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These countries are the most dangerous for LGBTQ+ travelers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – I like to pride myself on my travel research, learning as much as I can about a destination before I visit, from its food to culture to politics.

And yet there I was, strolling the beach, drinking by the pool, feasting on jerk chicken and generally having a grand time in Jamaica earlier this spring. It wasn’t until the day before I flew back to Cleveland from Montego Bay that I learned what a terrible record Jamaica has regarding LGBTQ+ rights.

The popular Caribbean destination received an F on the most recent LGBTQ+ Safety Index, an annual compilation of destinations in the world that are the most dangerous for non-straight travelers.

Among the reasons why: gay sex is illegal in Jamaica, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and hard labor.

Other countries are even worse – in Tanzania, acts of homosexuality are punishable by 30 years to life in prison. And in the United Arab Emirates, male homosexual activity is punishable by death.

I’m a straight traveler and I’ve never given much thought to where my gay friends and family are and are not welcome. Maybe I should.

But it’s a slippery slope – applying progressive Western ideology and ethics to international travel. Should we only visit places with laws and values similar to our own?

If so, we’re missing out on some culturally rich places to visit — in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America, even Europe. I’d like to see the pyramids in Egypt (which earned an F on the safety index) and go on safari in Kenya (also an F).

St. Lucia also gets an F, Poland gets a D, Japan a D+ and Hungary a C-.

As if to underscore the point, last month the U.S. Department of State issued a rare worldwide caution, warning travelers about an “increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQ+ persons and events.”

John Tanzella, president of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, called the State Department’s caution “unlike any we’ve seen before.” The advisory, he noted, “comes amidst a worrying rise in anti-LGBTQ+ actions worldwide.”

In an email interview, Tanzella said that despite the recent State Department advisory, the world is continuing to progress when it comes to safe LGBTQ+ travel. An increasing number of countries promote LGBTQ+ tourism, he said, and have decriminalized gay relationships and legalized gay marriage.

“Progress isn’t always linear,” he said. “Setbacks and legal restrictions still exist in some parts of the world.”

Many, in fact.

Despite some countries’ concerning records on LGBTQ+ issues, he said his organization, founded in 1983, doesn’t support destination boycotts or recommend that any places are off-limits.

“Open dialogue and education can bridge cultural divides and foster greater inclusivity,” he said. “Sometimes, a visit, however, cautious, can be a catalyst for progress.”

He recommends that LGTBQ+ travelers research their destinations ahead of time, using knowledgeable travel advisors, tour operators and travel guides (including the guides that his organization produces).

“We empower travelers with education and resources, allowing them to make informed decisions based on their personal comfort level,” Tanzella said.

There are many different kinds of travel, too.

Some vacations are meant to be relaxing, carefree breaks from the stress of daily life. Others can be more educational and culturally illuminating.

In either case, however, if my gay friend isn’t comfortable holding hands with his spouse in public, then maybe they should find somewhere else to spend their money?

In addition, a destination isn’t always synonymous with its government. In Jamaica, for example, I was told that many resorts and individual businesses are much more welcoming and accepting than the country’s laws might indicate.

There’s value, too, I think, in exposing the citizens of other countries to all kinds of American travelers, in that ongoing effort to bridge cultural and societal divides.

These are tricky topics with no easy answers. Every traveler – gay, straight, male, female, trans, nonbinary, etc. — has to make their own decisions, based on their own ethics, their own sense of adventure and their own tolerance for risk.

Ranking the countries

Travel journalists and researchers Asher Fergusson and Lyric Fergusson first published their LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index in 2019 and have updated it numerous times since.

The index ranks 203 countries, using 10 factors to assess traveler safety. Countries are given individual grades (A through F), resulting in a list of destinations from friendly to hostile.

Measurements include: whether same-sex relationships are illegal; whether hate-based violence is against the law; whether there are legal protections against discrimination in the workplace; whether same-sex parent adoption is recognized; whether transgender people are legally able to change their gender identity; transgender murder rates; whether same-sex marriage is legal; and whether a country is considered a good place for LGBTQ people to live (as determined by a Gallup survey).

Here’s a selection from the index for 2023:

Seventy-two countries earned an F, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Tanzania, Egypt, St Lucia, Morocco, Kenya, Jamaica, Barbados, Belize and numerous others.

Twenty-four countries received an A or A-, including Canada, which earned the No. 1 spot in the ranking, followed by Sweden, Netherlands, Malta, Norway, Portugal and Spain.

The United States, by the way, received a B+, with the study noting: “Some states don’t offer protections against discrimination or allow for a change of gender. Other states prohibit ‘advocacy of homosexuality’ in schools.”

For the complete list, as well as tips for safe LGBTQ+ travel: asherfergusson.com/lgbtq-travel-safety

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