International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia
The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia was created in 2004 and is now celebrated annually in over 130 countries. The date intends to help build solidarity for the community and to draw attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexuals, transgender, intersex and all other people with different sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions and sex characteristics.
The date of 17 May was specifically chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization’s landmark decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. The day also serves as a symbolic tool to encourage decision makers and governments to fight against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
During the past 30 years, there have been great achievements for the protection and rights of the LGBT community, with a greater overall level of equality, acceptance and support. With Taiwan announcing on 17 May 2019 that they will legalise same-sex marriage, the first Asian country to do so. However, many countries still have laws against homosexuality and approximately 2.8 billion people still live in countries where identifying with the community still leads to criminal charges, violence and even death. For example, in China, LGBT restrictions have been tight, with the government claiming they pose a potential threat to social stability.
In total, there are 72 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, in which being a member of this community or engaging in acts of this nature is still a criminal offence. In 13 countries or jurisdictions, all of which are Islamic and ruled by Sharia law, homosexuality is still a crime punishable with the death penalty. These include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, UAE and Mauritania.
Therefore, it is important for travellers to be aware that the laws, costumes and beliefs of the countries they are visiting can vary greatly from those they might be used to and the only way to avoid encountering problems is to be adequately informed and prepared.
Being conscious of these local laws and customs when visiting is vital, as well as being aware that it might be necessary to hide one’s sexual orientation when going to a country where homosexuality is illegal and subject to severe penalties. For example, most recently, Brunei received backlash over its introduction of death by stoning as a penalty for crimes including homosexuality and adultery. Following several protests and campaigns, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah stated the law will no longer be enforced, but the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO) was only suspended and not cancelled. Both male and female homosexuality remains illegal in Brunei and can be punished by up to 10 years in prison.
In countries with LGBT rights and where homosexual marriage is legal, levels of tolerance and acceptance within society may still vary hugely. In some places, it may be best for all couples to avoid overt public displays of affection so as not to attract unwanted attention. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has a map, available at https://ilga.org/maps-sexual-orientation-laws, and other resources that can help outline country-specific information about these risks.
Even in LGBT friendly countries, travellers should take the same precautions as they would at home. For example, do not leave drinks unattended and be wary if you are offered drinks by a stranger; this advice is not restricted to the LGBT community but valid for all travellers. Employ caution when in gay bars or even when in countries considered safe for the LGBT community. Individuals have, in the past, carried out attacks which have ranged from verbal abuse and property damage to hate crimes and terrorist attacks. The most prominent recent example of this is the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting that left 49 people dead. This incident was the largest and deadliest act of violence targeting LGBT people in the United States.
Should you receive unwanted attention, remarks or comments regarding your sexuality or gender identity, it is usually best to ignore them and move to a safe place. In general, people living in rural areas are more likely to have deeper traditional views, including on LGBT rights. As such, you are more likely to experience difficulties away from main urban centres. Depending on the country you are in, you may want to report any type of harmful harassment to the authorities. Reporting such actions may not be advisable in places like the UAE or Nigeria, as it could lead to imprisonment.
Be aware of what you post online before and during trips to countries where homosexuality is illegal. Consider setting your social media channels to private, or plan to avoid posting anything obviously supporting LGBT rights.
If you intend to meet other LGBT people while abroad, or use a dating app, find out the local situation and take precautions when meeting someone, police have been known to carry out entrapment campaigns. Be wary of excessively friendly help from locals as criminals have been known to exploit members of such communities. Check your accommodation bookings and ensure your hotel is accepting of same-sex couples.
During large demonstrations or events such as pride marches, travellers should exercise caution and report anything suspicious to the authorities. These events can also be targeted by counter-protest groups; on 8 May, the Cuban government announced they had cancelled the country’s 12th annual march against homophobia. The cancellation came amid concerns that individuals would be targeted for attacks. Five people are believed to have been arrested on 13 May for attempting to begin a pride march in Havana.
Finally, LGBT travellers should maintain the same situational awareness as all global travellers do. The primary key to mitigating travel risks is to be informed of them before the journey starts. Being prepared will mitigate the potential for being targeted, or inadvertently causing local offense. Most importantly, like all travellers with heightened risk profiles, it is important to know who to contact in the event of an emergency, whether it be your representative diplomatic mission, a company contact, or response agency.