The complicated politics of traveling while LGBT

LGBT travelers are no longer defined by identity or sexual orientation.
LGBT travelers are no longer defined by identity or sexual orientation.
Image: Amanda Baeza for Quartz
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The act of travel is inherently political. Whether it’s the strength of your passport, the country you travel to, or how you decide to spend your money upon arrival, each decision has ramifications beyond a suntan and an Instagram memory. 

But for LGBT travelers, the politics of where to vacation can be far more fraught. Such is the case with Bermuda, where the tourism industry is facing a pivotal moment after the right to same-sex marriage was recently repealed—just nine months after a law was passed allowing it.

The #boycottBermuda backlash was swift: Carnival Cruise Lines, which began offering same-sex wedding packages aboard its Bermuda-bound ships last year, supported a lawsuit challenging the reversal. And celebrity talk-show host and LGBT-advocate, Ellen Degeneres, urged her viewers to boycott Bermuda, saying she had personally canceled a trip there. Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda, a local LGBT organization, called the new legislation a “watered down version of rights.”

But others say that a boycott of Bermuda is the opposite of what travelers committed to equality should be advocating for. Indeed, as the wider travel industry matures, so too does the number of reasons why LGBT travelers may go to one destination and choose to skip another. As so-called “gay travelers” increasingly become travelers who simply happen to be gay, a question arises: Does it even matter anymore if a destination is marketed as “LGBT friendly?”

Kevin Dallas is the CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority—an independent organization which opposed the legislation overturning gay marriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone tasked with promoting tourism in Bermuda, he insists that the island is still very much welcoming to LGBT tourists. But in doing so he emphasizes that the wide media coverage of Bermuda’s gay marriage reversal has missed something crucial. The legislation in question, The Domestic Partnership Act 2017, also contains provisions that are beneficial to LGBT rights, including the right to a same-sex partner’s pension, property and inheritance rights, and immigration privileges—rights that other countries in the region don’t necessarily have.

“We have had anecdotal evidence of people saying ‘I’m canceling my trip to Bermuda and going to Antigua instead,’” Dallas said. “But LGBT people in Bermuda enjoy far more rights and protections than they do in Antigua—so how does that make sense? Ellen Degeneres said she was canceling a trip to Bermuda, on the other hand, she sent an entire studio audience to Dubai, where it’s illegal to be gay.”

Leading advocacy organizations including OutRight Action International and the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) both opposed a Bermuda boycott. Jessica Stern of OutRight International noted in a statement that “this boycott, in line with almost all boycotts that do not start locally, is uninformed and ill-advised.” John Tanzella, the CEO of IGTLA, says it’s because the logic of such reactions often doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

“We never condone boycotts. It certainly doesn’t help the LGBT business in the destination. And I’m not so sure boycotts are effective in achieving equality,” Tanzella said. “If you’re in the gay community and you’re boycotting a destination because of government-issued rights, then more than half the world is going to have to be boycotted. So you’re really gonna limit yourself to where you can travel.”

Tanzella raises an interesting point: It seems unfair to ask LGBT travelers to choose their next holiday destination based primarily on the equality record of the government in question. After all, we don’t ask non-LGBT travelers to do the same on any number of issues, from gender equality to the environment. Indeed, some of the globe’s hottest destinations are riddled with all kinds of political problems which travelers remain blissfully unaware of.

Of course for LGBT travelers, safety is an issue. According to the International Gay and Lesbian Association’s annual State Sponsored Homophobia report (PDF), in 2017 there were 72 nation-states that criminalize homosexuality, and 19 where laws “actively target public promotion or expression of same-sex and trans realities.” However, how that manifests for travelers can be remarkably different than for LGBT locals. In Egypt, for example, homosexuality isn’t officially illegal but apps like Grindr can be dangerous for LGBT people to use. 

Influential LGBT travel blogger Adam Groffman says that while safety certainly hasn’t stopped being a factor, he senses that it is becoming less of a consideration for this demographic than it once was. 

“Safety is still a part of it, but as more of the world has become safe for LGBT people, LGBT travel has changed a lot,” Groffman said, “For a long time it was about specifically visiting LGBT-owned places that actively promoted themselves to followers. But in a lot of of the world now, that’s not super necessary. So many hotels have done inclusivity training globally so there are certain things that you can certainly feel comfortable doing.”

David Duran—a travel writer who’s written for publications including Fodors, the New York Post, Huffpost, and many LGBT publications—agrees. In fact, even if the government policies of a destination like Bermuda leave something to be desired, he says supporting the local LGBT community in a given destination can serve as a compelling reason to go.

“I don’t like giving tourism dollars to governments that aren’t fully supportive of who I am, but at the same time, I don’t want to abandon my gay brothers and sisters in another country just because of a law change. They could arguably do the same to [the US] because of our current government.”

Groffman’s sentiment echoes that of the writer Joanne Spataro, who recently noted in the New York Times that the US State Department might need to expand its guidance for LGBT travelers to include the nine US states that criminalize homosexuality in some way. 

Groffman and Duran point to what might been seen as a general broadening of “LGBT travel” over the past decade. As Dallas added, “it’s arguable whether [or not] destinations need to market themselves as LGBT-friendly” anymore. And a younger crop of millennial LGBT travelers seem less interested in LGBT-specific offerings and more interested in travel itself.  

“I haven’t written an article in years where it’s like ‘this is the gay bar, this is the gay district,’” Duran added. “If there happens to be something gay-owned, I might mention it, but if it’s mediocre then I’m not going to recommend it just because it’s gay owned—I’d rather stay at a boutique or five-star hotel.”

Perhaps the same logic is at work for Bermuda; for the first quarter of 2018, both air arrivals and spending were up by more than 20%, though it’s not possible to know if LGBT-specific travel was up. But as Duran says, it’s becoming less about what makes a LGBT tourism destination on paper, more about where LGBT travelers want to go—and who they want to support in the process. 

“If I see a random website with a picture of two guys on a beach and they say ‘Yeah we’re LGBT friendly,’ I’m like ‘Really?’ How is it actually LGBT friendly? Two guys in speedos on the beach doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.”

This story is part of our series on Global Pride.

Update: On June 6, Bermuda’s Supreme Court ruled that clauses in the Domestic Partnership Act that prohibit same sex marriage were unconstitutional. OUTBermuda, who were co-litigants in the case, released a statement saying: “Love wins again! Our hearts and hopes are full, thanks to this historic decision by our Supreme Court and its recognition that all Bermuda families matter.”