While a high proportion of gays and lesbians embrace travel, they may face grave risks while on the road — not only prejudice and hostility, but in many countries a danger of being arrested as criminals.

Share story

As a white, heterosexual American male, there are certain things — OK, plenty of things — I don’t need to think twice about. One of them is travel. There obviously are places where being a white, heterosexual American male will work against me (probably the American part, mostly), but usually I’m not too concerned for my well-being in the places I am most likely to visit.

But a statistic caught my eye recently: Certain people who love to travel — gay and lesbian travelers — are among those facing the gravest risk while doing just that.

In a 2012 Community Marketing Inc. survey of more than 4,000 people identifying as LGBT, 79 percent of respondents said they held an active U.S. passport. That compares with about one-third of the general U.S. population.

With a higher-than-average disposable income, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) crowd becomes a no-brainer of a target audience for the travel industry. And indeed, airlines, hotel chains and cruise lines have been some of the most progressive and aggressive when courting that market.

But this demographic that embraces travel also faces some of the biggest challenges while traveling. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, 78 countries have deemed “homosexual acts” illegal. That’s more than a third of the world. Homosexuality is punishable by death in at least seven of those countries.

It’s a paradox as cruel as it is ridiculous, with potential blowback both small (such as a double take when same-sex travelers request one bed instead of two) and large (arrest).

Gay-travel advisories

Eric Silverberg, chief executive officer of gay social-networking and dating app Scruff said he suspects “almost every gay couple that has traveled in the last 10 years could cite some example of prejudice or hostility.”

“Gay travelers are absolutely doing a calculation: Am I going to try to go out tonight and try to find the gay neighborhood or gay bar, or am I going to just stay in?” he said. “If you’re going to a city with just a few gay bars, you will be much more cautious as you travel to your destination, especially in the evening.”

With such dangers in mind, Scruff has launched a Web page in recent weeks dedicated to “gay travel advisories,” including the nearly 90 countries and regions with laws against homosexuality or with frequent discrimination. The advisories also can include push notifications; for instance, if a Scruff user arrives in, say, Nigeria, an alert will pop up on a smartphone: “The country you have recently entered has laws that criminalize sexual acts between consenting adult males as well as laws that criminalize gay activism and public gatherings.” The alert also notes potential punishment, which in Nigeria includes the death penalty.

“We see this as a duty in our community, to keep people informed and safer as well as to shine a light on these laws to increase global pressure on reform,” Silverberg said.

The popular LGBT website Towleroad.com has frequently covered the perilous relationship between homosexuality and travel.

According to a 2014 LGBT travel survey by Community Marketing, a significant number of respondents said they wouldn’t feel safe in even middle-of-the-road destinations including South Africa (31 percent), Turkey (44 percent), Dubai (52 percent), Jamaica (53 percent), Kenya (73 percent) and Russia (82 percent).

Similar concerns arise closer to home:

“If I was traveling with a partner in rural Wyoming or Montana or somewhere in the Midwest, I would definitely think twice about where I was going to stay,” Towleroad website founder Andy Towle said.

“Gay and lesbian people, by the nature of how we grew up, are very used to being aware of our surroundings and how we present in public. It’s no different when we travel,” said Towle.