Overseas Travel Can Be A Risky Business

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 9, 2008

Vacation-minded LGBTs intent on traveling beyond the Utopian bubble of homo-friendliness and tolerance that is most destinations in the good old USA would be well-advised to make personal safety and cultural awareness a prime consideration when traveling to, and within, their destination of choice. Thanks to the current administration's love affair with forced regime change, those traveling abroad already have a strike against them by being seen as the Ugly Americans; that credibility gap can often be compounded by sexual orientation. Edge recently spoke to some travel veterans and professionals to get their thoughts on where to go, what places to avoid, and how to behave when you're out of the country and out of the closet.

Be Prepared!

"I never recommend people not go to places because they are dangerous; it’s important to push your own boundaries. Having said that, there are places like Caribbean and parts of the Middle East where it can be dangerous to be openly gay." says Michael Luongo, a novelist and a gay travel writer whose recent works include "Gay Travels in the Muslim World and Between the Palm," (a collection of gay travel erotica he edited).

"In parts of the Muslim world, to get into discussions that reveal you are gay can be difficult. There are ways you can bring up issues without saying you are gay. If you are of a certain age and not married, that can spell it out indirectly -- if you want to give off a signal."

A little bit of research and mental preparation before you pack your suitcase can go a long way to ensure you’re ready for the unique challenges of the particular country you plan to visit. Don’t just depend upon (or, for that matter, believe) the best-case scenarios put forth by a country’s official tourist website; check out the travel advisories and risk assessments issued by the U.S. Department of State. Although their homo-specific content is hit and miss, it’s a reliable source for Travel Warnings, Travel Tips and U.S. Embassy and Consulate information. In addition to checking in with Uncle Sam, "One of the best places to check are government websites from the countries you plan to visit; their immigration requirements and laws pertaining to gays." notes William, a gay man currently working for a non-profit in Beirut, Lebanon (who requested that his name be changed).

"Egypt, for example, tends to be fairly liberal; but they will not permit you to work there if you are HIV positive. I did not bring up my sexual orientation at all when I was traveling there. On Egypt Air, knowing I would be going through customs, I changed the name of ’Sex and the City’ on my iPod to ’Carrie and Company.’ My advice would be to go there knowing that you may not be able to wear your sexuality on your sleeve -- and become aware of what the local laws are."

For Luongo, the risk of "being viewed as a dumb foreigner" is often greater than incurring cultural wrath for being gay. In this sense, at least, having an American passport is the great equalizer. So, too, are the tips Luongo dispenses to minimize physical risk: "Some of the normal things tourists do to stay safe are things gay men should be aware of. If two people are traveling, have a check in system; to say ’I’m going to call you at 11:00.’ These are normal ways any traveler worried about risk can mitigate it. Having said that, one of the easiest things to do -- which is very inexpensive, is to get an unlocked cell phone that takes phone chips. It’s a phone that, by changing the chip ($5-20 in most countries), can give you a local number for that country. That’s easier and more reliable than using your U.S. cell phone around the world."

Another simple and practical tip involves writing down the phone number and the name of your hotel; or, taking "the business card of the hotel to show to a taxi driver." For LGBTs, Luongo advises pre-travel web research to identify gay-friendly local resources and "better understand the culture of the place before you are there."

Because travel to a new and unfamiliar place requires stepping outside of your queer comfort zone, clinical psychologist Geoffrey Steinberg (chelseatherapy.com) notes that, for gay men and lesbians living in the relative safety of the gay ghetto, "venturing out can be anxiety-provoking. Even if a destination doesn’t appear openly hostile, the lack of visibility of other gay people and gay friendly establishments may make a traveler feel conspicuous and vulnerable." Exposure to homophobia in another country can trigger memories of experiences "that bear similarity to where the person encountered homophobia in the past. What we’re talking about is basically a variation of post-traumatic stress disorder. Just as a soldier returning from Iraq may be triggered into feelings of panic when hearing a car backfire, a gay person who was bullied or made to feel inferior in the past may be triggered by all kinds of environmental stimuli that bring back the feelings of fear and anger." Those who feel they may by vulnerable to these emotions can prepare for what’s to come by "simply reminding yourself that you might feel uncomfortable where you’re going and recognize such feelings for what they are--a fear reaction that’s triggering past memories of being the target of homophobia. It can also be helpful to talk to the person you’re traveling with about what you’re feeling; or, if you’re traveling alone, to call a good friend back home."

Pictured: A gay pride march in Beirut, Lebanon.

Good and Bad Destinations

As is certainly the case with America, the level of gay-friendliness you’re likely to encounter depends largely upon what part of the country you’re in (consider, for example, that strange land between Virginia and Key West known as "The South"). Oswaldo Valinote is a director of ABRAT-GLS (Brazil Travel Association of Lesbian, Gay and Transgenders) and is also Director of Gay Travel Brasil. Valinote says that, "In spite of its strong Roman Catholic traditional background, South America has been a pleasant surprise to gay and lesbian travelers."

Valinote cites Uruguay as the first Latin American country to allow for same sex marriage and Buenos Aires as "the first city in the Americas to allow its local lesbigay community to do so. Of course, there are some places that have to be avoided; such as backward countryside areas where the tolerance towards homosexual life is as low as it can be in some parts of rural USA. But if one hangs on to the major cities and tourist areas such as Cartagena, Galapagos, the Amazon, Rio and El Calafate, one shouldn’t worry about it. Lesbigay travelers are always very welcome and pampered."

Les McLean and Schalk Viljoen helm the gay owned and operated Lescha Country Tours and characterize South Africa as "the only true gay friendly country" out of all the African countries -- noting that gay rights "are entrenched in our constitution. Gay marriages are legal in South Africa and many gay and lesbian couples have since legally tied the knot. We have seldom heard of any problems gay tourists have encountered while holidaying here and it is safe to travel single or in groups." They identify countries to "definitely be avoided in Africa" as Zimbabwe, Namibia, and The Gambia in West Africa.

Bertho Makso, CEO of , is an IGLTA ambassador who covers Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Makso asserts that "Lebanon is much friendlier than Syria & Jordan. In Lebanon, you may find many gay places such as night clubs, cafes, restaurants and surely a legal LGBT association." That said, Makso strongly recommends that travelers "avoid excessive affectionate behaviors in public."

Fernando Bingre, an LGBT Tour Guide (lgbtbahianguide.com, describes Salvador, Brazil as a place where it’s "pretty much open and comfortable. Gay people here have a good connection and mostly get along very well with straight people."

Bingre attributes that connection to the huge ’hetero flexible’ community that has embraced "a new kind of sexual and lifestyle interaction where men don’t even call themselves bisexuals; they’ve learned how to find pleasure among themselves without losing their masculinity." Binge, however, acknowledges the dangers and risks in the up "northeast area where the macho man mentality is still on. With all this freedom and openness there are precautions that should be taken as a new industry has been created ’thieves and rent lovers.’ Both of their types should be avoided; but often, you won’t know about that until you’re a victim of them. They disguise themselves as ’good boys’ but all that they want is your money. They can be found on the beaches, bars, on the streets and specially cruising spots."

Pictured: LGBT Tour Guide Fernando Bingre in Rio.

Public Displays of Affection

Call it a survival technique or an act of compromise; either way, common sense will tell you that it’s sometimes necessary to reign in your predilection for swishing, cruising and generally flaming it up. As Mom likely told you many times before, there’s a time and a place for everything. The self-imposed closet as survival mechanism may seem particularly insulting abroad -- especially when visiting other cultures in which public displays of affection among the locals do not carry sexual connotations. According to William, especially in the Middle East, "just because you see two men walking arm in arm down the street, it does not mean they are gay. It is a cultural thing; I saw a lot of it in Cairo. But I did not greet them by saying ’hi I’m gay;’ nor did I have t-shirts on that indicated any wild statements; no rainbow pins." This polite accommodation doesn’t seem so steep of a price to pay considering that, as William reminds us, tourists "are guests in their country."

That said, he also emphasizes that "Different parts of the Middle East are more liberal than others. Lebanon does have gay clubs, and one of the most frequented spots by gay men in Beirut is a Dunkin Donuts. It’s a place of eating that has outdoor seating where you don’t need reservations. You can sit near somebody you might be interested in." Aside from the need for discretion where sexual conquests are concerned, William also advises "staying away from all political discussion and being as evasive as you can. Give non-answers. If they ask about Bush or the political situation in their country, people feel very strongly pro or con about these factions."

Debra Bouwer of Nomadic Adventures, whose destinations include South America, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tibet and Nepal and parts of South Africa, describes most of their destinations as gay friendly -- but notes that "not all respond equally to open displays of affection. Of all of our destinations, Rio, in South America is by far the most gay friendly. In destinations such as Rio, overt displays of affection are not frowned upon; whereas one should be more discreet in such places as Ecuador, Peru or Johannesburg and Durban. In Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, homosexuality is deemed ’illegal’ and thus overt displays of affection should be avoided to avoid legal or social consequences. Rwanda has legalized homosexuality as has South Africa and thus are not averse to displays of affection."

But even though you may not be able to safely walk hand-in-hand with a lover in public, Luongo notes "There are ways to be homosocial that fits in with the culture. That’s the difference between being gay politically and socializing homosocially. The problem is when identity becomes a political issue. You can, within the realms of the society do quite a lot of stuff as long as it is done in private. Two men having sex with each other and discussing it openly is taboo, but two men having sex and talking around the topic is OK." Luongo cites the very real difference between being out, blending in, and "having a certain amount of respect for the culture." Abiding by the rules of the country is not a burden upon your personal liberty when you take into account the very real consequences that aggressive or open sexual displays could have upon the locals. When Luongo visited, Lima, Peru for the first time, he "tried to kiss someone on the street and he immediately pulled back and said, ’We’re in Peru.’ People there are very often aware of the boundaries they can and cannot cross. The greater risk is not for you, but for the people who are gay in those countries with whom you are socializing."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

Comments on Facebook