Uganda recently set the world on its ear when Stephen Asiimwe, the CEO of the country's tourism board, announced his land would welcome gay travelers, even as politicians move to make the state of being homosexual punishable with life in prison.
Of course, this wasn't exactly the show of enlightenment some, such as myself, would have hoped.
Said Asiimwe, "No gay visitor to our country will be harassed or not welcome for the only reason that he or she may be gay. Cultural policies are important in Uganda. We ask visitors to respect them. They include touching in public for example or engaging in sex with children."
Yep, the old GAY = PEDOPHILE routine. Nice passive-aggressive backhand, that. In a world of constant change, it's nice to see that central Africa's feet are firmly rooted to the cement blocks of the past.
That was sarcasm, by the way.
But it is a fact of life that LGBTQs are, everyday, going to places that are not welcoming to same-sex relationships. Whether it is basking in the sun in Barbados (where gays and lesbians face life imprisonment) or gay Muslims braving the Hajj in Saudi Arabia (where homosexuality is punishable by death), as the old saying goes, "We are everywhere."
Like any self-respecting gay man, I find the idea of going back into the closet, even for a week-long vacation, is, at the very least, galling. That being said, if you are going to a destination known to get more than a little 'phobic, there are a few elementary precautions you can take to ensure you enjoy the best parts of a destination without seeing the worst.
1) Do your research.
I'm not talking about the easiest way to get to the Pyramids. If you intend to check out the cruising spots, find out where to go, where not to, if you should even try in the first place, and what travel advisories exist beforehand. Travelers should always study up on where they are going; LGBTQ ones should, too. Damron and Spartacus may give the low-down on the best of the best in gay travel, but lesser known is that they have exhaustive sections on where to avoid.
2) Never get involved with a native.
I am all for a little bit of diplomacy on a personal level, but this is just asking for it. Nine times out of ten, nothing will happen, but "it" only has to happen once. "It" could come in the form of a con-man (or -woman) using the relaxed vibe at gay hangouts to ingratiate their next victim. "It" could also be a double agent working for the police or some other Big Brother-type intra-spying body. "It" could be the fact your new BFF was already under surveillance by some shadowy moral-enforcement agency or nosy neighbors. Whatever "it" is, the best way to win the game is to not play it.
3) Ixnay on the PDA.
The Caribbean island of Dominica burst onto the gay travel scene for all the wrong reasons when it arrested two gay men caught having sex on the balcony of their cruise ship. Now, I am not one to defend Dominica -- its record on gay rights is actually worse than Russia -- but to be fair, you would be arrested for public sex, gay or straight, just about anywhere. The lesson here is don't be stupid, and only get busy in private.
Ironically, in some countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the United Arab Emirates, your gaydar might actually short-circuit. You'll see men hold hands and revel in what to our Western eyes looks like blatant displays of same-sex affection. Toss this one up to a cultural divide: In Muslim countries, or any culture where the sexes must remain apart, it is only natural that the sexes get cozy with their own. But do not mistake camaraderie with homosexuality, because the people around you don't. If you and your partner decide to take a stroll, keep your hands in your own pockets.
4) Try to blend in.
What are the behavioral mores? What are the regional standards for dress? Can you bare your arms? Have your hair free? Wear bright colors? Can women wear skirts and can men wear shorts? If so, how high? My travel wardrobe tends to be a little blah when I go to iffy destinations. Khakis, loose fitting jeans, and plain t-shirts and button-downs are the rule.
5) Know your emergency contacts.
Family, friends, and most of all, embassies or consulates. If you do run afoul of the local law -- even for something that has nothing to do with your sexual preference -- having your government on your side always helps. Many people end up languishing in jails because nobody knows they are there.
6) There is a big difference between the resort and "the real world."
Jamaica is a good example. Your hotel may be very welcoming to gay tourists, but in a bitter set of circumstances, the country it is in may not. Feel free to "be gay" on the resort grounds, but the minute you step off the property is the minute you may have to go on the DL.
7) Get a thick skin.
You may be called out, shouted at, insulted to your face. Personally, I think a good punch to the face would do wonders to solve the situation, but it is probably not a good idea in downtown Marrakech. Best to walk away.
8) No diamonds in the country.
It is a long-established fact that the cities tend to be a bit more liberal in their thinking than the countryside. If seeing the far corners of a country is what you are into, great. But know that it will likely be far more conservative.
9) Other options?
Say you have a hankering for the romance of the Arabian Nights. The lay of the land in the Middle East as it is now makes a trip there nuts. However, as crazy as it sounds, Greece, Malta, southern Spain, and Cyprus, thanks to being crossroads of invading armies, have a heavy Middle Eastern flavor to their cultures, and are much safer. Or perhaps the Slavic lands beckon, in which case, Russia and Bulgaria are out, but the Czech Republic is very much in. If the mysteries of Asia do it for you, Taiwan is the Far East's most gay-friendly country.
10) Safe sex.
If you have it, don't jump without a parachute. This is good advice for people even if they never travel an inch. But the HIV/AIDS crisis is rampant in some parts of the world, particular in places like Thailand and India where the sex trade is thriving. And even if HIV/AIDS wasn't in the picture, there are plenty of other STDs out there to keep you on your toes.