The world is an intolerant place, and, unfortunately, the LGBTQ+ community is a frequent target for its inexcusable prejudice. So, traveling with a queer identity comes with numerous challenges, including determining when it’s safe to come out.
When I left the UK to try life as a full-time traveler, the potential risks attached to my sexual orientation did not register. I was in a straight-passing relationship, and the idea of being endangered by my sexuality felt alien; I had rarely experienced homophobic-motivated prejudice at home.
Queer people’s rights are under constant threat around the globe, especially in some regions of South East Asia, where I started my travels. While heterosexual couples pile on the PDA in public, LGBTQ+ couples must tone down their love in all but the most liberal of travel destinations.
Even in the relative safety of hostels and hotel resorts, there is still a risk associated with being “out.” Bigots are everywhere, and sometimes they hide in plain sight, requiring caution when figuring out how to be your true self and stay safe. Sadly, the burden of hiding your identity can be just as heavy as releasing it into the wild.
“Being in the closet can have a profound effect on your mental and, subsequently, physical health,” says Zayna Brookhouse, an intersectional psychotherapist. “Our self narrative is formed from intrinsic and extrinsic tropes, and being closeted can develop low self-esteem, negative body image, shame, and guilt.”
At home, I rarely suppressed or hid my sexuality because the risk associated with being LGBTQ+ was often minimal—something Jana, a freelance copywriter currently traveling throughout Asia, experiences at home too.
“Switzerland is pretty open towards the LGBTQ community, and I don’t have to hide anything there,” she said. “But in more countryside towns, which traditionally are more conservative, same-sex couples will still get some odd glances. And then there is the internationally present fetishization of bisexual women, where especially men see an opportunity to live out some fantasies.”
For the bulk of my trip, I casually threw my identity into conversations with everyone—locals and fellow travelers—and I never encountered any homophobia, except for some mild fetishization by some lads in one hostel.
Then, after six months of traveling, my naive bubble burst in Da Nang, Vietnam. In a quiet bar, I met a couple of expats looking to make friends on a Friday night. The evening went smoothly as we shared stories and exchanged cultural experiences, and then LGBTQ+ people came up.
I was treated to a lengthy Christian-directed diatribe about the inherent “wrongness” of being queer. I listened in silence as they asserted that all LGBTQ+ people are incapable of happiness because they are living a lie born from social corruption.
Countless responses danced on the tip of my tongue, but, at this point in the night, I was alone in a bar with two relative strangers who had a clear vendetta against a community I am a part of. I pushed back tentatively before withdrawing when the coast filled up with homophobic smog.
Silencing myself felt suffocating but was necessary to prevent any repercussions. Listening to the conversation hurt enough; I did not need someone trying to “save me” from my devilish ways.
After my run-in with the homophobes, I retreated into the closet and avoided dating other LGBTQ+ people too. The fear of being outed felt more overwhelming than the suffocation of suppressing a core part of my identity; it felt like being a closeted teenager all over again.
A few months later, during my third trip to Vietnam, I met a boy who will likely spend most of his life in the closet. While exploring the riverside city of Hue in central Vietnam, a teenager asked if he could practice English with me. I agreed and quickly discovered he was gay. He told me that he planned on keeping his sexual orientation secret because his family would ostracize him if they knew.
I realized that hiding in shame while so many of us do not even have the option to come out was a disservice to myself and our community.
“I feel very grateful having grown up in a society that is mostly accepting, and I do not have to fear persecution by the law or religious leaders,” added Jana. “I have mostly had positive experiences; some people see it as a learning opportunity because they are not usually involved in the community. At the same time, it makes me sad to see how much people are suffering in other places in the world.”
After regularly suppressing or hiding my identity for long stretches of time, I finally feel comfortable being mostly open about my queer identity. Every time I “come out” to a new person, I remember my friend in Hue and hope that one day he’ll be able to live openly too.
However, feeling liberated to be out does not mean it’s always safe to do so. We still live in the real world, not a fantasy land where everyone is free from persecution, so I exercise caution.
I gravitate towards other LGBTQ+ people or open allies and gauge people’s values by bringing up recent queer news or name-dropping queer celebrities to monitor any adverse reactions I should be mindful of.
Jana uses subtle conversation cues to evaluate if an environment is LGBTQ+ friendly: “If the conversation is going in a direction where sexuality could naturally come up, I make some kind of comment about the LGBTQ+ community to see how the other person reacts.”
“In my experience, especially in conservative cultures, the response will be quite extreme,” she said. “Either they will immediately clarify that they do not have anything against queer people or make some strange jokes. The person’s occupation can be a red flag too—officials, police, religious people, etcetera.”
It’s important to be aware of your environment; attitudes can change from city to countryside or from country to country, even if they are neighbors.
“Attitudes towards the community differ from country to country, and it’s best to check both the ethical, cultural, social behaviors, customs, and legal standing of the country you wish to visit,” advised Brookhouse. “Being LGBTQIA+ can be a way to access and connect to safer spaces abroad; look at the timing of your visits during Pride, for instance; look for those queer hotspots; go with friends; and explore websites that list digital LGBTQIA+ safe spaces like Queering the Map.com or IGLTA.”
Nowadays, I prioritize traveling to accepting countries or visiting during periods of queer openness, such as Pride, which I attended in Bangkok in 2022 for its first celebration in almost 16 years.
While I refuse to curtail my adventures by avoiding countries with less tolerant attitudes, safety is always a top priority. Yes, being out is a symbol of protest and pride in a world that excludes queer people, but pride does not require us to endanger ourselves.
Being frivolous with identity is easy when living in a relatively safe country, however, caution is the wisest course of action when away from the comfort of home. LGBTQ+ have and will always exist; you do not need to endanger your life by being out and proud in an unsafe country.
Even when the world tries to silence us, oppress us into disappearing, or convert us, we persist and endure. Sometimes it’s okay to be proud under the surface because, regardless of whether everyone knows it, I am still queer, and that cannot be eradicated.
About the Author
Hannah Shewan Stevens is a writer, editor and campaigner. As a disabled, chronically ill queer woman, she specialises in covering the intersection of health, travel, sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues. She is also training to be a sex educator and hopes to use her work to help people confront difficult topics openly and with compassion.