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5 uncomfortable questions about traveling to anti-LGBT destinations

Photo: Elvert Barnes

Traveling as a member of the LGBT community is a radical act because the majority of the world is still grappling with the question of our legitimacy and mere existence. I have a complicated relationship with the morality of traveling to destinations that are perceived to be anti-LGBT or have clear anti-LGBT policies in place. On one hand, I’m an individual queer person but on the other hand, I bring with me thousands of internet friends when I travel somewhere. Because of my platform and my background as a professional LGBT activist, I’m forced to think through my individual travel choices in a different way than other people. I’ve come to a point in my career and interests where I will be traveling to more destinations beyond the traditional gay meccas, and I wanted to share the questions I’ve been grappling with over the years in an effort to help you come to your decisions in terms of your travel choices. I hope it will inspire you to challenge your perspective on LGBT issues around the world.

1. Do travel bans and boycotts from governments and corporations work?

It’s fair to say that 2017 has been the year of the ban and the boycott. Back in January we experienced Donald Trump’s politically loaded executive order, which banned travel to the USA from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — for 90 days which was followed by citizens from multiple countries around the world boycotting the United States as a travel destination.

But that’s not the only ban that has been put in place this year. California issued a ban on state-funded and state-sponsored travel to eight states that have anti-LGBT laws in place and has denied reprieve from the ban to cities within some of those states that are known to be LGBT affirming, like Louisville, Kentucky and Austin, Texas.

Earlier this year North Carolina also received scorn on all sides for their controversial HB-2, the so-called “bathroom bill”, which required transgender people to use the bathrooms, changing rooms, and showers in state-run buildings that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity. As a result of the controversial bill dozens of high profile events pulled out, including the games from the NBA, NCAA, and ACC. They also lost contracts for expansions with Paypal and received a very public scolding from 68 companies, including tech giants like Apple, Dropbox, Salesforce, Slack, and Yelp.

According to the tourism boards of the state’s three largest cities, tourism was hit harder than any other industry because they lost $109.4 million to canceled conferences and other events — not including major sporting events. When you include sporting events, which is akin to a religion in North Carolina, the state lost $395 million.

The boycott is a useful tool of pressure and coercion that people, businesses, and governments use to achieve policy goals be they foreign or domestic, but do they work?

On the side of positive effects, the swift social media response to HB-2 and California’s travel ban resulted in an avalanche of public awareness on the issues and brought transgender rights to the forefront of public discourse. The businesses and celebrities boycotting the events aligned people and brands of influence with the LGBT movement. Plus, major sporting empires with a traditionally conservative male audience took a stand in favor of LGBT people.

To those ends, the bans and boycotts definitely have an impact, but were they effective in reversing the laws they were initially protesting? In a word — no. Yes, HB-2 was repealed but the replacement bill HB142 was arguably worse than the initial bill. The repeal resulted in no additional protections for transgender and gender nonconforming people in North Carolina. It did create a ban on the creation of nondiscrimination protections for public accommodations and private employment practices until 2020. Which means local areas throughout North Carolina cannot pass laws protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination by their employers, landlords, or businesses denying them services.

Governments care about large scale business decisions, tax revenue, and reelection campaigns. We’d have thought that this would have made other states more cautious to backlash but Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Texas have all based similar laws in the wake of the viral backlash against HB-2.

Those who create travel bans are making a bold assumption that places with anti-LGBT policies give a shit about the approval of outsiders.

What about outside of the United States? The Russian policies on LGBT people are atrocious. Russia faced a lot of backlash during the Sochi Olympics from a coalition of 40 international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The groups came together to submit pleas urging sponsors to pull out or to run ads promoting equality for LGBT people. The top advertisers of the Olympic Games pay tens of millions of dollars to be headline sponsors. Of the top ten sponsors, only AT&T, DeVry University, and Chobani created LGBT specific campaigns. None of the top sponsors pulled support.

Three years after the Sochi Olympics, reports of gay men being held in camps and tortured as part of a campaign against gay males in Kremlin-backed Chechnya began circulating widely.

International laws regarding LGBT people vary by policy, identity, and even regions within countries. For example, being LGBT-identified is illegal in 72 countries and 5 territories. In 10 of those countries, gay male sex is punishable by death. Several of those countries have recently been in headlines revolving their treatment of LGBT people. The UAE made headlines for denying model and internet personality Gigi Gorgeous entry because she’s transgender. Recently, Egypt was in the headlines for arresting 52 people at a concert for flying a pride flag. While there are fewer laws regarding lesbian and bisexual female identity there are different social issues that are concerning, including the practice of corrective rape.

I believe Ashton Giese, Outreach Director for OutRight Action International, said it best in his interview with Adam Groffman, “Boycotts don’t really work against dictators or authoritarian regimes. Democratic institutions have to exist, where people and businesses could actually have a voice to make change.”

2. Should we travel to anti-LGBT destinations?

For many, there is a perception that countries are divided along a black and white binary into the categories of “LGBT welcoming” and “death for the gays” when in reality the issues are much more complex.

Travel boycotts are complicated at best. Do we choose to boycott an entire country for one region’s anti-LGBT stance? For example, should all US travel be boycotted because of the laws that are passed in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi? Or should it just be boycotted in those states? Or just the regions within the state that voted in favor of the law? Louisville is incredibly LGBT friendly, but they’re still impacted by the California ban, corporate boycotts, and tourism boycotts from individuals. How and where do we draw the line?

There are LGBT people everywhere in the world. Every country, state, and city has members of the LGBT community. When bans and boycotts are put forth, LGBT people in these areas suffer. They suffer from the lack of travelers but also from the increased media attention and scrutiny on their local communities. Plus increased publicity often brings new, and at times, more extreme policy proposals.

As an LGBT travel writer, I’m constantly asked, “are there places we should visit?” If traveling and living abroad during the era of Trump has taught me anything, it’s that people are not their governments. The only things I have in common with Trump and Pence are my skin color and my citizenship. Lumping citizens together with the decisions of their governments is often very short-sighted. The perfect example of this is the piece written by my friend and award-winning LGBT travel writer Jurriaan Teuling on exploring the gay scene via social media and Grindr in Iran.

Nearly half of the world’s cultures and wonders — or to be exact, 42.3% — are in areas with anti-LGBT laws. More if we’re including places that don’t have anti-LGBT laws but do have anti-LGBT social sentiments. Just because a place has no explicit laws on the books, doesn’t mean it’s safe or accepting of LGBT people.

I’ve had many straight people comment on my writing with sentiments similar to “oh well — just don’t have sex while you’re traveling and you’re fine.” Sex is a part of LGBT identity, but it’s a much smaller detail than most straight people realize. Many LGBT people are gender nonconforming in their style of dress, hair, and clothing as well as our mannerisms, the way we speak, and our interests. Most of my friends are LGBTQ folks who are gender non-conforming to some degree. My wife, Lindsay, is a 6-foot-tall androgynous woman with short hair. For many people, including Lindsay, these qualities are not something they can just “turn off” or cover up.

For LGBT people, something as simple as going to the bathroom in public can be difficult. Lindsay and I plan our lives according to her bathroom breaks. There are times and places where she just doesn’t feel safe enough to use either restroom.

For our upcoming trip to Egypt, Lindsay and I have spent at least 40 hours dedicated to what we will wear. Not out of vanity or for the purposes of Instagram, but because she’s concerned she will not pass as straight in an anti-LGBT country where the punishment is imprisonment. And I’m concerned with the levels of street harassment we’ve heard discussed in women’s travel forums. We’ve spent that time trying to find a balance between clothing that is respectful of the cultural norms and where we feel comfortable in our gender presentation.

Choosing where to travel is a personal choice. I’ve traveled regularly for the last five years and I’ve only made it to around 40 of the world’s 195 countries. I spend a lot of my time in places where being gay is either outright illegal or frowned upon. I willingly moved to Mexico with my wife, a country without federal marriage equality, after spending ten years fighting for LGBT equality in my home country. I made this choice because I weighed the pros and cons of life in Mexico for my family and I and decided this is best for us.

That being said, visiting anti-LGBT countries may not be the best choice for you and yours. I believe it is our responsibility as travelers to educate ourselves on the policies, culture, and customs of the places we’re visiting. Not just in regards to LGBT issues but also in regards to other issues surrounding human rights. There is no perfect utopian country. Until 2010, the United States banned HIV+ travelers from entering the country which disproportionately impacts the LGBT community. The United States also has one of the highest rates of anti-trans hate crimes. Just recently, the US voted against a UN resolution that would ban the death penalty as a consequence for gay sex. But in 1994, the United States became one of the first nation-states to officially recognize persecution of sexual orientation or gender identity as potential grounds for granting people asylum.

I use my own country as an example to illustrate how difficult it is to really nail down a decision. Travel widens your viewpoints and that includes traveling to places that you may assume are anti-LGBT. Some of the most beautiful and culturally rich places in the world have anti-LGBT policies. I don’t have a definitive line that I draw in the sand with places I’d visit on one side and places I wouldn’t on the other side.

There are some destinations on my short list of places I’d love to visit in the near future like Indonesia and Morocco. And there are others I’m just not as interested in like UAE and Nigeria. That doesn’t mean my feelings won’t change at some point in the future. I can only travel to so many places in the next year or two and my priorities are with countries that currently spark my interest.

I’d be lying if I said the culture of homophobia in some countries like in Uganda didn’t play a role in my reasoning — it does — but the level of homophobia is really where the difference is here. In some places, the culture goes way beyond your drunk, Trump-supporting uncle yelling, “what a fag” at the TV and into a place of homophobia that borders on cultural genocide.

I’m a professional traveler. My trips are not generally the once-in-a-lifetime vacations that most LGBT folks would be experiencing while they’re on holiday. Frankly, I’ve heard the argument made by several LGBT people that their vacation is the one time every few years that they’re able to let loose and completely indulge themselves. Some people feel that a vacation they’ve spent years saving for is not the time to make political declarations, challenge morality, or put yourself in a position where you’re fearing for your personal safety.

Where do you draw the line? Is marriage equality the answer, you’ll only travel to the 24 countries with marriage equality? Or transgender inclusion in the nondiscrimination act? Or maybe it’s drawing the line at the death penalty? Regardless where you draw the line, that’s your personal choice as a member of one or more marginalized communities.

3. Are some countries investing in LGBT tourism because they want our money?

Many LGBT people base their travel destinations on the perception of which destinations are the most LGBT friendly. Those opinions are based on a variety of things: sometimes it’s first-hand testimonies from other LGBT people like me, other times it’s based on the historical connection to LGBT culture, and other times it’s from damn good marketing campaigns.

LGBT people bring a massive amount of expendable income with them. In 2016, the global LGBT buying power is estimated at $3.7 trillion. US LGBT citizens alone account for over $200 billion for LGBT leisure spending globally. At the risk of sounding flippant, that’s a hell of a lot of money — and brands have definitely noticed.

It is an often overlooked fact that the LGBT community is a loyal customer base. Lesbians are still buying Subarus in 2017 because of an advertising campaign in the mid 1990s. We are also responsible for the revival of an extremely mediocre early 2000s TV drama because we just can’t let things go.

When we’re talking about destinations as brands, it’s in their best interest to attract the LGBT consumer. Statistically speaking, we travel more than straight folks. The average LGBT traveler in the US takes 5-7 trips a year in comparison to straight folks who take an average of 4 trips a year. We also travel in the offseason more frequently and spend more money while we’re on the road. We’re basically a travel marketer’s dream demographic.

Several countries with anti-gay laws like St Lucia, Dominican Republic, and China have welcomed LGBT travelers. Hong Kong, in particular, is an interesting example because the local government has come under fire for their bid to host the Gay Games without comprehensive protections in place for LGBT citizens. So why are they interested in hosting? Well, the Gay Games is the world’s largest sporting and cultural event for LGBT people. If Hong Kong is selected to host, the city is expected to receive some 15,000 athletes and 40,000 visitors, who will inevitably spend their money on flights, hotel rooms, tours, restaurants, and local shops around Hong Kong to the tune of an estimated $128 billion US dollars.

This is all great and good, but how should this affect an LGBT traveler’s choices in choosing to support a destination? I would rather support destinations that are interested in creating inclusion and equality. The idea that a brand or destination is only interested in the LGBT community for our money without respect to our humanity leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I would also hope that the decision makers at the Gay Games would take into account the local policies and state of LGBT civil rights in an area before they award the destination with the opportunity to host an event of such magnitude. A decision on the host city is expected in November.

4. Can exposure to a global perspective and experience with LGBT people change hearts and minds?

I believe in cultural exchange. I also believe that when people are exposed to differences, they learn and grow and expand in their beliefs. Despite what anti-incrementalist activists may believe, social change comes on a slow and gradual gradient. It is extremely rare for people to rapidly change their beliefs and most people are not capable of overnight radicalization of progressive values.

For context, think of the number of LGBT people who weren’t able to convince their own families to support LGBT issues. The number of people you know personally who’ve been disowned by their flesh and blood. If someone you’ve known your whole life won’t change their views to support you, why would someone who believes they’ve never met an LGBT person rapidly change their beliefs with little to no incentive? GLSEN’s research shows that those who know someone who identifies as LGBT are more likely to be in favor of LGBT civil rights issues.

In the United States, the fight for LGBT rights started around the turn of the 1900s and didn’t fully gain media attention until the late 1960s. Most of the LGBT inclusive policies were passed 50 years after the Stonewall riots which are known as the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. It was only through over a century of domestic activism and education that the tides started to change in the US and we still have a long way to go in regards to employment protections, adoption, and gender identity and expression.

The expectation that every country should be open and accepting overnight is just not realistic. That being said, I believe that persistence is key to achieve this goal.

5. Are we obligated to travel transparently?

Several years ago, I was sitting in a bar in New York City on a date with a random OkCupid match. We were talking about my dedication to activism and the LGBT community. David Kato, a beloved Ugandan LGBT activist had just been found murdered in a brutal anti-LGBT hate crime. At the time, I was in the process of applying to the Peace Corps and had just been accepted to serve in Sub-saharan Africa.

As any good western white liberal with a case of white guilt and a misunderstanding of international political complexities, I was trying to organize the pros and cons of the numerous African countries that I could have been placed with. I was also debating if I would have to go back in the closet and how I’d react to hiding my identity after being out for more than ten years. I remember my date saying something to the effect of, “screw that, I wouldn’t change how I dressed or acted for anyone else — I’d be as gay as I am — if they don’t like it, they don’t deserve my help.” Ouch. I knew even then how problematic that sentence was. There is a lot of middle ground between choosing to boycott a destination and open defiance of local laws and customs.

As David Smith puts it, “Western liberals eager to see the best in Africa must face an inconvenient truth: this is the most homophobic continent on Earth. Same-sex relations are illegal in 36 of Africa’s 55 countries, according to Amnesty International, and punishable by death in some states.”

In Nigeria for example, same-sex couples can face up to 14 years in prison, and same-sex public display of affection is illegal. 97% of Nigerians are opposed to LGBT people in terms of just our existence. Ironically, the strongly anti-LGBT sentiments in many African countries can be traced to British colonial rule and American evangelical preachers. It’s not just African countries that are anti-LGBT — Russians like to compare us to bugs and claim we don’t exist.

In the end, I decided not to join the Peace Corps because, at the time, they didn’t have protections in place for LGBT people and I didn’t want to go back in the closet. Ironically, I ended up going back into the closet anyway years later — except it was in South Korea. I selected South Korea because I was offered a well-paid job there and the anti-LGBT policies were more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” nature than a “punishable by death” nature.

During my first month in South Korea, my boss asked me if my coworker was going on a date with a guy or a girl. He was trying to make a joke, but it took everything I could not to burst into tears. I spent most of the year living in a state of nearly continuous panic attack. I’d wake up to nightmares of being outted and losing my job, visa, and housing with no way to get back to the US. I never felt safe enough to come out of the closet while I was in Korea. A handful of my foreign coworkers knew, but none of the Korean people I knew or worked with. I made that choice to protect myself and sacrificed honesty and transparency in my relationships which is unfortunate because my fear stunted my experience in Korea.

Being in the closet offered me the opportunity to talk about LGBT issues within a one-step-removed hypothetical context. It is possible to have these conversations as we travel without outting ourselves or endangering local people.

I’m very selective about who I disclose my identity to these days. Online I’m all caps GAY but that’s because I can hide behind a computer screen. Things are a little different when I’m traveling by myself or my wife and I are at a bar in an area where we’re not 100% sure we’d be safe outing ourselves. Harm reduction and protecting ourselves comes first and foremost. It’s not cowardly — it’s self preservation. I love my community but I would rather not have my casket draped with rainbow flags.
 

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong answer here. Where and if you travel as an LGBT person is a decision only you can make. I would never encourage someone to visit a place that resulted in them feeling unsafe physically or emotionally. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to research the areas we are visiting to the best of our ability and make the choice based on the knowledge of how someone with our unique set of identities and privileges experiences the world in that location. Be forewarned, that information can be difficult to come by, after all, that’s the reason Dopes on the Road exists.

This article originally appeared on Dopes on the Road and is republished here with permission. For more about LGBT travel, follow Dopes on the Road on Facebook.