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Traveling To Anti-Gay Countries

Greetings QueerLife:

After noticing some comments on Facebook about your news story Anti-Gay Emirates Blame SA I had to say a few words. I certainly respect if others feel differently about this topic, though I figured I’d write this post so that people can hopefully at least see my perspective.

I spend a fair amount of time in countries where being gay is frowned upon/illegal/punishable by law. Almost every time I post on Facebook or Twitter about traveling to one of these places, I get comments about it.

They typically fall into one of the following two general categories:
“How dare you travel to a country where being gay is illegal… don’t you have any self respect?”
“Aren’t you scared you’re going to be jailed and killed?”

The second question typically comes out of a place of genuine curiosity/concern. And the first typically comes from someone who has put a lot of thought into formulating their opinion, though doesn’t really look at the other side of the equation.

This is a topic I’ve put a lot of thought into. Generally I’m one who will vote with my wallet and not support businesses which have policies I disagree with. But when it comes to travel I take a different approach. I don’t feel great spending money in countries where being gay is illegal, but I actually see several positive aspects to it as well. I don’t think anything will ever change without some interaction and dialogue.

So, why do I not mind going to countries where being gay is illegal?
It allows me to formulate my own opinion

At least once a week I get an email from someone asking “is it okay for me to share a bed with my same sex partner in the UAE?” I actually had similar concerns before I visited the UAE for the first time. Heck, one of my most read posts of the year is entitled “Is It Safe To Travel To The UAE?” The post covers “gay rights” there, as well as sharing a bed with someone you’re not married to/a same sex partner. Clearly it’s something many people wonder about.

But once you visit some Arab countries for the first time, you realize things are vastly different than you’d expect.

Never have I gotten a weird look or even a question for wanting to share a bed with someone in an Arab country.

Heck, during a recent trip to the Middle East a hotel associate said “I just need your husband’s passport as well, please.” It’s a bit backwards, since in the US I often get asked if I want my “friend’s” name added to the reservation, even when only booking one king bed. But for someone to just assume I’m married? Wow, that’s sort of progressive/presumptuous.

I was recently talking to a friend who works in management at a Gulf carrier, and I talked about the perception so many people have of Gulf countries. He relayed a story of a friend telling him “well I’d love to work for [airline], but I’m a gay jew, so I don’t see working in an Arab country ending well.” He responded with “you’d be surprised how many gay jews we have working for us.”

My point is simply that there’s a huge difference between the perception and reality in many of these countries. And you’ll never fully understand that until you visit them. Traveling widens your horizons, and that includes traveling to places you might otherwise assume you’re not welcome in.

It allows others to formulate their own opinions

Someone left the following comment on a recent post in which I mentioned I was going to the Maldives:
Lucky, how come that you spend time and money in a country which has Sharia-Law and homosexuality is actually under death-penalty?

The Maldives relies very heavily on tourism. What makes the Maldives unique is that many of the people working in hotels are actually Maldivian (as opposed to the UAE or Qatar, for example, where you’ll rarely see a “local” working a customer-facing job).

If it weren’t for tourism, what impression do you think the locals would have of gays? Given that they probably would have never met an openly gay person, I’m guessing not a very favorable one. Perhaps similar to this 1976 CBS documentary entitled “The Homosexuals:”

But when they interact with guests of different backgrounds on a daily basis, I’d be willing to bet it changes their minds pretty quickly, when they realize they’re just like everyone else.

My point is that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a while for a society to make a fundamental shift, especially when the reasons behind laws are largely based on religion.

But the more exposure people get to others who are different, the more quickly minds are changed.

Let me be clear — the above applies to places like the Maldives, the UAE, etc. Would I feel as comfortable in Brunei, for example? Probably not.

I think the important thing to understand is that with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, most places realize they have to be a bit more accepting. The Maldives has tons of gay tourists. Are they going to do anything which reverses that trend? No way. They can’t afford to.

The same is true for the UAE. They’re trying to build a sustainable future beyond oil, and make themselves the “center of the world.” Could you in theory be jailed or deported for being gay? Sure. But you can also be jailed for “writing bad words on social media.”

Lastly, I think it’s important to keep in mind that you have added layers of protection if you’re staying at a western hotel chain. They support LGBT rights, and staff are trained to be accommodating, even in countries which theoretically aren’t.

Bottom line
I do put a lot of thought into this. Sometimes I don’t feel right traveling to places where being myself is illegal. At the same time, I also know that nothing will ever change if people from different backgrounds refuse to interact.

I’ve long said that the biggest lesson I’ve learned from travel is that everyone is more similar than we assume on the surface, and there’s no topic where that’s more evident.

I completely respect people who say “I refuse to spend a dime in a country which has such outdated laws.” And I think that’s great. It’s not how I feel, not because I feel any less disgust towards the policy as such, but rather because I think the way to create change is through interaction and dialogue.

The only perspective I take issue with is those who shame others for having different views.

I guess to sum it up in one sentence, I view my approach to be the wrong thing to do short term (why support a country which doesn’t support me?), but the right thing to do long term (I do think minds will change more quickly if we visit these places rather than boycott them).

Where do you stand on these issues? Am I completely wrong?