10/09/2014 12:06 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Gay Travel Capitals of the World

There is not one travel agent or destination-marketing company that has not acknowledged -- even if ruefully -- the financial punch wielded by the LGBTQ travel industry. When it comes down to brass tacks, they love us -- so much so that they use the term "gay capital" as a lure. Sometimes they are spot-on. Other times it's a little dubious. So here is the question: What makes a "gay capital" just that?

I've taken the liberty to draw up a list. In some cases, I had to do a little reaching; some regions are so generally hostile that a city there can be a gay capital simply because it has a single gay club. But I did not write off any region as a lost cause; that would be a slap in the face to the gays and lesbians working very hard for their rights and visibility.

So with that:


It is not like there is a lot of competition here. African leaders have made an art form of blaming everybody else for their own inefficiencies; it was only a matter of time before they targeted LGBTQs. South Africa is the only country on the continent where gays and lesbians are equal to their heterosexual peers, and in a nice surprise, the competition for gay capital of the continent is pretty brisk.

In one corner you have Cape Town, and in the other, Johannesburg. One boasts a sunny coast, the other the delights of the "big city." Both have a lively gay scene. But I am going to go with Cape Town this time around, because the crime rate -- which is sky-high in South Africa -- is generally lower in Cape Town than in Jo'burg, and Cape Town actively bills itself as a gay destination.

According to a 2012 BBC report, 10 percent of all tourists to the "Mother City" are gay. Out & About and Instinct magazines both praise the city (Instinct ran its piece this year), and The Advocate rated the city as the 19th most popular gay destination in 2013.

So, not to tread on Johannesburg's toes, but I'm going with Cape Town.


As a "continent," Asia is so vast and encompasses so many cultures that it would be unfair to assume that any one city is representative of all. It's best to go by region and bear in mind to keep it relative:

1) Central Asia

Tough call, as no nation here can be called particularly "gay-friendly," thanks to either Islamic prohibitions or an authoritarian Soviet legacy. So it comes down to what I can find out as to the presence of a scene. Two cities make the shortlist: Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan.

That being said, in March, Kyrgyz officials introduced a "gay propaganda" law even more restrictive than Russia's, and in Kazakhstan, an official with the ruling Nur Otan party in 2013 condemned gays as "criminals against humanity."

Let there be no doubt that this entry is putting lipstick on a pig. If I had to choose, I am leaning toward Almaty. It's bigger, it's more cosmopolitan, and it just might be the site of the site of the 2022 Winter Olympics. While the capital function is now in the northern city of Astana, Almaty is the undisputed cultural hub of the region. Due to its prominence, I'm giving Almaty my thumbs up, but with caution.

2) Middle East

Again, there's not a lot of competition in this part of the world. Istanbul and Beirut are the frontrunners if we mean "Middle East" in a strictly Muslim sense, but in terms of open presence, solid rights, and simple infrastructure, Tel Aviv wins, hands-down.

On paper, Judaism is no friendlier to gays than Islam, but Israel is far more progressive in unshackling itself from dogma that might have made sense 3,000 years ago but is anachronistic today. The pride parade in Tel Aviv is the largest march in the city, the city actively promotes itself as a gay destination (it devotes a third of its marketing budget, about $100,000, to LGBTQ tourism), and the country even participates in the Eurovision contest. This one is a no-brainer.

3) South Asia

Remember when I said to "keep it relative"? That's goes double here. Muslim Pakistan, the Maldives, and Bangladesh force their LGBTQ communities underground, and even Buddhist Bhutan isn't particularly welcoming. That leaves, by default, India.

By 2009, pride parades began to crack the cold, Victorian exterior of the world's largest democracy (kudos to Delhi for taking that first step), and the backbone required for Bollywood to explore the subject in films like Dostana should be rightly praised. Travel agencies catering to LGBTQ clientele, such as Purple Dragon and Indjapink, now have India packages with a strong gay lean to them. To be sure, India has a long way to go still, but signs are pointing to a gradual thawing of attitudes toward gays and lesbians in Indian society.

So you have Delhi, and also recent entry Mumbai, India's undisputed cultural nexus and home to the ambitious International Queer Film Festival. Of the two, I'm going with Mumbai, with its long history of LGBTQ activism and the presence of feisty advocate groups like Bombay Dost and Gay Bombay.

4) Pacific Asia

Here is where I really buck a trend. Tokyo, Bangkok, and Manila are the usual placeholders here, but I am giving my blessing to -- huh? -- Taipei.

By themselves, Tokyo, Bangkok and Manila are famously -- almost notoriously -- gay-friendly. But if you leave them, things slow down quickly. On the whole, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines are actually fairly conservative, and gay equality has not made much in the way of legal gains. This is not to say the trio is fire-and-brimstone reactionary, but all are good examples of a city-country divide.

Taipei, however, has the largest pride parade in Asia, and a whopping 75 percent of Taiwanese see same-sex relationships as acceptable. A solid majority -- 53 percent -- supports gay marriage. Later this year, the city hosts G5, the largest circuit party in the Far East. By 2010, reporters with the leading newspaper, the Taipei Times, began to notice organic growth of Taipei as a gay destination.

Although laws for gay marriage have been stymied, that they were even introduced says a lot. For these practical reasons, Taipei gets the nod.


The reasons I chose Taipei over more obvious draws come into play here as well. The islands of the South Pacific are beautiful but not particularly gay-friendly, having been Christianized by the same Victor. That leaves Australia and New Zealand, and I know I am courting a serious Aussie backlash by favoring the latter.

Far and away, Sydney has the better PR team, and the city's Mardi Gras really is as good as they say. Now for the downer: Gays and lesbians cannot get married in Australia. Legislation for same-sex marriage failed in 2009 and again in 2012, and current prime minister Tony Abbott has made it clear that marriage is a straight-only institution. Yes, the Mardi Gras is fun, but there is a hell of a lot more to a "gay capital" than a party. You also need support from on high, and Australia just does not have that yet.

To be blunt, in New Zealand we are equal and have been so since 2013. So, in this very nitpicky blog post, I place Auckland over Sydney, the Big Gay Out over the Mardi Gras. And the only thing a lack of PR means is that there are more things to discover and less been-there jadedness.


Europe, on the other hand, does not make things easy, because LGBTQs have made so many gains. London, Liverpool, Antwerp, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris -- where does a boy start?

From a gay tourist perspective, Berlin usually tops the list, but for this blog post, it comes down not only to scene but to legal equality (if such laws exist in the first place). In Germany, there are "unions" but not "marriage." The fact that we are still designated separately is a minus, and because in Europe I can afford to be choosey, I'm going to be.

Thus I choose Amsterdam. The Netherlands has been way ahead of the curve in the normalization of gays and lesbians in society, being the first country to legalize gay marriage (2001). They are one of the few countries to have a Holocaust memorial that specifically recognized the gays and lesbians sent to die in Nazi concentration camps, the Homomonument. A whopping 90 percent of the Dutch approve of same-sex relationships.

And they are darn proud of it: When homophobe extraordinaire Vladimir Putin came for a summit, the city decked itself out in gay pride flags from end to end. The country also highlights to immigrants coming in from less tolerant countries the fact that LGBTQs are a proud part of the nation's character. This is a city that has definitively made gays part of its identity and history, so to Amsterdam, the town with "XXX" on its flag, my hat is off.

North America

You'd think I'd go with New York or San Francisco. But I'm not.

Again, it comes down to legality. NYC and San Fran are legendary in gay history, and rightly so. But the fact that many states across the U.S.A. still actively forbid gay equality drags everybody down a peg. That's why I am going with -- huh? -- Toronto.

"North America" is not a byword for the United States; Canada and a bunch of other nations are in the mix too. But unlike the all the countries south of it, Canada has a solid groundwork for gays and lesbians, around 5 percent of its population, to stand eye-to-eye with the other 95 percent; gay marriage became nation-side law in 2005. When members of Canada's indigenous population, particularly from the native-dominated province of Nunavut, protested that same-sex marriage was an intrusion on their beliefs, Ottawa told them where to get off in no uncertain terms.

Toronto is Canada's gay nexus (sorry, Montreal), and the gay life is top-shelf. In a serious hit to the Yankees, the Toronto Pride Week is the largest on the continent. That, along with its laws, gives the land north of the border the edge over the patchwork Americans.

South America

We've got three contenders: Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. All three allow for same-sex marriage, all three are world-class destinations, and all three require you to dance really well.

So here it comes down to -- and don't laugh -- a size issue. If we have the laws and we have the scene, the deciding factor is just how big everything is. Keeping that in mind, I'm declaring São Paulo as the gay capital of South America. Like Toronto, its pride celebrations are the largest on the continent, and Grindr heralds it as the best in the world.

But more than that, São Paulo is what anthropologists call a "primate city," a community whose size and cultural impact radiates outward and outweighs all others. It is the business capital of Brazil, it is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and it is from here, not Rio, that a lot of progressive social ideas are born and transmit across the country and, indeed, the continent. Rio de Janeiro may have the Olympics, but São Paulo gets the gay cred.