Planning a trip is always hard, but as an LGBTQ person, travel brings up extra questions: Will I be safe? Where can I go to meet people like me? Can I come out? Are there gender-neutral bathrooms at this restaurant or hostel?
The numerous considerations regarding safety, community, and communication can be daunting — and these are only compounded by the difficulties we might face based on other intersecting aspects of our identities, including race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and so on.
Still, plenty of LGBTQ jetsetters have taken the plunge into domestic and international travel. Here are some of the challenges that LGBTQ people face while on the road and a few suggestions for overcoming them.
1. We’re not welcome — or safe — in all parts of the world.
In 70 countries, “homosexual activity” is still illegal — and in at least eight of those countries, it’s punishable by death. Trans and gender-nonconforming people face high rates of violence across the globe, and some countries have laws that prohibit “posing” as the opposite sex.
Even in my own backyard, LGBTQ people face high rates of discrimination: In a national US survey, 53 percent of trans respondents said they faced discrimination in public accommodations (such as hotels and restaurants), and Equaldex reports that there are no state or federal discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in half of the US’ 50 states.
For most of us, it’s impossible to change these laws. But we can make careful decisions about where and how we travel.
Conduct thorough research on the countries, states, and cities to which you want to travel. Check out their laws and policies on the US State Department website, in reports from the International Lesbian, Gay, Trans, and Intersex Association, and via Equaldex’s interactive maps.
And remember that even in some regions known for anti-LGBTQ attitudes, you can often find cities and communities with vibrant queer and trans communities and local policies that protect against discrimination. So be sure to do some Googling on what’s happening at the local level, too.
2. People make a lot of assumptions about us.
As a queer, nonbinary traveler who was assigned female at birth, I get a lot of confused looks and comments in places that have rigid gender expectations. I’ve been ejected from women’s restrooms because of my masculine appearance, and I was almost thrown out of my homestay sister’s apartment in Seoul because the elderly landlady thought I was a man. (She wasn’t about to have a man staying overnight with a young female tenant.)
Many LGBTQ folks also have to think twice about assumptions that might increase their risk of discrimination, harassment, or violence, and we often change our behavior accordingly. A gay couple might wonder if they should reserve separate beds at a hotel. A lesbian might have to figure out how to respond to people asking her why she doesn’t have a husband or boyfriend. A trans man might have to determine what to do if a new friend invites him to a male-only space, like a spa or a place of worship.
People’s assumptions about who we are and who we love can be exhausting. They’re also constant reminders of how much we don’t fit in.
Sometimes, we have to be creative to work around these problems. Try to be flexible when you can, and make strategic decisions about how you’ll respond to other people’s questions and reactions. For example, in South Korea, when single-stall bathrooms were an option, I started using the men’s restroom because I got fewer looks. And unsure of an Airbnb host’s attitude on same-gender couples, I always said I was traveling with a friend (even if I was traveling with a girlfriend).
However, assumptions can sometimes work in your favor. I also found in South Korea that same-gender affection between friends is still common, so queer couples (especially queer women) can occasionally get away with holding hands in public. And in countries in which most people read me as a man, I often felt safer moving through the world as a solo traveler.
So take advantage of the breaks you can get — but be careful.
3. Gender segregation is everywhere.
From hostel dormitories to security lines, for many trans and gender-nonconforming travelers, gender segregation is an ongoing headache.
On a tour in India, our guide suggested that the women in our group ride on the Delhi Metro’s women-only car. At the time, I identified as a gender-nonconforming woman (rather than nonbinary), and as soon as I sat down in the car, the Indian woman next to me said, “Excuse me, sir. This is for women only.”
And when I tried to use the sauna in South Korea with a female friend, I was directed toward the men’s section and received plenty of looks in the women’s section until I took my clothes off.
These experiences can be distressing to many folks who just want to take public transportation or go to the bathroom in peace.
So if you’re trans or gender-nonconforming and concerned about misgendering, do some research about the gender norms, laws, and attitudes in the countries you’re visiting. Make a plan for how you’ll respond to single-gender options based on what is safest and most comfortable for you.
Some national and international hotels have nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBTQ folks, so you might want to stay where you know your rights are better protected. Otherwise, in hostels and guesthouses, consider reserving a single room with a private bathroom for more privacy, or if you want to avoid gender segregation but still get that dormitory price, get a bed in a mixed dorm.
And as for restaurants, cafes, and popular tourist spots, see if you can find information about whether they have gender-neutral or single-stall bathrooms available.
4. We worry a lot about coming out — or being outed.
To build lasting bonds with a new friend in a foreign country, I want to be my authentic self. Yet, because it can be hard to tell who’s LGBTQ-friendly, I often find myself lying. I don’t tell them about my partner, or I hide the fact that I worked in LGBTQ advocacy for several years and just say, “I worked in non-profits.”
While this affects my ability to build community, coming out or being outed can be even riskier in other situations, leading to an array of questions: Is it safe to tell our tour guide we’re a couple — or should we say we’re just friends? Should we be seen holding hands at breakfast? Should I take off my bowtie at this gas station in the rural US?
These are all questions I’ve had to consider, and it’s important to think about how out you want to be. Assess your safety on a case-by-case basis (including based on the legal issues noted above), and know that as out and proud as you may be, in some cases, it’s safer to lie.
That being said, I was frequently surprised at how open I could be and how much being “different” connected me to other people I met along the way. From the Airbnb owner in Vietnam who came out to me, to the hotel manager in Agra who thought it was cool that I wore men’s clothes, to the cashier in rural South Carolina who loved my bowtie, I’ve found my identity as a queer, nonbinary traveler has only deepened the breadth and depth of the connections I’ve made with people throughout the world.
So stay safe — but know that our assumptions about a country, region, or the people who live there might be just as wrong as the assumptions they might make about us.