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Why gay honeymooners should stop avoiding countries with anti-LGBT laws

Gay travelers can use their "tourist privilege" for good.

Traveling abroad isn’t as risky for gay couples as many think. (Reuters/Claudio Vargas)
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With the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, a new crop of honeymooners has entered the market. The travel industry has positioned itself to capitalize, having recently launched several targeted marketing campaigns featuring gay couples, including Hotwire’s “Lucky Me” commercial, Airbnb’s #HostWithPride film, and Marriottt’s Love Travels campaign.

But with gay marriage fully legal in just 20 countries – and homosexuality illegal in 75 — gay newlyweds face extra hurdles in deciding where to celebrate their nuptials. Many feel compelled to research discrimination laws before making overseas travel plans. In fact, four out of 10 U.S. LGBT travelers said local discriminatory laws and homophobic sentiments affect where they decide to fly “to a great extent,” according to a survey by LGBT marketing group Out Now. As one lesbian couple expressed in Airbnb’s #HostWithPride film, “For our honeymoon, I don’t want to be attacked. We want to be able to express our love, and be able to be affectionate, and feel comfortable and safe.”

But are such fears founded? Certainly, in some nations around the world, including popular honeymoon destinations, local LGBT people are harassed, arrested and even killed with impunity. But for Americans, these threats are minimal.  Both the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and the International Gay and Lesbian Alliance have no reports of gay American honeymooners being assaulted during international travel. Even the U.S. State Department, which posts warnings for LGBT travelers, has little evidence of such incidents.

Jack Markey, head of the Africa division of the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizen Services, said he knew of only one such incident, involving a gay American who lived in an African country and reported being the target of extortion because of his sexuality.

“It does not appear that LGBTI U.S. travelers have faced discrimination when traveling abroad on honeymoon,” Markey said.

[I’m a florist, but I refused to do flowers for my gay friend’s wedding]

The fact that gay American travelers rarely have negative experiences overseas could partially reflect their avoidance of countries with discriminatory cultures and laws. But there’s another, likely bigger, factor at play: tourist privilege.

In countries whose economies are largely dependent on tourism, money often trumps local laws and values. Atlanta resident Steven Cooper discovered this when he honeymooned in Kenya with his husband Paul Milliken in 2011, after marrying in Boston. Cooper said they were aware of the risk, as Kenya outlaws homosexual acts and punishes them with up to 14 years in prison. Though Cooper recognized that anti-LGBT sentiments could jeopardize “the most important vacation of our lives,” he added, “the idea of doing a trip we really wanted to do outweighed other concerns.”

The couple went on a Pullman safari, booking through Go2Africa, a travel company based in South Africa, which was among the first countries in the world to recognize LGBT rights in the aftermath of apartheid. When Cooper asked his travel agent about issues they might encounter as gay tourists in Kenya, he said the agent assured him, “These guys are going to treat you like family, like guests, because that is their job. Gay people go on vacation here all the time.”

The agent was right. The newlyweds didn’t encounter any discrimination during their Kenya honeymoon. The biggest surprise came when Cooper separately booked a trip to the Kenya coast, staying at the Pinewood Village Beach Resort. He let hotel management know ahead of time that they were a gay couple on honeymoon, asking them to tell him “if that does not fit into the culture of the resort.” But rather than facing confrontation, Cooper  said they were embraced. The management decorated their room like a wedding suite. “They had fresh rose petals over the bed, and champagne,” he said. “It was the last thing we expected.”

It’s not uncommon for gay American tourists to experience a pleasant welcome in countries that are far less hospitable to their own LGBT citizens. Gay travelers hold enormous power in the tourism industry. Out Now estimated that the global LGBT leisure travel market valued $181 billion in 2013.

Out Now’s founder and CEO Ian Johnson notes that “destinations that seek to attract the LGBT honeymoon market but fail to provide equal laws for their own LGBT residents are at a material disadvantage in the marketplace.” But when gay Americans do travel to countries with discriminatory laws, they can wield a positive influence without risking their own safety. Seeking to capitalize on tourism dollars, the hospitality industry in LGBT-hostile countries often create oases for gay travelers, particularly the U.S.-based hotel chains. The notion of a Western chain hotel as “a safe haven to go to is tremendously important” in such environments, said Hilton Hotel Vice President of Global Marketing Andrew Flack. The companies achieve this by training local staffers to treat LGBT customers equally, values that those staffers could spread to their relatives and friends, gradually influencing the national culture.

Still, it’s important for gay tourists to be cautious about where they travel, even domestically. AirBnB recently dealt with a case in Galveston, Texas, where a gay couple was thrown out of a home because of their sexuality. Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights group, noted that even after the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, discriminating against LGBT people was still legal in many states. Most have no laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations (though a bill expected to be introduced in Congress this week would extend all Civil Rights Act protections to LGBT people).

Even though international tourists might feel comfortable in countries with hostile LGBT laws, it’s important to remember in your interactions with gay locals that they will remain to face the consequences of local discrimination. Use State Department warnings and contact local LGBT groups to get a sense of the risks gay residents face and areas that might be dangerous.

In general, however, the dangers to LGBT honeymooners overseas seem to be overplayed. In my own travels as a gay tourist, I’ve been surprised by the welcoming environments I’ve encountered in countries typically perceived as hostile, including the most devout Catholic nations and Middle Eastern countries. For some locals, simply meeting a journalist who covers gay tourism opened their eyes to a burgeoning market within their own countries. In choosing a honeymoon destination, gay couples shouldn’t feel hogtied by lingering discrimination laws. In many countries, there’s at least one thing more valuable than their outdated values: the tourist dollar.

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