Life

Is it okay to travel to homophobic countries?

Just two weird foreigners seeing the world
Just two weird foreigners seeing the worldPhoto: Michael Jensen

Here’s a sample of some of the online comments we’ve received when people learn my husband Brent and I are digital nomads and we’ve lived for months at a time in Turkey, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Republic of Georgia — all countries that treat their LGBTQ residents either fairly badly or very badly.

  • Hey guys, what is it like living in such homophobic countries?
  • Aren’t you afraid?
  • Don’t you know how Turkey treats queer people?
  • In case you haven’t heard, Hungary just passed a very anti-LGBTQ law! How can you support that government?

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We’re a gay couple, so it’s natural to wonder our opinions on all this.

First, we think travel to homophobic countries is a complicated topic with no easy answers. We’ve thought a lot about it. What are our conclusions?

Let’s address the above questions one at a time.

What’s it like living in a homophobic country like Turkey — or Georgia, Hungary, or Bulgaria?

Whenever we’re asked this question, it’s almost always by a fellow Westerner who might be thinking about visiting the country in question.

It’s a fair question, and it’s one we used to ask too. But now we know the question should really have two parts: What’s the country like for LGBTQ visitors, especially generally wealthier Westerners? And what’s it like for the LGBTQ people who have no choice but to live there?

Because the two answers are often pretty different.

In answering the first question, Brent and I have coined a phrase: The Weird Foreigner Rule.

This means when you’re living in a country that is not your own, the locals will often consider you an outsider — or as we put it, “a weird foreigner.” The more culturally different you seem the weirder locals may consider you.

For instance, when we lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, our light-skinned complexions, baseball caps, and lack of beards clearly marked us as Americans.

It isn’t always fun having locals stare at you like you’ve got your nose where your chin should be.

On the other hand, the Weird Foreigner Rule has one very clear advantage, especially for LGBTQ travelers: Since you are so clearly a weird outsider, most of the local mores and customs aren’t necessarily applied to you.

You’re already so “weird” that the gay thing gets lost in everything else. Or it can be just another example of foreign “weirdness.”

You’re two middle-aged men sharing an apartment with only one bed? You’re Americans, and Americans don’t make much sense anyway. You’re two older women having a romantic dinner in my restaurant? Great, I need the business!

Both examples highlight another factor involved in the Weird Foreigner Rule: we’re spending money that is often very much a crucial part of the local economy. Therefore there is a big economic incentive to not care if someone is LGBTQ.

The Weird Foreigner Rule isn’t absolute, and there are other things to consider.

For starters, you can only stray so far from cultural norms. Sure, your average Turk may not care that two middle-aged American men are living next door — even a traditionally Muslim may not care. But if you stood out in the hallway snogging each other in front of their kids? Then they very well might care.

And second, the more you conform to the gender norms of that country, the easier your life will be. If you’re an obviously effeminate man, masculine woman, or distinctively non-binary — or refuse to declare a specific gender — you’re more likely to draw unwanted attention to yourself. Gender is still a big deal in America, but it’s a much, much bigger deal in more traditional countries. Some cultures are arranged and segregated almost entirely by gender.

Just to be clear — we are not saying any of that is fair or right. It’s 100 percent not. But if you’re going to travel in a less tolerant or more traditional country, you need to be aware of these issues just for your own safety.

The answer to the second part of that question — what is life like for local LGBTQ folks? Keep in mind this isn’t our lived experience. But we’ve also made lots of LGBTQ friends all over the world, and we’ve heard lots of first-hand stories.

In countries such as Thailand or Vietnam (and many Asian countries), there is a kind of benign neglect: there are no laws against being gay, but no protections either, and often mild social disapproval. Thailand, in fact, is fairly supportive of transgender women (but only to a point).

In Turkey (and many Muslim countries), homophobia is much more overt, with specific, oppressive laws. Turkey doesn’t even allow LGBTQ advocacy groups to gather in public, while in Georgia, transgender women face high rates of discrimination, abuse, and murder.

In Istanbul, a young female friend felt so unsafe, she encrypted her email to gay friends, while another was making plans to escape to Germany as soon as possible (and has since done so). We met a closeted Turkish man who said being gay was no big deal as long as you acted traditionally masculine. But at the same time, he complained about the intense pressure from his Muslim family to marry a woman.

We hear things like this a lot from LGBTQ friends in homophobic countries. Everyone seems to acknowledge things are bad for those who violate gender norms, but life isn’t bad for others as long as you’re “discreet” and don’t “flaunt your lifestyle.”

As Westerners, this sometimes sounds to us like they’re excusing homophobia, because having to be “discreet” strikes us as another kind of discrimination.

But we also think it’s not our place to judge people who are living such wildly different life experiences in such difficult and potentially dangerous circumstances.

Which brings us to…

Aren’t you afraid?

No, we’re almost never afraid. And this is, in large part, due to the Weird Foreigner Rule.

For starters, we both present as conventionally masculine. Except for being two middle-aged men having dinner together, or sharing an apartment, there isn’t much to suggest we’re gay. This is not something we’re proud of — it’s just a statement of fact.

We also aren’t afraid because we do our due diligence ahead of time. We talk to people — visitors and locals alike. We do lots of research. We try hard to make sure we understand local laws and mores — which can vary a lot in the different cities of a country, and even in different neighborhoods.

In more traditional countries, we would never behave like the Travelling Butts — the gay Instagram couple whose shtick was to drop trou in front of famous international landmarks. Their antics got them arrested in Thailand for public indecency. And frankly? We think they’re jackasses for so casually dismissing the mores in the cultures they visit.

We always try to act like we’re guests in other countries. Because we are! Sometimes these countries’ values differ greatly from our own personal ones, but we still try to respect them — within reason, of course.

That being said, we’d be lying if we said living in homophobic countries never gives us pause.

For instance, if something were to happen to us — a gay-bashing or just an old-fashioned mugging — would local authorities treat us differently because we are gay? Might they take the side the side of the gay-bashers over us?

It’s a sobering thought.

While living in Istanbul, we did attend the Pride March, which had been banned by the Turkish government. During the march, we got tear-gassed along with the rest of the crowd.

Writing critically about these events later — for this and other sites — I did worry that I could be targeted by the government, which imprisons local journalists they’re unhappy with, and will sometimes question or even deport foreign ones.

But several local journalist friends said that, given my low profile, that was very unlikely in my case. It was still pretty stressful.

That instance aside, even in foreign countries, we worry less about our personal safety than we do when we’re back in America — the land of mass shootings, omnipresent handguns, and having to spend so much of our life on highways in a car.

Brent and Michael speaking to an LGBTQ rights group in southern Italy
Brent and Michael speaking to an LGBTQ rights group in southern Italy Michael Jensen

Don’t you know how homophobic countries treat queer people?

We do know.

In fact, we probably have a much better sense of things than the person asking this question, since we now have many, many LGBTQ friends in these different countries, and we also know lots of queer activists.

Italy is a country that is mildly homophobic, especially outside of the big cities. Southern Italy, which is more traditional than the north, is more homophobic still.

While living in Matera in Southern Italy, Brent and I gave a presentation to Ris Volta, the area’s first LGBTQ group. We talked about our life as LGBTQ activists and writers — and also being a longtime couple.

And they told us their stories too, about how hard it is coming out to friends and families, how few out LGBTQ folks there were in the area, and how very difficult it was to date or maintain a relationship with no public support.

In Georgia, we became friends with Giorgi Tabagari, the founder of Tbilisi Pride, and the country’s leading LGBTQ group. Currently, he’s under investigation by the government for swearing at a police officer who was doing nothing about homophobes physically attacking Tabagari and the offices of Tbilisi Pride. He may even go to prison.

Everywhere we go, we make a point to meet people like this — and listen. We offer support.

And at the risk of sounding like White Saviors, we then share what we’ve heard with people outside that country. We tweet and write articles about the issues, and we’ve even held a live-chat with the locals involved.

That’s also part of the reason we’ve written this article.

In case you haven’t heard, Hungary just passed a very anti-LGBTQ law! How can you support that government?

Again, we know. Not to sound defensive, but we probably know more about it than most. And for the record, we don’t support Hungary’s government, nor those of Turkey, Bulgaria, or Georgia.

Look, here’s the deal: we all obviously need to decide for ourselves how we live our own lives according to our own personal ethics. If you personally think it’s wrong to visit homophobic countries — and support homophobic governments even indirectly in any way — then don’t visit them.

But we honestly think the issue is more complicated than a lot of people make it sound. We’re not against boycotts in general, but we think they only really work when they’re organized — and when the organizers make specific demands of their governments.

In other words, we think vague, informal boycotts usually only succeed in making the boycotter feel good.

We’ve asked a lot of local LGBTQ people what they think about boycotts of their homophobic countries. In every single case, local people have told us they think informal boycotts are a terrible idea.

Local LGBTQ people almost always want more LGBTQ-supportive visitors to come to their countries — to support LGBTQ businesses, to increase visibility, and to say to homophobic governments: “Look, LGBTQ people are nothing to be afraid of, and we need to move into the modern world!”

And no country is any “one” thing.

Budapest is far more liberal and LGBTQ-supportive than other parts of Hungary (though it’s still not as progressive as the most liberal American cities). So we think it’s a good thing to go there and be out and supportive of both the LGBTQ community and their straight allies.

We also think it’s a good thing to be as visible as possible in smaller cities and towns, like Keszthely, Hungary, where we spent six weeks. In places such as these, things are even tougher for the local LGBTQ folks.

What really works to actually make homophobic countries better for LGBTQ people? International pressure. But for that to work, people outside the country need to know what’s going on inside. And again, not to sound all White Savior-y, we think that’s something we can help with.

There are definitely some places, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Russia, that we’d probably never visit — although we have friends from some of these places too, and even there, the issue can be complicated.

In the homophobic places we do visit, when we do our due diligence, we don’t feel unsafe. And when we listen to the locals and share what we’ve heard, we actually feel like we’re making the world a better place for LGBTQ people, not a worse one.

Again, everyone needs to decide these issues for themselves, and do what feels right for them.

But we’re very comfortable with the choices we make, and we hope more people will make similar ones. Visit these countries, but do it mindfully. Become aware of LGBTQ people and issues, and help spread the word about them.

More talking and listening is almost always better than less. We say: Let’s keep the conversation going.

Want to help advance LGBTQ equality in other countries? Consider donating to Outright International.

Michael Jensen is an author and editor, and the “Michael” in Brent and Michael Are Going Places, a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Subscribe to their free travel newsletter here.

 

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