Can We Hold Hands Here?

Exploring LGBTQ travel safety

That gorgeous ad of a couple holding hands on the beach in the lush, mountainous Caribbean nation of St. Lucia? Oh, it looks so nice, honey, let’s book it!

Chances are if that’s the extent of your decision-making process, you are heterosexual. Sight unseen, I guarantee that the couple in the photo is straight—also probably white, blond and under 40, but that’s a different article.

For just about anyone in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) community like myself, the ad may have gotten our attention, especially in the dead of winter in New York City, but the decision to visit is much more complex. Will my partner and I be welcome? Can we hold hands or even just sit together on the beach without attracting unwanted attention? Would we be subject to judgment, eye-rolling, harassment or worse?

LGBTQ people living in St. Lucia face legal challenges not experienced by others. Acts of “gross indecency” are punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. While these laws may infrequently be invoked among locals and certainly never against Western visitors—a critical source of revenue—the laws have a chilling effect on the local community and make queer visitors question whether the destination will welcome them warmly. They also make LGBTQ visitors hesitate before interacting with the local queer community, which may inadvertently put them in harm’s way.

Can we hold hands or even just sit together on the beach without attracting unwanted attention?

Two examples illustrate the homophobia that locals and even visitors have been subject to in recent years. Human Rights Watch highlighted the plight of Bennet Charles, an LGBTQ activist in St. Lucia who works as the communications and advocacy officer of United and Strong, a local LGBT organization—making him a public face for LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is both criminalized and marginalized. This inevitably came at a price, with Bennet saying he’d been threatened with violence, with much of the harassment coming from anti-gay Rastafarians. Several years ago, three American gay men experienced a rare occurrence of anti-gay violence when they were attacked and robbed at gunpoint.  Ever mindful of the reputation of the island as welcoming, the minister of tourism apologized to the men and announced the arrest of two suspects.

The legality and reality for LGBTQ locals and visitors vary dramatically throughout the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth of the United States, marriage equality is the law of the land, and many businesses cater to LGBTQ travelers. Discover Puerto Rico recently relaunched its website with a robust section for queer visitors. Travelers should consult with a helpful map from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association outlining sexual orientation laws around the globe. The U.S. State Department also includes helpful information for LGBTQ travelers, including not only the law, but also the reality on the ground.

Writer Ed Salvato and his partner Bryan

That said, it may be surprising to learn that during a recent visit to St. Lucia, I had an absolutely delightful time with my partner and another gay couple. But we stayed in the safe confines of the very upscale Sugar Beach, a Viceroy Resort. The ride from the airport gave a hint of the attitudes towards LGBTQ people among locals. It was without incident, though the driver played a Bible-thumping radio program the entire way and asked where our wives were. We declined to specify, just saying we didn’t have wives. It’s the type of decision queer travelers have to make all the time: Can I come out to this person safely? Will this put me or my partner in danger? There are certainly circumstances straight people can relate to that make them feel in danger when traveling, but it almost never concerns their sexual orientation.

During years of traveling as an out gay man I’ve experienced many of these minor yet discomfiting homophobic situations: eye rolling; someone physically retreating away from us; the almost visible exclamation “yuck” playing out across someone’s face; overfamiliarity (“Oh, my hairdresser back home is gay and I love him!”); welcome amenities addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Salvato (I guarantee you I am not traveling with my mom!); and verbal harassment Sometimes the harassment was more than just verbal. Skinheads in Poland threatened my partner and me since we “dared” to hold hands walking around the city. (Luckily my partner was a Thai kick-boxer and intimidated them.) Several years before that, my reservation at a small, family hotel in Mykonos was canceled when my partner and I went to check in. In Budapest I was kicked out of an inn whose owner didn’t want two gay men under her roof.

The driver asked where our wives were. We declined to specify, just saying we didn’t have wives.

Experiencing homophobia while traveling is complicated, nuanced, personalized and local. For the most part as a white westerner, I travel with extraordinary privilege. My partner and I do not present as the stereotypical effeminate couple many less enlightened people may have in mind when they think “gay.” We are also able to stay at higher-end hotels, which often provide some level of sensitivity training to their customer-facing staff. I’ve been to many of the 73 or so countries where homosexuality is criminalized or marginalized, yet I have had some of the most welcoming experiences in these places, including Morocco, Egypt, Botswana and Sri Lanka. And paradoxically, most of the times I’ve been verbally harassed and actually felt threatened have been in supposedly super safe western destinations, including the Castro District in San Francisco, New York’s Greenwich Village and London’s Soho. Perhaps homophobes tend to fish where the fish are?

African-American lesbian couples can be subject to more scrutiny when traveling than a well-to-do white male couple, since already they frequently encounter racial biases and suspicions just based on their skin color. Women traveling around the Middle East, India or northern Africa without a male companion are often incessantly harassed. Transgender travelers are often subject to hideously blatant discrimination: Many are purposefully misgendered (intentionally using “sir” for a trans woman); and many report terrible service or being refused service outright simply for being perceived as transgender.

A number of the destinations included in this year’s “52 Places to Go” from the New York Times have policies, laws or attitudes toward queer people that LGBTQ visitors need to take into account before deciding to visit. These range from the relatively mild to the downright dangerous. Zadar, Croatia, is gorgeous and deserves its spot on this list; however, it’s still rather conservative socially. Don’t expect to be able to comfortably hold your same-sex partner’s hand strolling around town.

Transgender travelers are often subject to hideously blatant discrimination: Many are purposefully misgendered

Salvador, Brazil, is fabulous. The locals live, eat and play on the beach; however, Brazil has one of the deadliest records of anti-transgender violence and homicide on the planet. Non-binary or gender non-conforming visitors also may be endangered. I would love to visit Uzbekistan, but sex between two men is illegal, with punishment ranging from a fine to three years in prison. More disturbing are the widespread reports of aggressively enforcing the law and even torturing arrested gay men. (Lesbian sex is not criminalized, but women—especially those traveling without men—face other pressures here.) I would want to do a hell of a lot more research before booking a trip to these places.

Next time you see an ad with a happy frolicking—heterosexual—couple, note that for a large percentage of your fellow (queer) travelers, we aren’t sure if that destination is that into us.


Ed Salvato

Ed Salvato is the editor in chief of gay consumer-focused ManAboutWorld travel magazine and co-author of the Handbook of LGBT Tourism & Hospitality Marketing: A Guide for Business Practice  by Columbia University Press. He’s an adjunct instructor at NYU’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality.

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