LGBT travelers take between five and seven trips a year. One survey found that 71% of gay U.S. respondents possessed valid passports, as opposed to 25% of the total population. Many LGBT travelers have ample disposable income.
Yet for those who travel internationally, the world can seem polarized into gay-welcoming and gay-hostile environments.
Europe west of Russia is free of legislation against homosexuality, and Argentina and Spain may be lightening up on machismo stereotypes. This month alone, a baker's dozen pride events were scheduled around the world, from Athens to Zurich, Paris to Shanghai, Oslo to Tel Aviv.
But citing religious beliefs, anti-colonialism and general disapproval, as many as 81 countries and territories currently limit or forbid same-sex relations.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has described homosexuals as "worse than dogs, pigs, goats and birds." Russia legislated against vaguely defined gay "propaganda" and saw a rise in anti-LGBT violence. And the ongoing Beverly Hills Hotel boycott resulted from Brunei's impending Shariah legal code suggesting death by stoning of, among others, homosexuals.
How should LGBT Americans deal with the realities of traveling in potentially hostile environments? Four approaches emerged from interviews with more than 20 LGBT (and a couple of straight) agents, travelers, organizational officials and media types as well as hoteliers.
• Visit nonwelcoming lands that still might offer natural beauty, ancient history, economic benefit or academic enrichment.
• Boycott countries that deny LGBT people their full humanity.
• Travel wisely to what might be called "gray zones" of LGBT acceptance, to experience the destination and exchange ideas that lead to mutually improved understanding of conflicting values and cultures.
• Be an implicit ambassador for LGBT acceptance.
Going for it
American journalist Grif Shea has permanent residency in South Africa, where he lives with his husband and two children. Shea, who is developing the Griffin Guides travel apps, visits LGBT-averse areas.
"A lot of them are interesting, beautiful or unavoidable for work reasons," he wrote in an email. "And I think change can come through small social interactions: wearing a wedding ring, talking about my children. ... A lot of people just haven't met many gay people or don't know that they have."
Shea lived in Zimbabwe at "the height of Mugabe's 'worse than pigs and dogs' period." Though he was "sorely tempted to find a pink fedora," he kept things low-key rather than risk the government censuring his journalism. At Victoria Falls, staff perplexity about a request for a king-size bed crescendoed when a security guard joined the conversation. But he and his then-partner lived "openly and without fear" in Harare.
Shea doesn't boycott.
"For the Ugandas of the world, I think more people should go," he said of a nation where the penalty for homosexuality has been "reduced" from death to life imprisonment. "The reason these places produce anti-gay legislation, right-wing American missionaries aside, is because the local gay population is becoming more visible and more vocal, and there's a backlash against change. One way to support that change is by visiting and showing a bit of what's possible."
David Thomas is a partner in the education and career-consulting firm Forster-Thomas and a radio co-host with his husband. The two were off to China and Japan when we spoke. ("Nobody seems to care about our sexuality," he said. "Because we make it a nonissue, it becomes a non-issue.")
Thomas describes himself as "a cultural-exchange guy." He won't be "the ugly American."
"I will respect your customs, but only insofar as your customs respect me," he said. "I'm not going to walk down the street in Jeddah in a pink boa, but I'm not going to lie, and I'm not going to go into the closet."
Thomas observed that there was a big difference between being out and proud and being in the middle of nowhere, where he can encounter physical danger. "I'm not stupid," he said. Still, in rural Cambodia, he recalled, he and his husband overcame a one-bed standoff by threatening to go to another hotel. "Did [the desk clerk] turn into a gay-rights marcher? No. But they often will make the right choice, when it comes down to losing a room. I believe in giving them that choice."
John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), represents operators in more than 80 countries. The Fort Lauderdale-based organization takes a pro-go position.
"We don't feel that boycotts really help the LGBT businesses," Tanzella said. "Putin certainly isn't welcoming, but there are LGBT citizens and businesses in Russia, and Delta, for example, flies from [New York] JFK to Moscow."
He said that the decision not to boycott "is all about building bridges" -- in both directions.
Others don't see why LGBT vacationers should risk hardship or humiliation. Neal Broverman, editor of OutTraveler.com, acknowledged Russia's beauty and history, but, like many others interviewed for this article, he would not now visit there or other areas openly hostile to gays. (Click here or on the image for a larger view of a map of countries where homosexuality is illegal.)
"A vacation destination is not a place you want to be challenged on a moral level and fear for your safety," he said.
It's worth noting that gay men and lesbians often have different travel M.O.s. Merryn Johns, editor of Curve, a New York-based lesbian magazine, said women "tend to travel as couples, not to hook up." They are less concerned with "where the boys are, the latest, hottest places. Their main concern is safety. We are perceived as women first, and for the majority of countries, women are second-class citizens."
As a result, a country's acceptance of its local LGBT community can factor into travel choices.
"Amazing!" Shea said about South Africa's official enshrinement of full equality in its constitution. But he feels that being white and gay provides more privilege than being black and gay.
"For black women, in the townships especially, life can be a terror because of 'corrective rape,' a horrible term for raping lesbians to 'cure' them of their homosexuality."
Johns factors the status of local lesbians into her assignments. "I will get pressured by journalists wanting to cover Roatan, in Honduras," she said. "I've been there; it's a beautiful place. But four transsexual women were murdered [in Honduras], and activists were beaten. ... This isn't Lonely Planet, and our readers are not 28-year-old males."
Jamaica, according to the State Department's comprehensive and candid microsite (see related article, Page 16), can punish same-sex "acts of gross indecency" with up to 10 years in prison. The State Department's entry cites widespread homophobia, from governmental comments to reggae songs.
Consequently, Kirk Dalrymple, owner of San Francisco's Yankee Clipper Travel, essentially boycotts the island.
"If someone tells me they want to go to Jamaica, I tell them, 'If you want to spend your money ... and support these homophobic, anti-woman, anti-gay, sexist countries, it could be dangerous for you and your loved ones,'" he said. "I take it and put it right in their laps. It's the customer's decision to continue with that crappy decision. I usually [book the trip] holding my nose if they insist, but almost 10 times out of 10 they don't."
Dalrymple has a working definition of "gray zone" travel.
"India is definitely a gray area," he said, adding that he would sell it as a destination. "A lot of gays and lesbians live there, and there are a lot of gay and lesbian functions. They want visitors, even though the government has made these outrageous moves. [And] the government won't stone you."
But Dalrymple won't dispatch clients to places where gays and lesbians face harsh penalties.
"I wouldn't send you there, because they will stone you," he said. "That's the difference between gray and black-and-white."
Jacob Marek founded Wilde Travels in Miami two years ago. The luxury operator also focuses on places that might not necessarily be LGBT-friendly but are not outwardly hostile either -- among them, Kenya, India and China.
"A good LGBT trip is one where you can feel like yourself within their culture," Marek said. "You can't make something 100% sanitized. It's not Disney World. If you do take the risk, do your research, be yourself, be smart and take in everything you can. That makes a successful trip."
It's important for agents and operators to work with travelers both before and during their visits to gray areas. Advice topics can range from where to go to being wary with chat-room or other new acquaintances.
"We talk to the client before they even start planning the trip," said Jason Couvillion, a partner in Alternative Luxury Travel (ALT), an 18-month-old, gay-centric spinoff of the L.A.-based Bruvion concierge firm. ALT's orientations cover not only country overviews but also such issues as public displays of affection. "If they're not comfortable, I won't send them to a gray area."
Even travelers who've been out of the closet for decades may find comfort in being themselves within a community of like-minded people from all over the world.
Judy Dlugacz, founder and CEO of Olivia, said, "We create the experience; we bring our own staff, our own DJ and talent." Olivia, based in San Francisco, is a lesbian cruise, resort and adventure travel company that has hosted more than 150,000 cruisers since 1990.
Supportive suppliers are a key success factor. Dlugacz recalled how hard it was initially to secure cruise-line space and resort bookings -- "nobody wanted to charter to us" -- until Olivia became an industry presence. Some staff from conservative countries, she said, held attitudes that could be "terrible."
"We had to do extra training," Dlugacz recalled. "The cruise lines helped us. We talk to them [ship staff members] about their own experience of being oppressed: 'You have been an Other. This is a place where we can be free.' We acknowledge, appreciate and involve the staff. We become family."
Trust plus verification helps operators offer a secure yet satisfying atmosphere. ALT's Couvillion said, "We make sure we use a responsible, local tour company that we know. They're going to know the attitudes, be the buffer, be the guards."
Robert Sharp's Toronto-based Out Adventures has been running "out of the bubble" trips for five years. "People shouldn't be afraid to experience new cultures even if they are not known to be the most gay-welcoming," Sharp said, adding that Out's daily briefings cover cultural sensitivities. "We advise people when they need to have their knees and their shoulders covered. It's not a gay thing; it's a culture thing."
The State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program sends alerts to enrollees in the event of crises. Less official "travel gaydar" also can be activated. "Gay travelers are used to being hyperaware of their surroundings, because people are so aware of them," OutTraveler.com's Broverman said. "So it's not such an alien thing to go to another nation and be aware. You just kind of know when you're safe and when you're not. It's just something LGBT people pick up."
Ed Salvato, editor of the tablet magazine ManAboutWorld and a frequent lecturer on gay travel, said he felt that gray-zone travel is a two-way street. "We're guests in their house," Salvato said, speaking from Chiang Mai, Thailand. "Your house, your rules. [Travelers] are there to enjoy the destination. We demand respect. We should give respect."
And gray-zone journeys can offer unexpected perks. Said Curve's Johns: "The more experienced you become as a traveler, you can take risks."
You also can have fun: As a 5-foot-10-inch strawberry blonde, Johns said, she was treated as a "movie star" in India.
"We are these amazing ambassadors," said Olivia's Dlugacz. She recalled one cruise, 400 strong, that "bought up the town" in the Turkish hinterland. "Individual women said, 'Here's who we are.'" By the time the ship reached Istanbul, the tour had become a major media story.
"In the Grand Bazaar, it was 'Lovely lesbian ladies, come to my shop,'" she recalled.
Olivia won't book Russia or other places that represent "danger to our own constituency," Dlugacz said. But Olivia has revisited Turkey since the government's conservative turn. "No problem," she said. "We're going again."
As is true with all the best trips, the journey can be as rewarding as the destination.
Charlie Rounds is chair of the IGLTA Foundation board and something of an LGBT-travel wise man. Rounds recalled "the first all-gay cruise," a voyage that remains relevant today.
"The next year, the captain got up on formal night: 'I never knew gay people until the cruise last year. I never knew what you have gone through. How you have changed my perceptions! When I talk to my daughters, when they hear gay bashing, I say, "You can't put up with this, you have to speak up."'
"Seven hundred dressed-up men in tears," Rounds recalled. "That's the power of travel."
Abe Peck is director of B2B communication at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. He has visited Tibet and Senegal for Travel Weekly.