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How to Get Back Out in the World Safely: Do’s and Don’ts For LGBTQ Travelers

Travel Team | Jan 27, 2023

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Lesbian couple at PRIDE parade in Philadelphia's Gayborhood.

As international borders continue to open to U.S. residents in 2022 — Japan finally eased its entry restrictions this month to include tourists, as other Asian countries like Thailand and South Korea already have — not to mention a robust rebound for cruise lines and international LGBTQ events, you’ll need to pack more than a suitcase for a safe trip and return.

Although we’ve entered the ever more normalized endemic phase of COVID-19, with wonderfully effective vaccines and treatments, waves of annoyingly more transmissible variants continue to cause havoc (Didn’t it start out as highly contagious to begin with? Where does it end? When we catch it by just looking at someone infected?) with flight crew, hospitality workers, and travelers forced to stop everything and quarantine.

Let’s not forget the world continues to pack its usual travel hazards, including the occasional bout of food poisoning, accidents requiring medical care or evacuation, a hot-out-of-the-oven Monkeypox epidemic primarily spreading among gay men (yes, Monkeypox), criminals targeting travelers, and yes, the specter of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ laws.

With Pride Month and the 53rd anniversary of the Stonewall riots upon us, I’d like to share advice, hacks, and resources for LGBTQs ready to hit the road and have fun — because yes, it’s all about having an amazing experience and fabulous memories. Eat! Gay! Love!, squirrel friends!

Get Insurance That Covers COVID-19 … and Your Partner/Spouse

Gay couple travel portrait taken in New York.

When booking that flight, cruise, or car rental, secure travel insurance. Since not all companies or plans cover COVID-19 related calamities, including delays due to quarantining, hospitalization, and cancellations on either your end or the airline/cruise line/hotel/tour company/etc., be sure that your policy does. Seven Corners, happily, explicitly includes COVID-19 coverage, treating it as any other illness.

Of course, travel insurance is key even when a pandemic/endemic isn’t raging. More times than I like to count, my check-in baggage didn’t arrive with me. That’s when my plan’s clothing and goods allowance came in handy, paying for new toiletries and a change of clothes or two (luckily, the suitcases caught up to me within a couple of days, but there are times when someone isn’t so lucky and it’s off to luggage limbo forever).

In May 2022, my business flight home from Memphis was canceled until the next morning, and the extra night of hotel at a cool boutique property and yummy meals were covered — both of which were awesome, plus there was time to see Graceland, so silver linings, y’all!

Travel insurance that recognizes LGBTQ couples is also important. Seven Corners offers policies for both singles and same-sex couples, and can ensure you stay together if a medical evacuation is required for one partner: check out their video about clients Daniel and Felipe.

Lastly, if you have homeowners’ insurance, inquire whether personal property such as laptops, phones, and other expensive electronics and belongings are covered against destruction or theft while traveling.

Geotag Everything

Be sure to activate your phone, tablet, and laptop’s geolocation features. Worst-case scenario, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your iPhone’s been stolen if it’s suddenly five miles away from where you last left it on a table, and you can remotely deactivate the device. And seriously, please don’t leave your iPhone or tablet on a table. Anywhere! Ever!

Apple’s new AirTags are a game changer for lost or missing luggage, serving as GPS location devices for anything you put them inside (or attach them to, like keyrings!). Via frustrating experience I’ve learned it’s an all-too-common practice for airlines to unload some checked baggage pre-departure if the vessel’s too heavy or may tax its fuel supply. The airlines won’t always confess you lost this lottery, but your AirTag will essentially spill that tea and solve the mystery.

And although many upper-tier airlines have added the ability to track your checked luggage via their respective apps, these still rely on bags being scanned at specific points. What if it fell off a cart and is sitting by the runway? What if someone took yours off the carousel by mistake? You can make that AirTag beep remotely, which will probably cause the inadvertent thief to halt in their tracks (and/or you to spot them quickly!).

Know the LGBTQ Laws of the Land

Homosexuality is still illegal in parts of the world and even punishable by death. Some of these anti-gay laws entail toothless colonial-era holdovers, like Singapore’s Penal Code Section 377A, a calcified nugget of British colonial era legislation that criminalizes “gross indecency,” a.k.a. sex between men (the same code that put Oscar Wilde in prison). Singapore’s government has promised to not actually enforce 377A anymore because… wait for it… the code violates Singapore’s constitution if enforced, and prosecuting people for gay sex is “not in the public interest.” Yet, even after another repeal attempt in 2022, it remains on the books to appease old school conservatives (for now).

Other countries do actively persecute and prosecute LGBTQ individuals. According to the BBC, as of 2021, 69 countries criminalize homosexuality to varying degrees. In Iran this past January, two men, Mehrdad Karimpou and Farid Mohammadi, were put to death for committing sodomy. As of May 2022, countries with the death penalty on the books for same-sex relations include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northwest Africa’s Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen.

An invaluable resource to check regarding these laws is The Human Dignity Trust’s online map, which indicates where LGBTQ people are criminalized, with a pulldown menu of specific categories including “the gender expression of trans people” and “sex between women.”

The U.S. State Department also maintains a fantastic information and resource page for LGBTI+ international travelers with safety tips, how to reach U.S. Embassies and Consulates while abroad, and links including a TSA info page for Transgender, Non Binary and Gender Noncomforming Passengers (as of April 2022, TSA PreCheck applicants can select “M” or “F” regardless of their biological gender and what’s indicated on their other documentation, including birth certificate and Passport).

Google Where You’re Going

Lesbian couple celebrating PRIDE with a kiss at the parade downtown.

Googling the name of the destination — country or even specific city — with terms including “anti-gay,” “homophobic,” and “hate crime” could produce up-to-the minute news developments that may inform your plans and, at the least, level of discretion.

Egypt has long been an LGBTQ traveler’s bucket list destination, but the past few years has seen an increase of disturbing anti-gay and anti-trans violence, harassment, and detainment by the police, which continues to be fueled by recent anti-gay rhetoric by religious leaders.

Indonesia keeps seeing waves of political crackdowns on and vilification of queers — fortunately, a threat to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality a few years ago fizzled — and its Aceh province, ruled by Sharia law, sees public lashings and life-destroying shamings of LGBTQs. However, Indonesia’s island of Bali is extremely queer-friendly with an entirely different spiritual and religious life (majority Hindu). Go there, henny! That said …

Show Respect and Be Smart About PDAs

Life isn’t always a gay cruise or stroll around Hell’s Kitchen, the Castro, or WeHo’s Santa Monica Boulevard. In some cultures, PDAs between people of any gender or sexual identity are completely frowned upon and offensive. It’s not always a matter of safety, but respecting the culture. Having sex on a cruise ship in full view of the anti-gay destination you’re porting in, like a Palm Springs couple in 2012 who were arrested for “buggery” in the eastern Caribbean country of Dominica during a gay cruise? Don’t do that.

First, look around to get a gauge on how locals behave (and don’t be surprised to see men walking around holding hands like Sex And The City girlfriends in Arab countries or India, which is a norm despite toxic masculinity and homophobia). Follow the trends.

However, if you’re in a known “gayborhood” like Mexico City’s Zona Rosa or Taipei’s Ximending (its Red House LGBTQ district is like Manchester’s Canal Street sans the canals!), live out loud and give the locals a gay, knowing smile.

Back Up Critical Documents on a Secure Cloud Service

I’ve never been pickpocketed or had a bag snatched — and probably just jinxed myself, hard — but if this ever happens or you lose important documents, a wallet, your COVID vaccination card, etc., have copies ready in the cloud. iCloud, DropBox, whatever, just be sure it’s an encrypted service. Now you can more easily request replacements, and access important numbers to cancel credit cards.

If you’re legally married or partnered, also travel with hard copies and cloud backups of your marriage license and anything related to power of attorney and medical access. This is true even here in the USA, where some may attempt to refuse a same-sex spouse access to a hospital room unless you’re packing legal documents. For that matter, it’s a good idea to know a lawyer who specializes in LGBTQ family law to call if this ever happens.

Pack Your Favorite Condoms and Lube … Carefully!

Ask me about the time the large, slightly used bottle of Swiss Navy silicone lube burst inside my suitcase en route to Thailand, where I discovered 1) silicone lube can permanently stain Samsonite Black Label Cosmolite suitcase lining and 2) silicone lube can’t be bought in Thailand (the good news: three cycles of laundry and the stains were out of my shirts!). Bring new, unopened bottles of your favorite lube(s), pack them in a couple of ziplock bags and oversize padded envelope, and make sure they — and any liquid for that matter — aren’t too tightly pressured by the rest of the suitcase’s contents, in which case, a smaller hard-shell container or case might be in order, too.

If you have preferred brands of condoms, bring those, too. In some countries, condom sizes can vary wildly from mainstream U.S. brands’. You won’t find anything comparable to an XL-sized Magnum in Japan, for instance. “Foreigners definitely think that Japanese brands in general are too small,” admits Andrew Pugsley, a gay Tokyo-based Canadian expat whose excellent, entertaining vlog Tokyo BTM is chock full of queer insider deets on the culture, city, and LGBTQ nightlife.

On the plus side, Japanese condoms are also supremely, almost impossibly thin, all the way down to .01 millimeter, which is basically like wearing a layer of thick air, which some may appreciate (and take home in mass quantities, just sayin’) but others find less assuring than Lifestyles or Trojans and tricky to roll down.

Watch Out for the Catfish … and Sharks

It can happen anywhere in the world, including home, but hookup apps are rife with scam artists, weirdos, and even serial killers. In some countries, they’re used by homophobes and zealous police to entrap, jail, and torture LGBTQs. In other cases, you could get robbed, especially in second- and third-world countries where first-world tourists represent an easy, even deserving, mark.

If you do choose to meet someone off an app, take precautions. In countries where locals target gay tourists, five-star hotels will often require visitors to leave their ID at the front desk, and won’t allow them to retrieve it and leave until you give a sign-off by phone. If someone refuses to visit your five-star hotel (especially if they use the “I don’t like hotels because they’ll treat me like I’m a prostitute” excuse), that’s a red flag. And if you do have a new “friend” over, put those valuables in the safe first.

And Always Keep Your Medications on You … But Not Recreational Drugs

Never, ever, ever put medically necessary drugs, including PrEP, HIV meds, and anti-COVID medication Paxlovid if your physician prescribes it to take on a trip just in case, in your checked luggage. Otherwise, you’re risking missed doses should that bag get lost (or purposely purged from the plane to lighten its load: see above). Having to scramble in a panic for replacement medication, which may not even be available in your destination or require an expensive, time-sucking local physician or hospital visit, is a truly awful start to a trip.

Keep medication in your carry-on, and if the airline wants to check that carry-on, resist or, if you can’t win, remove the medications and keep them on your person.

Also, for Cher’s sake, don’t bring recreational drugs into a country where you can go to jail for them. Even if marijuana is legal in your state, that law won’t magically carry over. It’s a really wise use of 60 seconds on Google to look up local drug laws, because tourists will NOT be treated with leniency for drug possession (see: Brokedown Palace). It’s a lesson you don’t want to learn.

About the Author

Lawrence Ferber is a New York-based travel and entertainment journalist. His writing has been published in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Post, TripSavvy, Passport Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Time Out New York among other print and online outlets. He also co-wrote 2010’s LGBT rom-com, BearCity (tagline: Romance can be hairy). You can follow him on Instagram @lawrenceferb.

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