12 Important Safety Tips for LGBTQ+ Travelers
Navigate different cultures, find welcoming vendors and have an all-around more enjoyable trip with these travel tips and LGBTQ+ resources.
Photo By: ILGA
Photo By: ILGA
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Consider the Destination
Travel is stressful enough for anyone, but for LGBTQ travelers there is the added stress of navigating prejudice and traveling safely. Homosexuality is still outlawed in more than 70 countries around the world. And, as an LGBTQ traveler myself, I’ve found that the hospitality industry can be very, very cruel. But it’s not all bad news. More of the world is open to LGBTQ tourism than ever before simply because more of the world has legalized same-sex marriage and has passed significant protections for LGBTQ people. So where’s safe? The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) publishes a report every year detailing LGBTQ laws in every country. The report’s handy map shows which countries have legalized same-sex marriage, but the map also shows current laws on the books for LGBTQ discrimination and how weak or strong those laws are. If you’re looking for a new vacation destination, look into the dark blue countries such as Sweden. These countries have the most constitutional protection on the books for LGBTQ people.
And the Destination's Attitude
Sometimes a country looks safe on paper but in reality has large numbers of discrimination and hate crime. It’s important to look at a state or country beyond whether same-sex marriage is legal. In addition to their sexual orientation law map, the ILGA publishes a global attitudes survey on countries around the world. This report takes a deep dive into a country’s culture, explores homophobia in different regions and gives you a more thorough idea of what interacting with locals will be like.
Check in With the State Department
When you think of the State Department, you probably just think of those people who process your passport. But the State Department has several resources for travelers going abroad including country profiles and a directory of embassies in each country. Unfortunately, the State Department doesn’t have that much information specifically for LGBTQ travelers, but it’s a good idea for any traveler to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) when traveling abroad. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a free service and you essentially give the State Department a heads up that you’re traveling to a specific country. They can then send you text alerts while you’re there about any safety threats or natural disasters in your region. And if there’s an emergency, family and friends stateside can get in touch with you through the STEP system. Even if you don’t use this service while traveling abroad, it’s always a good idea to leave information on where you’ll be staying, contact info of the nearest US embassy in that country and a photocopy of your passport with a close friend or family member.
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Enroll in TSA Precheck and Global Entry
Programs such as TSA Precheck and Global Entry save time in line at the airport, but it also cuts down on stress for transgender and nonbinary travelers — especially if your dead name is still listed as your legal name. A dead name is a name that a transgender person previously used before choosing a name that matches their gender identity. And, unfortunately, changing all pieces of ID to reflect a different gender or name can be difficult. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, "TSA Travel Document Checkers will check as you enter security to ensure that the name on your ID matches your boarding pass. It does not matter whether your current gender presentation matches the gender marker on your ID or your presentation in your ID photo, and TSA officers should not comment on this." The NCTE also has helpful information for going through TSA screenings and pat-downs as a nonbinary or transgender traveler. "If TSA officers are unsure who should pat you down, they should ask you discreetly and respectfully. If you encounter any problem, ask to speak to a supervisor and clearly and calmly state how you should be treated."
Travel With a Group
For visiting countries that aren’t as gay-friendly, it’s a good idea to travel with a group of friends or with a professional tour group. Disney’s travel company, Adventures By Disney, is a great option for LGBTQ families because — just like Disney theme parks — there is a zero-discrimination policy from tour guides and fellow guests. LGBTQ kids or kids in LGBTQ families can meet other kids and see the world — without fear of being bullied. It should be like that with any tour operator, but my wife and I have experienced dozens of microaggressions or total discrimination over the years. We don’t have kids but we’ve been on two Adventures By Disney trips (they even have adults-only itineraries), and I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to be treated like any other traveler on a trip.
Book Gay-Friendly Stays
If big chain hotels aren’t your style or maybe you’re traveling through rural areas with limited accommodations, it’s important to check that the lodging is LGBTQ-friendly. Check out sites such as Purple Roofs or MisterBnB for a list of LGBTQ-owned or LGBTQ-friendly lodging by destination. And if you choose to book through home-share sites such as Airbnb, it’s always a good idea to ask the host if they’re LGBTQ-friendly before you put down a deposit. Because if they’re not, you don’t want to stay there.
Book Gay-Friendly Tours
From snorkel rentals to sightseeing tours, you don’t want any excursion on your trip to include prejudice — especially a vacation. International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA) is a great resource when looking for LGBTQ-friendly tours and tour guides. "Our website's Plan Your Trip feature allows you to search LGBTQ+ welcoming travel businesses in approximately 80 countries," said IGLTA President and CEO John Tanzella. "You can search by business type or by geographic region."
It’s not fair, but PDA is something to be mindful of when traveling as a same-sex couple — especially in countries or regions where acts of homosexuality are illegal. My wife and I choose Hawaii for our honeymoon over the Caribbean because of the region’s laws and general conservative views on homosexuality. It was important for us to be in a place where we felt safe holding hands out in public or stealing a smooch in the pool. "In countries with more progressive laws, it's a personal choice, but it's still essential to always be mindful of your surroundings," said Tanzella. "It's also important to be culturally sensitive. PDAs are frowned upon in certain countries, regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple. So again, read up on the destination in advance to gain an understanding of their laws and the cultural acceptance of PDAs." If you’re planning a romantic trip or honeymoon, make sure to choose a low-worry destination with a welcoming attitude toward LGBTQ couples. "Work with travel advisors, tour operators and hotels that have a history with romantic getaways for LGBTQ+ travelers," said Tanzella. "When it comes to something as important as a honeymoon, you don't want it ruined by homophobia!" Need honeymoon ideas? Check out our roundup of romantic and LGBTQ-friendly countries.
Bring Important Documents for Children
In most countries — including the U.S. — when you go through customs at the airport, you can approach the counter as a family. But too many times, a customs agent has made a big fuss about my wife and I walking up together. Or they’ve separated us in line, not acknowledging our marriage. It’s not fair, but it happens. And for LGBTQ families, those little microaggressions can be tough on parents, too. "For same-sex couples traveling with children, it's a good idea to bring a copy of birth certificates or, if applicable, adoption papers, so there is no question of parental rights," says Tanzella.
Consider Company Culture
Before you book with a big hotel chain or tour company, see what the company culture is like. If the company doesn’t support LGBTQ employees at a corporate level, they probably don’t treat their LGBTQ customers well either. The HRC or the Human Rights Campaign publishes a Corporate Equality Index, rating companies on their workplaces for LGBTQ employees. Both Hilton and Marriott hotels have rated really well for workplace equality.
Have a Restroom Plan
Using pubic restrooms can be stressful for transgender and nonbinary people at home, nevermind using them abroad. The IGLTA has a great article with tons of information for transgender and nonbinary travelers, including tips on navigating restrooms while traveling. As a general rule, avoid gender-confirming restrooms and use single-stall or family restrooms. Finding these are pretty easy at airports, malls and hotels but if you’re traveling on a road trip or in a rural area, look for the big gas stations such as TA (TravelCenters of America). These mega stations are typically well-lit and have unisex, family restrooms. The article also suggests having a bathroom buddy so you don’t have to go into gender-confirming restrooms alone.
Research Beyond Party Culture
Sometimes cities will boast their LGBTQ tourism based on the bar scene or the city’s Pride parade in June, but that doesn’t mean everything. And oftentimes that’s just one neighborhood, not an entire destination. When researching a new city, look at the community leaders and business organizations. That will give you a more well-rounded look at the vibe. Cities like Key West or Palm Springs are great examples of towns with LGBTQ leadership and community support in every neighborhood.