Josh Noel, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
As a white heterosexual American male, there are certain things — OK, plenty of things — I don't need to think twice about. One of them is travel. There obviously are places where being a white, heterosexual American male will work against me (probably the American part, mostly), but usually I'm not too concerned for my well-being in the places I am most likely to visit.
But a stat caught my eye recently that underscores an odd irony: A certain group of people who love to travel is among those facing the gravest risk while doing just that. In a 2012 Community Marketing Inc. survey of more than 4,000 people identifying as LGBT, 79 percent of respondents said they held an active U.S. passport. That compares with about one-third of the general U.S. population.
Crossed with a higher-than-average disposable income, the LGBT crowd becomes a no-brainer of a target audience for the travel industry. And indeed, airlines, hotel chains and cruise lines have been some of the most progressive and aggressive when courting that market.
But the demographic that embraces travel also faces some of the biggest challenges while traveling. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, a whopping 78 countries have deemed "homosexual acts" illegal. That's more than a third of the world. Homosexuality is punishable by death — punishable by death in 2015! — in seven of those countries.
It's a paradox as cruel as it is ridiculous, with potential blowback both small (such as a double take when same-sex travelers request one bed instead of two) and unfathomably large (arrest). Eric Silverberg, chief executive officer of gay social networking site Scruff (scruff.com) said he suspects "almost every gay couple that has traveled in the last 10 years could cite some example of prejudice or hostility."
"Gay travelers are absolutely doing a calculation: Am I going to try to go out tonight and try to find the gay neighborhood or gay bar, or am I going to just stay in?" he said. "If you're going to a city with just a few gay bars, you will be much more cautious as you travel to your destination, especially in the evening."
With those dangers in mind, Scruff has launched a web page in recent weeks dedicated to "gay travel advisories," including the nearly 90 countries and regions that have laws against homosexuality or frequent discrimination. The advisories also can include push notifications; for instance, if a Scruff user arrives in, say, Nigeria, an alert will pop up on a smartphone: "The country you have recently entered has laws that criminalize sexual acts between consenting adult males as well as laws that criminalize gay activism and public gatherings." The alert also notes potential punishment, which in Nigeria includes the death penalty.
"We see this as a duty in our community to keep people informed and safer as well as to shine a light on these laws to increase global pressure on reform," Silverberg said.
Popular LGBT website towleroad.com has frequently covered the perilous relationship between homosexuality and travel, including a recent story about two gay men who visited the Maldives, an island nation south of India where homosexuality is illegal.
"It wasn't as scary for them as they thought it would be," website founder Andy Towle said. "It turned out to be fine for gay couples to book at resorts there. But they were concerned, so they booked two twin beds."
Then again, Towle said, he was on a gay cruise arriving in Dominica that was met by a protest at the dock. He wrote about the experience for Genre, a now-defunct magazine aimed at gay men: "I had heard about the past refusal of some Caribbean islands to allow gay cruise ships to land, but I thought (wrongly) that since then this type of discrimination had been forced into a corner by the mighty power of the gay dollar. Not exactly so."
That was in 2003. Towle said the world mostly has become friendlier to people identifying as LGBT but not completely; discrimination endures in Dominica, for instance, where in 2012, two men were arrested for what local authorities deemed "buggery" (or sodomy) after engaging in a sex act on a cruise ship balcony.
(Brief diversion: in my estimation, the couple should not have done such a thing and may well have been guilty of a crime. But a heterosexual couple likely would not have been charged with sodomy, hence the double standard.)
According to a 2014 LGBT travel survey by Community Marketing Inc., a significant number of respondents said they wouldn't feel safe in even middle-of-the-road destinations: South Africa (31 percent), Turkey (44 percent), Dubai (52 percent), Jamaica (53 percent), Kenya (73 percent) and Russia (82 percent). I asked Towle if there was a destination that a heterosexual person might embrace that he would avoid. He named Egypt, citing a recent raid in a Cairo bathhouse in which 26 men were arrested (and later acquitted).
These are the decisions gay travelers often must make, Towle said: Which places might present risks to an LGBT traveler? To what degree does an LGBT couple need to censor themselves when traveling? It's a consideration even across much of the United States.
"If I was traveling with a partner in rural Wyoming or Montana or somewhere in the Midwest, I would definitely think twice about where I was going to stay," Towle said. "Gay and lesbian people, by the nature of how we grew up, are very used to being aware of our surroundings and how we present in public. It's no different when we travel."Twitter @joshbnoel
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