these sacrifices was difficult on our relationship, but we both agree that our tours around the globe have made us a stronger couple overall.
6. What about bathrooms?
Weirdly, this has turned out to be the biggest obstacle for Lindsay and I while traveling. Lindsay is six feet tall and has short hair. To anyone in a western country, Lindsay is obviously an androgynous woman. However, in Thailand, Abu Dhabi, Korea and The Philippines we ran into some very awkward situations. Lindsay would be minding her own business washing her hands at the bathroom sink and all of a sudden, some woman would start screaming at her to get out. This would be funny if it only happened once or twice, but having it happen every time, she tried to use a public restroom got old fast. In one extreme case, she was even hit by an old cleaning lady with a mop while she screamed at her in Korean. After that incident, she decided to just use the men’s restrooms in order to avoid this situation, but soon realized there were enough foreigners in Seoul who knew she wasn’t a man to make the interactions awkward and potentially dangerous. It got to the point that she didn’t feel safe or comfortable using the bathroom in public unless I served as a bouncer at the door for her.
Using the bathroom is a basic human necessity. Having to plan bathroom usage can put strain on your trips. If you are androgynous, this may be the reality of your trip in countries that are not used to people of your ethnicity.
7. Can you use explicitly LGBT friendly products and services?
Many international hotel chains and airlines have policies stating their position on the LGBT movement. Booking one of these hotels can be more expensive, but it gives you piece of mind that you’re supporting companies that support you. Hilton, Carlton, Marriott, and Wynn resorts all ranked with high marks on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
For products you need to buy before your trip, download Buycott. It’s an app for the socially conscious consumer. You use it to scan bar codes on products and then the app cross-checks the affiliated companies and brands to tell you if they conflict with one of your political commitments. Using this app can help you choose products that will support LGBT people over other brands that do not.
8. Are you planning to travel with condoms, sex toys, or other sexually explicit materials?
Bringing condoms, lube, and other forms of protection with you while traveling is smart practice. If you plan to buy condoms in other countries, be aware there are some differences. International condom companies have varying levels of safety standards; try to find brands that are approved by the FDA. The packaging could be in another language and you may not be able to discern specifics of the products you are buying. Bring them with you in advance or make sure you do your homework on the products available in the country you are visiting well before the heat of the moment.
In some countries, traveling with sexually explicit material can be used as evidence of sex work, which may result in you being detained while traveling. As LGBT people, we are often targeted because of our sexuality. Be aware that in recent years, there have been a few instances where people have used sex toys to victimize LGBT travelers. One couple were the victims of an alleged hate crime by TSA agents and another couple was arrested in Malaysia for being in possession of a sex toy. In some countries, traveling with these items is illegal. Be very cautious and do your homework before crossing boarders with anything you think could be questionable.