It goes without saying that international travel is challenging these days. But gay travelers face the added complexity of navigating a myriad of LGBTQ+ laws around the world. Depending on where they’re headed, travel can still be considerably dangerous—even in 2021. And although there have been some improvements over recent years, more than 70 countries still have homophobic laws, according to Equaldex.
Journalists Lyric and Asher Fergusson run a travel safety blog and recently authored an up-to-date report on the most dangerous—and safest—places for LGBTQ+ travelers based on nine factors, like legalized same-sex marriage and protections against discrimination. After 250+ hours of research, the duo reviewed all countries’ individual laws and gathered data from trusted international sources to create an LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index that reflects the most current information in an ever-evolving world.
Since the Fergussons’ study on the most dangerous places for gay travelers in 2019, several laws have changed—some for the better (Sudan), and some for the worse (Hungary, Poland). “LGBTQ+ rights are still at the forefront of our awareness and we plan to continue keeping this study up to date to help the LGBTQ+ community stay safe and navigate international travel,” says Lyric Fergusson.
The journalists have noticed the Covid-19 pandemic negatively affect gay rights around the world. In 2020, Hungary ended the legal recognition of transgender and intersex people, and, according to Human Rights Watch, “It comes at a time when the government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to grab unlimited power and is using parliament to rubber-stamp problematic non-public health-related bills, like this one.”
For the Fergussons, LGBTQ+ rights are top of mind, even amidst a pandemic. “LGBTQ+ rights are still at the forefront of our awareness, and we plan to continue keeping this study up to date to help the LGBTQ+ community stay safe and navigate international travel,” says Lyric Fergusson.
The most surprising revelation from this year’s study? The continued level of violent persecution of the LGBTQ+ community around the world. “Of the ‘least safe’ countries on our list, the top 49 still have prison sentences as punishment for being gay,” says Fergusson. The two countries topping the “most dangerous” list—Nigeria and Saudi Arabi—still utilize the death penalty as a possible punishment for being LGBTQ+, while lesser punishments can include lashings, flogging or life in prison. “It’s just so hard to believe we live in a world where we can treat our fellow human beings so poorly just for who they love or for what gender they identify with.”
Even here in the United States, there are some major legal shortcomings for LGBTQ+ rights. Some states (such as Texas) have made it illegal to play on a sports team or use a bathroom of your choice. Other states have made it illegal to exhibit advocacy for homosexuality in schools. It might surprise many travelers that the United States places 20th on the study’s list of the safest countries to visit. The wide variation in gay rights depending on the state you’re in certainly contributed to the United States’ low ranking of safest countries. There are also no constitutional or broad protections for LGBTQ+ rights under federal law in the U.S.
So is there any good news? “After our last study was published, there was a public outcry in many countries demanding that these inhumane laws be changed. Destinations that rely heavily on tourism continue to feel the heat as the LGBTQ+ community avoids countries like Jamaica for their conservative views. We hope that our 2021 study can add to the momentum for equality that is tangibly forming worldwide,” says Fergusson.
Read on for the 20 most dangerous places in the LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index, plus commentary from the coauthors of the study. Following this list are the five safest destinations for LGBTQ+ travelers.
The 20 Most Dangerous Places for LGBTQ+ Travelers in 2021
“Both in our 2019 study and now in the 2021 update, Nigeria has ranked as the number one most dangerous country for members of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Fergusson. “It was ranked so poorly largely due to the extreme penalties for simply being gay, which include up to 14 years in prison and the death penalty in states under Sharia law. The mere discussion of LGBT rights is criminalized via the current system. Under Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2013, the country has seen an increase in violence and extortion against the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, Nigeria criminalizes transgender and gender-nonconforming people in its northern states under Sharia.”
- Saudi Arabia
“Coming in as the second-worst country for LGBTQ+ travel is Saudi Arabia. This Middle Eastern kingdom is another on our list which can implement the death penalty for consensual homosexuality under their interpretation of Sharia law,” says Fergusson. “Other punishments include 100 whips or banishment for one year. “Men behaving as women” or wearing women’s clothes, and vice versa, is also illegal in Saudi Arabia, making this a particularly unfriendly country for members of the trans community.”
“This phenomenal Southeast Asian country is full of gorgeous beaches, islands, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making Malaysia a popular destination for international tourism. Unfortunately, imposed punishment for homosexuality is severe and the existence of gay people in Malaysia was denied by their tourism minister as recently as March 2019,” says Fergusson. “Under state interpretation of Sharia law, homosexuality in Malaysia results in up to 20 years in prison, whipping, and fines. And there are even recent proposals by the government to increase the penalties against the LGBTQ+ community. This makes Malaysia the least safe Asian country for queer and trans tourists.”
“The punishments for homosexuality in Malawi have earned this African country as the number four worst country for LGBTQ+ travelers,” says Fergusson. “Same-sex acts result in 14 years in prison for men and five years imprisonment for women. Additionally, any male whose hair is longer than down to his mouth can receive up to six months in prison. Pro-LGBTQ+ organizations are banned by the government in Malawi and general public sentiment regards homosexuality as off-limits. Only 3% of Malawians said their city is a good place for gay and lesbian people when asked by the Gallup World Poll.”
“Oman is known for its incredible mosques and unique terraced landscapes, but its treatment of the LGBTQ+ community has placed it in the fifth worst spot on our list,” says Fergusson. “Homosexual acts in this country will lead to up to three years in prison. For simply imitating the opposite sex, you can be thrown into jail for up to one year. And all pro-LGBTQ+ organizations are banned from the country.”
“One of the Caribbean’s most popular vacation destinations for tourists worldwide, Jamaica was another shocking country to top our LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index,” says Fergusson. “Jamaica ranks as the worst Caribbean nation for members of the LGBTQ+ community. This is largely due to Jamaica’s ‘buggery law,’ which is leftover from the colonial era, allows for a sentence of up to ten years in prison, including hard labor. In fact, Jamaica was called the most homophobic place on Earth by Time magazine in 2006 and LGBTQ+ people are sadly still the victims of homophobic violence today. Transgender individuals in Jamaica (especially male-to-female trans women) also face an exceptionally low tolerance from society at large.”
“Myanmar is a beautiful country filled with amazing Buddhist temples and pristine beaches but it’s also unfortunately not a safe destination for the LGBTQ+ community,” says Fergusson. “Transgender people (especially trans women) are commonly mistreated, raped, exhorted, and arbitrarily arrested by police. Homosexual acts, which their laws refer to as ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature,’ are subject to 20 years in prison.”
“Coming in eighth on our LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index is Qatar,” says Fergusson. “This oil-rich Middle Eastern country enforces up to three years in prison, flogging, and the death penalty under Sharia law for any acts of homosexuality. Tourism to Qatar is expected to skyrocket for the 2022 World Cup, which is to take place there. After much pushback, the Qatari government has recently changed its stance to say it would comply with FIFA rules promoting tolerance and inclusion at matches despite the country’s strict anti-LGBTQ+ laws.”
- United Arab Emirates
“The UAE is most famous for its two largest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which attract millions of visitors each year. This popular tourist destination comes in as the ninth worst place to visit as an LGBTQ+ visitor,” says Fergusson. “If a male even wears ‘female apparel’ they can face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dirhams (approximately $2,723). According to the Gallup World Poll, only 1% of respondents felt their city was a good place to live for gay and lesbian people.”
“In Yemen, the punishment for being gay for both men and women is prison time and 100 lashes, with death by stoning for married men,” says Fergusson. “This conservative Muslim republic means business when it comes to rejecting homosexuality, both in its laws and general public sentiment. Refugee Legal Aid Information highlights Yemen’s hostile attitudes toward their largely underground LGBT community.”
“Home of the magnificent Victoria Falls, renowned as the largest waterfall in the world, and incredible wildlife, Zambia is filled with plenty to explore. That said, the LGBTQ+ community is marginalized in this country and there are heavy consequences for being gay, which include seven years to life in prison for any same-sex act,” says Fergusson. “One possible sign of positive changes in the country is that the president recently pardoned a gay couple who were sentenced to a 15-year prison term.”
“This East African country is known for its remarkable natural attractions, including Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park, making Tanzania a massive hub for international tourism,” says Fergusson. “Unfortunately, this country was ranked at number 12 on our LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index, which may inspire LGBTQ+ visitors to rethink their travel plans. In Tanzania, any homosexual acts result in 30 years to life in prison, and there has been a recent government crackdown on LGBT activity within the country.”
“This African nation made some good progress in 2020 by abolishing the death penalty for same-sex relationships. They do, however, still have up to five years in prison as a penalty for being gay,” says Fergusson. “Publicly, homosexuality is a taboo topic, so LGBTQ+ travelers choosing to visit Sudan should proceed with caution and remain discreet with regards to their sexuality. It is also recommended to be extremely careful when inviting guests into your hotel room, as this can potentially spark unwanted complications.”
- West Bank & Gaza
“In the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is taken very seriously, with homosexual acts resulting in up to ten years in prison,” says Fergusson. “Groups advocating for LGBTQ+ rights are threatened by the governing authorities in Palestine, who consider homosexuality to be ‘a blow to, and violation of, the ideals and values of Palestinian society.’”
“Iran made number 15 on the index, due in part to its extreme punishments for homosexuality, which include 100 lashes for intercourse or the death penalty, and 31 lashes for same-sex acts other than intercourse,” says Fergusson. “One positive situation in Iran is that they do allow for transgender legal identity changes via sex reassignment surgery. Interestingly, Iran carries out more sex reassignment surgeries than any other country in the world after Thailand.”
“One of Africa’s most populous countries, Uganda ranks equal 16th on our LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index,” says Fergusson. “Homosexual intercourse results in life in prison and pro-LGBTQ+ organizations are banned throughout the country. Unfortunately, things may soon be getting even worse for the LGBTQ+ community, as the Ugandan president has recently been ramping up the anti-gay rhetoric to help win votes in an upcoming election.”
“Famed as a popular romantic vacation destination for LGBTQ+ travelers, it comes as a significant wake-up call that the Maldives bears such anti-LGBTQ+ laws,” says Fergusson. “Earning the equal 16th spot, the Maldives punishes homosexual acts and intercourse with up to eight years in prison or 100 lashes. Though these laws are enforced in the cities, they are largely ignored at the resorts. For more adventurous travelers, regardless of orientation, be wary of the local customs and avoid any public displays of affection in the Maldivian cities.”
“An enchanting destination, packed with beaches and incredible architecture, Morocco ranks as the equal 18th worst on our travel safety index,” says Fergusson. “Homosexual or “unnatural” acts can lead to six months to three years in prison, plus additional fines. Although affection is often freely shown among Moroccan men it is recommended that LGBTQ travelers use discretion particularly if using social media dating apps since meetups have led to assault and robbery in recent years.”
“Famous throughout the world for its ancient pyramids and historical and religious significance, Egypt is a massive tourist destination for global travelers. Unfortunately, Egypt ranked equal 18th on our list due to its negative laws regarding homosexuality,” says Fergusson. “Same-sex acts result in up to three years in prison with a fine, and possession of homosexual materials results in up to two years in prison with a fine. For LGBTQ+ travelers, it is recommended not to disclose your sexuality and avoid using dating apps since the local police have been known to create fake accounts to “catch” LGBTQ+ travelers looking to engage in illegal activity.”
“This North African nation ranks as the equal 18th worst on our LGBTQ Travel Safety Index. Homosexual acts result in two months to two years in prison, plus a fine,” says Fergusson. “Simply being in possession of “homosexual materials” can subject you to up to 2 years in prison. As a tourist, you likely won’t be subjected to these laws, but you’re advised to be cautious. Dressing in clothing of the opposite sex is prohibited by law, and the general social attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community is openly negative and sometimes violent.”
The 5 Safest Places for LGBTQ+ Travelers in 2021
1 . Canada
“Coming in first place as the safest country for LGBTQ+ travel in this year’s update is Canada,” says Fergusson. “Known for its kind locals and chilly winters, Canada has constitutional protections in place to guard the LGBTQ+ community against violence and discrimination, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005. Most recently in 2020, Canada has made the positive move to criminalize LGBTQ+ ‘conversion therapy.’”
- The Netherlands
“The Netherlands was the first place in the world to legalize same-sex marriage almost 20 years ago in 2001,” says Fergusson. “This alluring country renowned for its tulip fields, windmills, cheese markets, and canals has achieved an equal second spot in the 2021 LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index. The Netherlands also ranked number one in the latest Gallup Poll with 92% of respondents saying that the city or area where they live is a good place for gay and lesbian people.”
“Sweden’s friendly attitudes and positive legislation towards the LGBTQ+ community have earned it the title of equal second. Scandinavia is generally known for its friendly people and liberal attitudes towards equality for all,” says Fergusson. “Sweden legalized same-sex marriage in 2009 and performed well on all our nine ranking factors. This land of the Northern Lights has also been a regular host of Europride and has more Pride festivals per-capita than anywhere else in the world with over 30 different Pride celebrations throughout the country each year.”
“This tiny archipelago sandwiched in the Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast comes in fourth in regards to LGBTQ+ travel safety,” says Fergusson. “Malta has been rising in acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals for decades and its legislations make it one of the most LGBTQ+ travel-friendly countries in both Europe and the world. Who wouldn’t want to honeymoon or vacation on this paradisal island?”
“With legalized same-sex marriage since 2010 and numerous legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community, Portugal placed fifth on our list,” says Fergusson. “Cities like Lisbon and Porto have the best gay scenes in the country and Portugal came in second place in its bid to host the 2022 Europride which is the biggest event celebrating gay pride in Europe.”