“Where shall we go on holiday?” As Covid restrictions ease very slowly and only few international borders are opening, for the first time in many people’s lives this question has morphed into: “Where can we go on holiday?”
But for gay people, this has always been the case.
There are still 69 countries around the world that legislate against same-sex relations. Some of these – such as Jamaica, Tanzania, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – it is absolutely not safe for gay people to visit. But others – such as Morocco, the Maldives and Mauritius – prosecute local gay people but spare tourists. Some even have resorts and hotels that actively target queer customers. But should we go? It’s a real moral dilemma for gay men and lesbians and one that makes me feel conflicted.
In the course of my work as a journalist, I’ve visited several countries – such as Russia, Poland and Sierra Leone – where I felt unsafe and experienced real fear as a visibly presenting gay man. This fear took me back to my childhood, to a time when gay people didn’t have equal rights or high levels of acceptance in the UK, and the threat of verbal and physical violence was ever-present. It was a fear I thought I’d escaped for good.
I also don’t mind admitting that I’ve taken holidays in countries where local gay people don’t have equal rights, such as Morocco and a pre-olympics China, (albeit this was several years ago, before I was so politically aware or active).
I’ve visited several others in which levels of acceptance are much lower than they are in the UK, countries where any signs of gayness are met by dirty looks, sniggers or disapproving glances. Now that I’m marrying my long-term partner and we go on holiday as a couple, I’m not sure I’d want to do that again.
Part of me resents having such a limited choice of holiday destinations, and the activist in me wants to provoke change. I also want to do my bit to make things better for gay and lesbian people living in countries where they don’t enjoy the same rights or levels of acceptance as I do. But what’s the best way to go about this?
One option is to boycott them. If the international queer community – plus our straight allies – refuse to visit countries that don’t offer their own gay and lesbian citizens equal rights, this would put them under pressure to change their laws.
We know that boycotts can work. In 2019, Brunei announced it would be implementing Sharia law, meaning sex between men – not to mention adultery committed by women – would be punishable by stoning to death. Following a mass, celebrity-led boycott of the Sultan’s assets, including the Dorchester Hotel in London and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, the small South-East Asian nation backtracked and declared it wouldn’t implement the death penalty.
Brunei is an extreme case and somewhere I wouldn’t ever consider visiting as a gay man, let alone going on holiday. What I’m looking at here is those countries whose response to gay and lesbian people is more nuanced. And in these cases, you could argue that a boycott aimed at bringing about new legislation or the repeal of old laws would be counterproductive. If the attitudes of local populations would be lagging behind, it might even provoke a backlash.
Another option would be for gay and lesbian tourists to visit these countries and hope that the increased visibility helps change attitudes. Remember that Harvey Milk said we should all come out of the closet, that if mainstream society could see that we’re just like them, gradually homophobia would disappear. Wouldn’t the same apply here?
But why should our holidays have to take the form of political activism? Why can’t we just go away and relax on a beach like everyone else?
Besides, the governments of many of these countries portray homosexuality as a “foreign problem”, a perversion imported by outsiders and one that threatens to destabilise traditional, local values. Any meaningful change doesn’t just have to come from outside – it also has to come from within local populations.
Another issue is that, as citizens of a wealthy, and predominantly white country, we wouldn’t want to be guilty of cultural arrogance or superiority. Not when there are still pockets of our own society in which queer people are persecuted. Just last month, a court in Devon found that 12-year-old schoolboy Riley Hadley had taken his own life following years of homophobic bullying. So if we’re going to demand change from foreign countries, shouldn’t we put our own house in order first?
And while we’re on the subject, shouldn’t we look at the areas of intolerance and oppression in other wealthy, predominantly white countries, such as large swathes of the Bible Belt in the USA?
It’s a difficult, complicated subject, which is why I wanted to explore it in my new discussion show, Sunday Roast, on Virgin Radio Pride. Following our debate, I suspect the answer lies in some sort of amalgam of all the options – applied in different proportions to different countries and regimes.
In the meantime, whenever gay and lesbian tourists want to go on holiday, we have to continue carrying out our own risk assessments, and we have to ask ourselves about the level of discomfort we’re willing to put up with. We also have to hope that if we do decide to stay away from a destination, our straight allies will stand by us and do the same. After all, one thing we’ve learned from the coronavirus pandemic is that we’re all in this together.
But for now, few of us are going anywhere – and we all have to wait for the UK government’s next announcement on foreign travel. But if any more countries are added to the green list and you do find yourself with a choice of where to go, please carry out a quick online search to find out how they treat their LGBTQ+ citizens. And, if possible, bear this in mind when making your choice.
If you are lucky enough to get away, happy holidays!
Matt Cain is the presenter of Sunday Roast on Virgin Radio Pride and the author of The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle
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