5 Things Every LGBT Traveler Must Know Before Going Overseas

Experts offer tips for navigating unique challenges when traveling abroad.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterSept. 22, 2015
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterSept. 22, 2015, at 10:17 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

5 Things Every LGBT Traveler Must Know Before Going Overseas

Lesbian couple holding hands at tropical resort

While LGBT travel may be flourishing, travelers must consider where they may be at risk of encountering prejudice, discrimination and danger.(Getty Images)

With June's landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, it probably comes as no surprise the travel industry is increasingly targeting the LGBT market. In fact, research compiled in 2014 by Out Now Business Class, an LGBT trade organization, estimates that global LGBT tourism spending will exceed $200 billion this year alone. Yet, according to a 2014 Community Marketing & Insights survey of more than 3,500 self-identifying LGBT participants, only 11 percent of respondents said that they would be willing to visit a destination with laws that restrict LGBT rights. To put this into context, 82 percent of LGBT survey participants recorded taking a vacation in the previous 12 months and 29 percent said they are frequent leisure travelers, taking five or more such trips per year.

So why are LGBT travelers, a group that represents one of the most lucrative segments of the global travel market, so concerned about putting themselves at risk that they are willing to forgo the opportunity to travel altogether? It's no mystery for Josie Mitchell, a marketing and creative industry executive. "The one big thing I've learned about being LGBT in Asia and living here for six years is patience is key. Understanding that Asia hasn't had the exposure and education that the West has regarding LGBT rights. Progress is being made, but it can be our job sometimes to explain what it means to be LGBT," she says.

Despite the challenges of visiting destinations that are unfriendly or even oppressive toward LGBT travelers, one thing is certain: LGBT travelers are eager to explore diverse destinations. "I think LGBT travelers want to visit places everywhere in the world, no matter whether they're welcome or not," says John Tanzella, president and chief executive of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. And while gay and lesbian travelers face more hurdles than other demographics when traveling to certain places outside of the U.S., that isn't stopping community members from planning trips. "Today's environment is nothing new," Tanzella explains. "We tell travelers to always be mindful of cultures and laws," he says, as every traveler should be, but LGBT members should not deprive themselves the chance to visit somewhere new. "Our philosophy is to go."

With this in mind, U.S. News tapped experts at Crown World Mobility, an organization that helps LGBT assignees navigate challenges when traveling on business overseas, to chart the top things every LGBT traveler should know before heading abroad, along with smart steps to maximize comfort and safety. 

Diligent Research Is Key

When it comes to avoiding hostile environments abroad, the key is conducting plenty of research to pinpoint the places that put LGBT travelers in grave danger. "There are 78 countries where it is illegal and sometimes punished by death," says Benedict Slonecki, the intercultural and language training and partner support coordinator at CWM. "Identifying as LGBT is illegal in 37 of Africa’s 54 countries, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries," he adds, noting that parts of Asia, including Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia to a degree, "still punish homosexuality." 

Once you've determined the laws and the level of LGBT-friendliness in your desired destination, there are a few extra steps you should take to steer clear of potentially risky situations. Some hotels will not accept LGBT travelers, Slonecki explains. To avoid facing discrimination, he suggests checking whether each hotel welcomes LGBT travelers before making your reservations to ensure same-sex bookings are accepted.

Know the Rules

"You're most likely not going to be bothered if you abide by the rules," Tanzella says." He recommends staying informed by consulting the State Department's website for up-to-date information, travel alerts and country-specific requirements. And if you're traveling off the grid, he suggests confirming that the destination you're visiting is recognized by the IGLTA. "If you're going somewhere out of ordinary that you do need help from a travel agent, make sure they're an IGLTA member," he says. 

And beyond knowing the rules and political climate of the country you're visiting, it's also critical to understand the social climate of the specific city and neighborhoods you'll be exploring. "[A] lack of legal recognition does not necessarily mean lack of social acceptance," Slonecki explains." Just because the host location has no or little recognition of LGBT rights on a national level doesn’t mean LGBT communities are hidden. In Asian cities like Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Seoul, for example, vibrant LGBT communities and businesses are flourishing."

Seek Out Support

For a heightened understanding of the local culture, Slonecki suggests searching for local LGBT social and professional groups to connect with "fellow expatriates in a similar professional and personal situation." Apart from gaining a local perspective, you can ensure your safety through services provided by groups like CWM, which educates people on the local immigration laws in destinations that restrict same-sex rights. CWM also offers "intercultural training and security briefings for same-sex couples embarking on international assignments or transfers into countries where it is legally possible but still potentially a challenge in the local social and/or work environment." The customized cross-cultural training programs also help members easily ask questions pertinent to the destination they're visiting, says Lisa Johnson, global practice leader at CWM.

Stay Aware of Your Surroundings

Aside from choosing the right hotel, knowing which neighborhoods, restaurants and hot spots welcome LGBT visitors is essential. "Being in the wrong bar can put you in a dangerous situation," Johnson says. She recommends LGBT travelers research where they want to travel to fully understand the current social issues and places that are safe. And should you decide to go somewhere that explicitly bans homosexuality, you can also rely on gay dating network sites and apps, like Scruff, which now offer advisories for users when they enter a country where homosexual acts are illegal and even punishable by death. 

Pay Attention to Local Customs and Perspectives

Assimilating to diverse cultures and perspectives can present challenges for any traveler. As Slonecki put it, "Adapting to a new culture takes time regardless of who you are." When you're planning to visit somewhere unfamiliar, you should evaluate your environment and ask, "What behavior and mannerisms are acceptable?" he adds. Beyond carving out time to understand local sensitivities, Slonecki advises becoming comfortable with the environment before disclosing personal information.

Before I moved to Korea, I made the explicit decision not to initially be out in the workplace, though I had been out in my job in San Francisco," he says. "I decided that I wanted my colleagues to get to know me as an individual before focusing on my sexual orientation. I did slowly come out, and after three years and by the time I left that role, I was 'openly gay' at my Korean law firm job."

 

Developing an understanding of other cultures can help foster social reform. As Rubinstein summed up: "

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

Tags: travel

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