Drag queen Rhea Litre is notorious for her dangerous fashion choices, from ravaging her face with stitches while performing in Puerto Vallarta to smoking an ignited champagne sparkler during a photo shoot in Rome. But her riskiest drag ensemble was the one she couldn’t wear.
Before a gig in Dubai, Rhea (neé Joshua Miller) shucked off her dress and opted to go on stage in stereotypically male clothing. (For our gay geeks, this is the equivalent of Superman forgoing his cape and battling Lex Luthor as Clark Kent.) Her decision to don boy couture was motivated less by sartorialism and more by self-preservation.
“It’s super scary because it’s not really legal to do drag out there,” Rhea explained in an interview discussing nightlife earlier this year. “I was supposed to perform for an Andrew Christian party, but the morality police showed up, so I had to get out of drag. The promoter was really mad I got out of drag, but I did not want to go to jail in Dubai.”
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Rhea’s hesitance is understandable. In the predominantly Muslim nation of the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is located, most homosexual activity can be punished not only by imprisonment but also by death. It’s one of the many destinations around the world that can be potentially dangerous to LGBTQ+ travelers.
To help ensure the safety of our globetrotting readers, we’ve assembled this guide highlighting the perils presented by certain countries, as well as tips to help avoid harm while abroad.
According to the Forbes “20 Lowest Ranked Countries for LGBT Travelers” list published earlier this year, the most dangerous destination was the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei. In 2019, a new draconian penal code was passed there that punished homosexuality with execution by stoning. Additionally, the “LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index” compiled by prominent travel journalists Asher and Lyric Fergusson rated Brunei, as well as its neighbor Malaysia (which ranked #8 on the Forbes list), each with an “F.” The Fergussons’ Index incorporates factors such as same-sex marriage legality, morality laws, and trans murder rates. Simply put, when it comes to ensuring the safety of queer travelers, both these Southeast Asian countries fail.
Notably, Brunei’s new penal code extends beyond homophobia, punishing the act of adultery with stoning as well. To queer travel expert Christine Diaz, this conservative view of sexuality is a reflection of the Islamic culture that pervades Southeast Asia. Diaz and her partner Kirstie Pike, with whom she founded the female-focused travel brand On Airplane Mode, experienced this firsthand when a passport-related snafu stranded them in Malaysia for nearly a month.
“Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, there are a lot of factors,” explained Diaz. “So even if you are straight, I think PDA is just something that is not as common and you won’t see that amongst anyone. Especially if you are LGBTQ.”
Fortunately, the forced sojourn in Malaysia gave this sapphic power couple an opportunity to see the country’s beauty beyond its bigotry.
“It turned out to be one of my favorite countries in the world,” admitted Pike, “because it not only has incredible food, it also has some of the best activities and things that Diaz and I love to do. We got scuba diving certified there. You have the Batu Caves, which is an incredible tool that you can climb up to the top of the rainbow staircase into the caves.”
Pike and Diaz traveled through Southeast Asia for nearly a year, traversing Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. During that time they gleaned that the best way to thrive in that region is to adhere to local mores.
“Because we had lived there for 10 months, we became really accustomed to well-known practices,” said Pike. “So we would be very respectful. When it comes to all cultures, it’s extremely important for us to make sure we’re covering appropriately and we’re making sure that we’re respecting the culture when it comes to their social norms. So, you know, while we weren’t necessarily PDA all the time, people never really, you know, gave us any hard time about being LGBT.”
After Brunei, Forbes deemed Saudia Arabia the second least safe country for LGBTQ+ travelers. It was one of six Middle Eastern countries to make that list, along with Kuwait (#2), the United Arab Emirates (#7), Yemen (#11), Oman (#12), and Qatar (#17). Despite their dangers, these countries also offer numerous attractions that can appeal to queer tourists. Archeological sites like Hegra and Al Diwan in Saudi Arabia offer glimpses into antiquity. Dubai, the most populous city in UAE, functions as an Arabian Las Vegas for those seeking more modern diversions. The desert metropolis is home to bars (a rare sight in a region where alcohol is normally forbidden), as well as an underground queer nightlife scene. And over 3 million soccer fans flocked to Qatar last year to witness the FIFA World Cup.
Gay filmmaker Dave Castleman witnessed the many amenities Qatar had to offer when he visited its capital Doha in 2019. Following a nearly two-month journey that began at the Key West Film Festival, (where he screened his queer Shakespearean satire MacBethenny) and took him through Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and India, he said Qatar’s capital of Doha was a literal breath of fresh air.
“Bombay and Delhi were beautiful but very crowded,” Castleman recounted, “and a lot of pollution. Basically, the entire time I was there I couldn’t breathe.”
This stood in stark contrast to his arrival in Doha.
“The air was clean, fresh air off the ocean. Which I hadn’t had in, I mean at that point in a week. Coming from a place with lots of pollution it felt like, ‘Oh my god, I can breathe!'”
Beyond an abundance of oxygen, Castleman enjoyed a litany of luxuries offered in Doha. He stayed in a 5-star hotel and spent his time camelback riding and dune bashing.
“We’d drive around off-roading in a white SUV,” Castleman said, describing the Middle Eastern pastime of dune bashing, “sliding down sand dunes, and then like going 100 miles an hour on hard-packed sand near the Saudi Arabian border.”
He also strolled around the corniche, a 7-kilometer waterfront promenade that’s home to the Museum of Islamic Art, and offers 21st-century perks such as free smartphone charging stations. But these tourist attractions belie the dark side of Qatari culture.
Similar to Southeast Asia, Qatar is predominately Islamic, and Sharia law is incorporated into their legal system. Any homosexual acts are punishable by imprisonment, flogging, or even death.
Strict penalties aren’t just restricted to homosexuality. Flogging is a common punishment for an array of crimes including theft, alcohol consumption, and adultery. Drug use is severely prohibited and those found guilty of it can face heavy fines, long-term imprisonment, and deportation. The penalty for rape is death. Admittedly, this severity successfully deters crime.
“It’s the flip side of being a police state,” Castleman posited. “You can’t break the law or do anything. It’s very strict. But as a result, just a tourist like walking around, taking pictures and going to museums and stuff, and you feel very safe.”
It’s worth noting that Castleman was traveling without his husband. If they were there together, the situation may have been different.
“I think we would have probably been discreet. I think the W Hotel, probably would have not cared, you know. Sort of look the other way. I wouldn’t go on Grindr trying to find anything. Yeah, I think we would have had to be careful. I don’t think we’ve ever been arrested or thrown in jail, but we might have been kicked out.“
The best advice Castleman can give queer travelers is to keep any sexual activity behind closed doors.
“Being gay isn’t the issue right? It’s doing gay things.”
Of all the regions on the Forbes list, Africa is featured most with 9 entries: Nigeria (#3), Malawi (#5), Sudan (#9), Libya (#10), Mauritania (#13), Somalia (#14), Gambia (#15), Tanzania (#19), and South Sudan (#20). All of these countries scored an “F” on the Fergussons’ “LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index.” Consequences for homosexuality vary in severity in Africa. Places like South Sudan, Tanzania, Tonga, Gambia, Sudan, and Manturiana penalize members of the queer community with imprisonment ranging from 5 years to life. Others like Nigeria and Somalia issue death penalties.
LGBTQ+ travelers looking to venture to this continent should consider South Africa instead. This country ranked #16 on the Forbes “Top 20 Safest Countries for LGBTQ Travelers.” Populous cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town are homes to vibrant and diverse queer communities. The Amuse Cafe is Johannesburg’s LGBTQ+ Cheers, a chill bar that hosts drag shows and game nights. Cape Town, which is considered the “Gay Capital” of South Africa, offers several queer establishments, such as The Pink Panther and Crew Bar.
Afghanistan was the only country from the world’s largest continent to make the Forbes list of unsafe countries for LGBTQ+ people. Because it’s under the control of the Taliban terrorist organization, it’s best if no one visits this Central Asian country no matter their gender, nationality, or sexual orientation.
It’s not shocking that Afghanistan also merited an “F” on the “LGBTQ+ Travel Index.” What may be surprising is that some close allies of the US didn’t fare much better. The Fergussons gave both South Korea and Japan a “D+”. According to Eric Cedarblade, a member of the US Air Force who was stationed in both countries, this low grade is a reflection of both countries’ traditional cultures.
“I think most of it comes down to the fact that even though Japan and Korea are both very modern and Westernized countries, they’re still very socially conservative,” Cedarblade explained. “So anything that really stands out in a queer way, is typically not as accepted as in most other Western countries like the US and most of Europe.”
Cedarblade’s advice for queer travelers is to respect their mores by presenting themselves in a slightly more subtle manner than one would exhibit strutting through the streets of West Hollywood or the Castro.
“I think in terms of like queer expression, I wouldn’t not express your queerness in terms of clothes or fashion. Just know that you will get some uncomfortable looks and stuff like that.”
In Japan, the risks are higher for trans travelers. According to a trans female Marine who served there, transphobia can result in violence. (For the sake of both her personal and professional lives, she requested to speak anonymously).
“There have been instances where marines have gotten into fights,” she said, “after finding out an individual they were flirting with was trans. There have been cases about that.”
“It’s not surprising from a cultural perspective,” she continued, “if you look at the character Poison from Street Fighter.”
For those uninitiated in video game culture, Poison was a playable character in the Street Fighter franchise who was originally conceived as a cisgender woman but was changed to a “newhalf” (a Japanese slang term for trans person). The justification was that while it would be rude to hit a woman, assaulting a trans person was justifiable. As such trans travelers should exercise caution when visiting Japan.
The only country in the Western Hemisphere cited on the Forbes list was Guyana, a country in South America most prominently associated with the Jonestown Massacre. At the moment, homosexual activity committed by men is punishable with life in prison, although decriminalization of that policy is currently pending.
Guyana is home to pristine rainforests where visitors can witness rare wildlife species. But despite the breathtaking flora and fauna, violent crimes like armed robbery and murder are common, so travelers of any sexual and gender identity should reconsider visiting this country.
Queer travelers should instead look at destinations like Uraguay, which ranked #19 on the Forbes “Top 20 Safest Countries for LGBTQ Travelers” list, or Brazil, which scored a “B” on the Fergussons’ Travel Index. Brazilian cities like Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo host debaucherous Carnaval events every year.
As for the safest country for LGBTQ+ travelers, it’s right here in North America. If you guessed the United States… you’re wrong.
This distinction actually goes to our neighbor to the North, Canada. It’s #1 on the Forbes Top 20 Safest Countries for LGBTQ Travelers” list and is one of only 7 countries to earn an “A” on the Fergussons’ Travel Index. This liberal haven is home to numerous progressive cities that host Pride events over the course of the year, as well as events like the Toronto Independent Film Festival (TIFF). This year TIFF debuted a number of queer features, such as Rustin, written by Milk‘s Dustin Lance Black, and Strange Way of Life, direct by Pedro Almodóvar and starring queerdom’s favorite zaddy Pedro Pascal.
The United States didn’t even make it onto the Forbes Top 20 list, and with the ascent of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation like the recent flurry of “drag bans,” it’s not too surprising.
“Strangely, the times that we have felt most unsafe have been in the States,” reflected On Airplane Mode’s Diaz,”particularly when we leave areas like New York City.”
“I’m originally from Tennessee,” added Pike. “We all know the political climate of Tennessee right now.” The state has passed more anti-LGBTQ+ laws than any other since 2015.
“I think when I go back to visit that’s definitely something that we always experience. It’s like, ‘Are we going to feel safe here? Are people going to make hateful comments?”
It’s sobering to think that just as Rhea Litre was in danger of performing in drag in Dubai, on many levels she’s also in danger while performing drag in some areas of her home country.
Editor’s note: This article originally named Pedro Pascal as the director of “Strange Way of Life.” It has been updated to reflect that Pedro Almodóvar is the director.