The World We Live In As LGBT Travelers

Red Hook, New York, USA
Red Hook, New York, USA

The sad thing -- the really sad thing -- about Orlando is that is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Guns laws, gun nuts, lone wolves, persistent homo- and transphobia, evangelical Islam's continued backslide into medievalism, evangelical Christianity's continued infiltration into politics; it all has combined (and will go on to) into a perfect storm where a religious wingnut can not only become armed to the teeth, but actually feel that the world is on their side.

In 2012, I wrote a piece on where gays should not go. We in the West tend to forget that when it comes to being gay, the West is the exception. Being gay can get you killed in a lot of places, even ones billing themselves as a paradise. But now it is 2016, and there have been changes, both forward and backward.

So as the summer travel season officially kicks off, here is a new summary of those places that you should really think twice about visiting. Yes, every country in the world has a thriving gay community, but being gay in New York City is very different from being gay in Cairo. As before, this summary is painted in brief, broad strokes based on national law (if you want specifics, head to the IGLTA website, or even the State Department). It may be that not all of these laws are enforced, but the fact anti-gay legislation exists means LGBTQs need to plan ahead and, as galling as it is, modify their behavior and dress as needed.

To their credit, several countries, including Guinea-Bissau, Mauritius, Cape Verde, and Rwanda, legalized homosexuality even if other bans (same-sex unions, serving openly in the military, etc.) remain in place. Other countries, like Mali, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, have no laws on the books one way or another. In both such places, however, cultural and religious prohibitions can still make things dangerous when it comes to PDAs, law or no law. Even more dangerous are Egypt and Morocco, which will imprison you; Malawi, which will imprison and whip you; and Mauritania, which will kill you outright.

This is not to say there aren't a few victories: A major upturn is Mozambique, which in 2015 adopted a new legal code that that definitively defends same-sex behavior (it was ambiguous before). Workplace discrimination has been illegal since 2007, and the country is an undiscovered gem when it comes to destinations.

But it is South Africa that remains the shining star. Cape Town, which recently hosted the IGLTA Convention, is pulling out all the stops to become the gay capital of the Southern Hemisphere, and it is well worth the 17-hour flight. But even South Africa has its problems: A worsening economic and political situation means that the rainbow tapestry so beautifully woven by the late Nelson Mandela is now fraying at the edges. This is not translating into homophobia necessarily, but foreigners should be mindful of things like pickpocketing and mugging (which affects everybody). Stay in the "popular zones" and if it is late at night, take a taxi from wherever you are to your hotel, and vice versa.

Jail sentences await in Pakistan, India, Singapore, Oman, and Bhutan; death penalties await in Iran and Saudi Arabia (it is probably the only thing those two agree on), as well as in Qatar, Brunei, Yemen, and Afghanistan. But as with Africa, some Asian countries have at least decriminalized homosexuality: Jordan, Lebanon, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Iraq (seriously!), and Bahrain (surprisingly!). But note that legalization does not mean protection. For example, homosexuality may be legal in Turkey, but gay "honor killings" are common and go unsolved. In practical terms, if it is a Muslim country, all visiting LGBTQs should go on the DL, and hard.

The hopes are at the periphery: Israel is very progressive; Tel Aviv Pride is one of the biggest in the the world. Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, the Philippines, and Thailand also score high marks, and Taiwan, the gay-friendliest country in Asia, has the largest circuit party on the continent. Because Asia is so huge and varied, it pays to do your research.

Australia & Oceania
The Land Down Under is an irony. Sydney hosts the Gay Mardi Gras, one of the largest LGBTQ tourist draws in the world, and Australia tends to be an LGBTQ travel darling. However, the country infamously voted down a same-sex marriage law in 2004. Alternatively, New Zealand grants full equality across the board. But the real fun starts when you get to the South Pacific.

If it flies under a European or American flag (French Polynesia or Guam, for example), you are good to go. But then you get to places like Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, where the law stipulates prison sentences for gay men but is "rarely enforced." Where it is enforced is Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands. Plan your paradise accordingly.

Europe is not as simple as it looks; there is a sharp divide down very old fault lines: Every country outside the Iron Curtain is an excellent choice, every one inside it is more in question. In the European Union, homosexuality is legal. But the more east you go, EU or no, the more penalizations you run into. The Low and Scandinavian countries, France, Spain, and the UK are all tops regarding every legal right in the LGBTQ book; Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria less so.

Where things really go downhill are those states once part of the Soviet Union, Russia being the biggest example. The rule of thumb is this: With the exception of the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), if it was a Soviet republic, it is a hotbed for homophobia to the point of murder even if homosexuality is technically legal. Along with Russia, countries under this dubious banner include Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Belarus.

North America & the Caribbean
Completely scattershot, and in more ways than one. Canada seems to have all its eggs in one basket, but the United States may as well be Chicken Little. LGBTQs can marry in every state in the Union, but can be fired from their jobs for their orientation or identity in 28. The states of California, Hawaii, New York, and Iowa are legally level-headed, but comments from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and anti-transgender hysteria in the American South show the USA, now smack in the middle of an election cycle, is still very much grappling with the idea of full legal equality for LGBTQs.

It's the same story all over the continent. The Caribbean is a regional case of multiple personalities; you can have islands within eyeshot of each other with completely different laws. As with Oceania, if it is associated with a European nation (St. Martin, Aruba) or an American one (Puerto Rico), the legal situation is far more equal than in, say, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, Jamaica, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines, where homosexuality is illegal to the point of imprisonment.

Ditto for Central America. With the exception of Belize, every Latin American country decriminalized homosexuality. Mexico is poised to grant full equality, and Costa Rica, though not that progressive, still earns high marks in relation to its neighbors. Those neighbors, like El Salvador and Panama, have a very strong machismo culture and the influence of the Catholic Church is pervasive. Nicaragua constitutionally bans same-sex marriage.

South America
It's not universally rosy, but South America looks pretty good. Guyana is the sole holdout regarding LGBTQ decriminalization, and places like Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Venezuela have constitutional bans against gay marriage, but ask yourself: How many people are going to Venezuela? The two big draws, Brazil and Argentina, are excellent LGBTQ destinations, and vacation planners should also consider equally forward-thinking Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay. Colombia and Uruguay are, in fact, the most "equal" on the continent. The only thing you should really worry about is Zika.