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The safety tips every LGBT+ person should act on before they travel

The safety tips every LGBT+ person should act on before they travel

  • LGBT+ travelers face extra dangers abroad but a few practical steps can give you more freedom and confidence to go where you want.
A woman in front of an airport departures board.

LGBT+ people love to travel but many of us don’t know how to stay safe and avoid problems.

Here is the travel safety advice you need for trips all around the world.

Whether you are a lesbian, gay or bi single or couple, an LGBT+ family, or a trans, intersex or non-binary person, there are particular tips that can help you.

Countries that criminalize gay sex

Currently 70 countries criminalize homosexuality. But those that do vary wildly.

About a third only technically criminalise sex between men. The remainder make same-sex acts between all genders illegal.

Some enforce the law, others ignore it. In most, the penalty is jail. In a handful it is a beating or the death penalty.

Notably, the letter of the law is often less important than police and social attitudes. For example, even where lesbian sex is technically legal, female couples may still face harassment.

The biggest hotspots of criminalisation are in Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East and South-East Asia. However, don’t make assumptions and check before you go. The ILGA map is a useful guide.

Of course, the law is often hard to enforce. What you do in the privacy of your hotel bedroom may go unnoticed. Often visitors only hit problems when they meet the locals or have sex or display affection in a public setting.

And even innocent or minor gestures can land you in trouble. For example, a Scottish man in Dubai almost got three months in jail for touching a man’s hip in a non sexual way while walking through a bar. He was saved prison when the United Arab Emirates ruler intervened.

So you need to protect yourself. But also give a thought to the country’s LGBT+ citizens. Unlike you, they aren’t able to just leave at the end of your holiday or business trip. And they don’t have the diplomatic support or resources you likely have if they hit a problem.

Furthermore, they are more likely to suffer the legal and social consequences of any trouble you run into together.

Countries that don’t criminalize homosexuality

Don’t assume that you are safer in a country that doesn’t make gay sex illegal than in one that does.

For example, Singapore (illegal) is objectively safer for LGBT+ travelers than Russia (legal).

Why? Because Russia uses other laws, including its ban on ‘promoting homosexuality’, to children against our community. Meanwhile Singapore has a visible, albeit censored, LGBT+ community.

Luggage with world flags on.
Laws for LGBT+ people vary wildly around the world. Rita E Pixabay

And just because the law doesn’t prohibit gay sex, it doesn’t mean locals are accepting or that police will not harrass you. Even in countries which formally protect LGBT+ equality, like South Africa, individuals may well be violently homophobic and transphobic.

Of course, you should have the human right to express yourself in how you dress and act. But sometimes it is better to be discreet and avoid public displays of affection, like holding hands and kissing.

Trans and non-binary people should remember that not all countries will recognise their identities. And if you are travelling with a partner or children, officials may refuse to accept your relationship.

Insurance to cover you and your family

Travel insurance is usually very affordable. And if you travel regularly you can save money by getting an annual policy.

But make sure you are fully covered. Most people think about protecting their luggage. But it’s more important to make sure it has enough medical cover, including repatriation costs.

Does it cover pre-existing medical conditions, including HIV? Nowadays some policies cover you if you are HIV positive and don’t require you to declare your HIV status.

If you are trans, you may need to declare it when asked about any ‘pre-existing medical condition’. That may seem like the wrong language but they may want to check if your transition makes you more at risk of medical problems while you are away.

Will it cover your partner and any children? Some policies don’t include surrogate, fostered or adopted children. If in doubt, ask before buying.

Documents for trans and non-binary people and families

Trans and non-binary people may struggle to get documents in their true gender at the best of times.

If you can, update your passport well in advance. In countries with good trans rights, that can be relatively simple.

If you are travelling with a passport or travel documents which do not match your gender for any reason, you may face difficulties at borders.

Be prepared with as much paperwork as you can manage. Gender recognition certificates or even a supportive doctor’s letter may ease things. But you should expect some intrusive questions. Be particularly cautious if entering a country with poor trans rights.

It is sometimes easier to change gender markers on drivers’ licenses and you’ll need to check that out if you plan to drive abroad.

A few countries do provide ‘gender X’ passports for people who are neither male or female. But most don’t. And there’s little evidence to prove how border officials respond to these kinds of documents.

It is even more complicated if you are having gender confirmation surgery abroad. You’ll need to ensure you have the right documents for your return trip too.

If you are traveling with children, take parentage and/or custody documents. This is especially important if your children do not share your last name.

Once you have your documents and tickets ready, copy them. It’s a good idea to leave a photocopy with a friend, along with your itinerary, and to take a copy with you, in case the originals are lost or stolen. You can also scan them and upload them to a secure database.

Get your documents in order and think if you’ll face problems at borders. Jealous Weekends Unsplash

Safer sex and health

Sun, sand and sex obviously go together. And drink and drugs often go alongside them. So it’s not surprising that many people come back from a holiday with a sexually transmitted infection as a souvenir.

Of course, Prides and parties which bring together lots of LGBT+ people also provide more opportunities to get an STI.

If you can, get vaccinated for Hepatitis B and HPV (the virus that causes genital warts). Depending on where you are travelling, you may need other general health vaccinations too.

Condoms and lube may not always be easily available and the brands may not be as good. So take your own.

If you use PrEP, keep it in its original packaging.

The same applies to trans people taking hormone treatment with them, or any other medicines.

It’s possible customs officials may demand to see a doctor’s letter to explain why you are carrying any medication.

Women should think about buying tampons or sanitary towels in advance. They may be unobtainable in parts of Africa, Asia and South America, and may be scare in Eastern Europe.

Travel with HIV

Travelers with HIV can face extra barriers.

A few countries ban HIV positive people from visiting and many more restrict how long you can stay for. For most short holidays this won’t be an issue, but you should check the restrictions in the particular country you are traveling to.

If you are getting travel vaccinations, make sure they know you have HIV. You may need a different dose or alternatives, as some vaccines may not be safe for you.

Obviously, make sure you have enough medication for your whole trip. And keep it in its original packaging.

For the customs reasons stated above, you should ask your doctor for a signed letter explaining you need your medication. If you are worried about expressing your HIV status, ask your doctor to say the medicines are to treat a ‘chronic condition’, they don’t have to mention HIV.

Where you stay and who you travel with

One of the most common problems same-sex couples face is being refused a double bed.

Of course, there are also many hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts and private rentals who are LGBT+ owned or delighted to welcome us.

Many international hotel chains are owned by large corporates who have blanket policies to stop discrimination against LGBT+ people. What is more, international brands are vulnerable to media and social media criticism.

Some countries, particularly in western Europe, protect you by law from discrimination when buying products or services. In the UK, that has allowed same-sex couples to successfully sue bed-and-breakfast owners for refusing them accommodation.

Before you choose where to stay, search the internet for LGBT+ friendly options. There are various accreditation schemes hoteliers use to show they welcome us. But if in doubt, put in a call or email to check.

Equally there have been many cases where same-sex families have been split up on plane journeys so straight families can sit together. Again, many airlines have policies against this and you may get an apology and even some compensation if you complain.

If you are booking cruises, coach tours or group trips and excursions and you are unsure if they are LGBT+ friendly, it’s a good idea to ask and get assurances.

Think about what you are packing

Suitcases with wheels.
Think about what you are packing as there may be restrictions. Tookapic Pixabay

Obviously everyone knows not to take drugs across borders. But fewer people realise that having sex toys, pornography or even condoms in your bag may create problems. Naturally, this is more likely in countries that actively persecute LGBT+ people.

In rare cases even some LGBT+ themed books can get you in trouble. For example, border officials may decide you are entering the country to ‘promote homosexuality’. 

If you are traveling with a same-sex partner and hoping to ‘fly under the radar’, it’s a good idea to bring separate luggage rather than packing together.

If you are trans and carrying a gel-filled prosthetic item, such as a breast form, there is some good news. They do not count in the 100ml (3.4oz) liquid limit for airplane hand luggage as they are considered medically necessary.

But you may face extra screening and questions. So if you can, put these in your checked luggage.

Borders and searches: Know your rights

Border search and airport security policies vary more than you may expect. Most border officials haven’t had detailed LGBT+ training.

This can be particularly problematic for non-binary and intersex people and trans people who haven’t had gender confirmation surgery. You can check policies in the countries you are traveling through. But, sadly, a loss of privacy and dignity is inevitable in some cases.

A good example, but by no means the only one, is the US Transport Security Administration.

TSA officers have to judge the gender of millions of passengers by sight alone. They then push a button to decide if the airport body scanner should treat the person as male or female.

The body scanner searches for ‘anomalies’. So if, for example, you have a bulge in your crotch, a prosthetic or a binding garment the machine doesn’t expect, it will trigger the alarm.

Meanwhile, if security officers need to do a ‘pat down’, an officer of the same gender as you should do it. Of course, this may not help intersex or non-binary people.

In many countries, you can request they search you in a private room to minimise any embarrassment.

Guard your personal safety even in ‘safe’ areas

The myth is that ‘gay scene’ areas are safe and rural places are more dangerous.

In fact, LGBT+ neighborhoods can attract pickpockets, muggers and even queer-bashers and rapists.

In many cities, the LGBT+ scene is quite small and surrounded by deserted streets and a sketchy neighborhood.

So in cafes, bars and clubs, keen an eye on your valuables and  don’t leave your wallet or passport in a coat pocket or bag which may be easily snatched.

When leaving, beware attitudes may not be as accepting as they seem. It’s better to stick to brightly lit, busy streets, particularly if you are on your own.

Remember travel may leave you tired, jet-lagged or feeling sick. And, like drink and drugs, this makes you more vulnerable.

If someone harasses you or makes an abusive comment about your sexuality or gender, it’s usually best to ignore them and move to a safe place.

If you think you are being followed, find a busy place to enter. And if someone mugs you, hand over your valuables. Do not resist.

Sadly, homophobic and transphobic police may be more interested in prosecuting you as an LGBT+ person rather than helping you as a victim of crime. That can even apply to assaults, rapes and muggings.

So if you are the victim, you may want to seek advice from a trusted friend or your Embassy before telling anyone else.

Rainbow lit building and crowd.
Be careful even when you think you are safe. LGBT+ neighborhoods and events can attract crime. Pixabay

Using public restrooms and changing rooms

In some countries, trans people may find it difficult to use the right public toilets.

The laws vary widely. In the US they vary state-by-state. There are anti-trans bathroom laws in Florida, Arizona, Kentucky and Texas and pro-trans laws in California, Vermont, New Mexico and Illinois.

In Singapore and Thailand you can only use the bathroom of your true gender once you’ve had gender confirmation surgery.

In practice, how easy it is to use the right changing rooms and restrooms varies at the whim of individual corporations, organisations and individuals.

Meeting the locals

LGBT+ travelers are lucky that it is often very easy to meet LGBT+ locals. Making new friends can be the best part of your holiday and take the tedium out of a business trip.

But there are dangers.

Some criminals target people on the scene or on dating apps and sites for theft and blackmail.

Likewise police can use hook-up apps to entrap LGBT+ people. In some Islamic countries there are religious police who act as a vice squad to enforce sharia law.

Cruising areas can be particularly dangerous as they are generally well known by both the police and criminals.

Be friendly to the locals but be cautious. Don’t leave drinks unattended, in case they are drugged, and be wary if a stranger offers you a drink.

If you use a dating app or agree to meet someone for a date, don’t share too much personal information. It’s best to meet in a public place during the day. Ideally, have a friend nearby or tell a friend where you are going. Plan your own transport rather than agreeing to be picked up or dropped off by a stranger.

You are much less likely to be in control if you aren’t drunk or haven’t taken drugs.

Respecting and helping LGBT+ people

Most of the time, LGBT+ activists and campaigners facing persecution don’t call on the community to boycott their countries.

That’s because tourism and foreign money can help make the situation better.

So if you’ve enjoyed your trip and the people you’ve met, try to help.

Giving directly to organisations in the country is the most effective way to improve real people’s lives. But it’s not always easy. So it’s also a good idea to donate to international LGBT+ organisations, join in campaigns and sign petitions.

Together we can and will make our community safer and happier around the world.