safe travels

Is it okay to travel to anti-LGBTQ+ countries?

Brent and Michael riding a tram in Budapest are definitely two weird foreigners.
Just two weird foreigners seeing the world.

Here’s a sample of some of the online comments we’ve received when people learn Brent and I are digital nomads. We’ve lived for months at a time in Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Republic of Georgia — all countries that treat their LGBTQ+ residents either fairly badly or very badly.

  • Hey guys, what is it like living in such homophobic countries?
  • Aren’t you afraid?
  • Don’t you know how Georgia treats queer people?
  • In case you haven’t heard, Hungary just passed a very anti-LGBTQ+ law! How can you support that government?

We’re a gay couple, so it’s natural to wonder our opinions on all this.

First, we think travel to homophobic countries is a complicated topic with no easy answers. We’ve thought a lot about it.

What are our conclusions? Let’s address the above questions one at a time.

What’s it like living in a homophobic country like Georgia, Hungary, or Bulgaria?

Whenever we’re asked this question, it’s almost always by a fellow Westerner who might be thinking about visiting the country in question.

It’s a fair question, and we used to ask, too. But now we know the question should have two parts: What’s the country like for LGBTQ+ visitors, especially generally wealthier Westerners? And what’s it like for the LGBTQ+ people who have no choice but to live there?

Because the two answers are often pretty different.

In answering the first question, Brent and I have coined a phrase: The Weird Foreigner Rule.

This means that when you live in a country other than your own, the locals will often consider you an outsider—or, as we put it, “a weird foreigner.” The more culturally different you seem, the weirder locals may consider you.

For instance, when we lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, our light-skinned complexions, baseball caps, and lack of beards clearly marked us as Americans.

Having locals stare at you like you’ve got your nose where your chin should be isn’t always fun.

On the other hand, the Weird Foreigner Rule has one obvious advantage, especially for LGBTQ+ travelers: Since you are so clearly a weird outsider, most of the local mores and customs aren’t necessarily applied to you.

You’re already so “weird” that the gay thing gets lost in everything else. Or it can be just another example of foreign “weirdness.”

You’re two middle-aged men sharing an apartment with only one bed? You’re Americans, and Americans don’t make much sense anyway.

You’re two older women having a romantic dinner in my restaurant? Great, I need the business!

Both examples highlight another factor involved in the Weird Foreigner Rule: We’re spending money that is often a crucial part of the local economy. Therefore, there is a big economic incentive not to care if someone is LGBTQ+.

The Weird Foreigner Rule isn’t absolute, and there are other things to consider.

For starters, you can only stray so far from cultural norms. Sure, your average Turk may not care that two middle-aged American men are living next door — even a traditional Muslim may not care.

But if you stood out in the hallway snogging each other in front of their kids? Then, they very well might care.

The more you blend in with locals, the easier life will probably be.

And second, the more you conform to the gender norms of that country, the easier your life will be. If you’re an obviously effeminate man, masculine woman, or distinctively non-binary — or refuse to declare a specific gender — you’re more likely to draw unwanted attention to yourself. Gender is still a big deal in America, but it’s a much, much bigger deal in more traditional countries. Some cultures are arranged and segregated almost entirely by gender.

To be clear, we are not saying any of that is fair or right. It’s 100 percent not. But if you travel to a less tolerant or more traditional country, you need to be aware of these issues just for your safety.

What is the answer to the second part of that question? What is life like for local LGBTQ+ folks? Keep in mind this isn’t our lived experience.

But we’ve also made many LGBTQ+ friends all over the world and heard many first-hand stories.

In countries such as Thailand or Vietnam (and many Asian countries), there is a kind of benign neglect: there are no laws against being gay, but no protections either, and often mild social disapproval. Thailand is fairly supportive of transgender women (but only to a point).

In many Muslim countries, homophobia is much more overt, with specific, oppressive laws. Turkey doesn’t allow LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to gather in public, while in Georgia, transgender women face high rates of discrimination, abuse, and murder.

In Istanbul, we met a closeted Turkish man who said being gay was no big deal as long as you acted traditionally masculine. But at the same time, he complained about the intense pressure from his Muslim family to marry a woman.

This mosque in Taksim Square in Istanbul is home to some conservative Muslims who oppose LGBTQ equality
There aren’t many LGBTQ protections in most Muslim countries.

We hear things like this a lot from LGBTQ+ friends in homophobic countries. Everyone seems to acknowledge things are bad for those who violate gender norms, but life isn’t bad for others as long as you’re “discreet” and don’t “flaunt your lifestyle.”

As Westerners, this sometimes sounds to us like they’re excusing homophobia because having to be “discreet” strikes us as another kind of discrimination.

But we also think it’s not our place to judge people living such wildly different life experiences in such difficult and potentially dangerous circumstances.

Which brings us to…

Aren’t you afraid?

No, we’re rarely afraid. And this is, in large part, due to the Weird Foreigner Rule.

For starters, we both present as conventionally masculine. Except for being two middle-aged men having dinner together, or sharing an apartment, there isn’t much to suggest we’re gay. We’re not proud of this; it’s just a statement of fact.

We also aren’t afraid because we do our due diligence ahead of time. We talk to people — visitors and locals alike. We do lots of research. We try hard to make sure we understand local laws and mores — which can vary a lot in the different cities of a country, and even in different neighborhoods.

In more traditional countries, we would never behave like the Travelling Butts — the gay Instagram couple whose shtick was to drop trou in front of famous international landmarks. Their antics got them arrested in Thailand for public indecency. And frankly? We think they’re jackasses for so casually dismissing the mores in the cultures they visit.

We always try to act like guests in other countries because we are! Sometimes, these countries’ values differ greatly from our own, but we still try to respect them — within reason.

That being said, we’d be lying if we said living in homophobic countries never gives us pause.

For instance, if something were to happen to us — a gay-bashing or just an old-fashioned mugging — would local authorities treat us differently because we are gay? Might they take the side the side of the gay-bashers over us?

It’s a sobering thought.

Honestly though, we worry less about our personal safety than we do when we’re back in America — the land of mass shootings, omnipresent handguns, and having to spend so much of your life on highways in a car.

Don’t you know how homophobic countries treat queer people?

We do know.

We probably have a much better sense of things than the person asking this question, since we now have many, many LGBTQ+ friends in these different countries, and we also know lots of queer activists.

Italy is a country that is mildly homophobic, especially outside of the big cities. Southern Italy, which is more traditional than the north, is more homophobic still.

While living in Matera in southern Italy, Brent and I gave a presentation to Ris Volta, the area’s first LGBTQ+ group. We talked about our lives as activists and writers and also as a longtime couple.

And they told us their stories, too, about how hard it is coming out to friends and families, how few out LGBTQ+ folks there were in the area, and how very difficult it was to date or maintain a relationship with no public support.

Brent and Michael speaking to Ris Volta, Matera, Italy's first LGBTQ rights group.

In Georgia, we became friends with Giorgi Tabagari, the founder of Tbilisi Pride and the country’s leading LGBTQ+ group. Currently, he’s under investigation by the government for swearing at a police officer who was doing nothing about homophobes physically attacking Tabagari and the offices of Tbilisi Pride.

Everywhere we go, we make a point to meet people like this — and listen. We offer support.

At the risk of sounding like White Saviors, we then share what we’ve heard with people outside that country. We tweet and write articles about the issues, and we’ve even held a live chat with the locals involved.

That’s also part of the reason we’ve written this article.

In case you haven’t heard, Hungary just passed a very anti-LGBTQ law! How can you support that government?

Again, we know. Not to sound defensive, but we probably know more about it than most. And for the record, we don’t support Hungary’s government, nor those of any homophobic country.

Look, here’s the deal: we all need to decide how we live our lives according to our own personal ethics. If you think it’s wrong to visit homophobic countries — and support homophobic governments even indirectly in any way — then don’t visit them.

But we honestly think the issue is more complicated than many people make it sound. We’re not against boycotts in general, but we think they only really work when they’re organized — and when the organizers make specific demands of their governments.

In other words, we think vague, informal boycotts usually only succeed in making the boycotter feel good.

We’ve asked a lot of local LGBTQ+ people what they think about boycotts of their homophobic countries. In every single case, local people have told us they think informal boycotts are a terrible idea.

Local LGBTQ+ people almost always want more supportive visitors to come to their countries — to support LGBTQ+ businesses, to increase visibility, and to say to homophobic governments: “Look, LGBTQ+ people are nothing to be afraid of, and we need to move into the modern world!”

And no country is any “one” thing.

The Hungarian Parliament Building where the Fidesz Party has been passing very homophobic legislation.
We think going to Budapest as an out gay couple is much more powerful than simply staying away.

Budapest is far more liberal and queer-supportive than other parts of Hungary (though it’s still not as progressive as the most liberal American cities). So we think it’s a good thing to go there and be out and supportive of both the LGBTQ+ community and their straight allies.

We also think it’s good to be as visible as possible in smaller cities and towns, like Keszthely, Hungary, where we spent six weeks. In places such as these, things are even tougher for the local LGBTQ+ folks.

What really works to actually make homophobic countries better for LGBTQ+ people? International pressure. But for that to work, people outside the country need to know what’s going on inside.

And again, not to sound all White Savior-y, but we think that’s something we can help with.

There are definitely some places, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, that we’d probably never visit — although we have friends from some of these places too, and even there, the issue can be complicated.

In the homophobic places we visit, when we do our due diligence, we don’t feel unsafe.

When we listen to the locals and share what we’ve heard, we feel like we’re making the world a better place for LGBTQ+ people, not a worse one.

Again, everyone must decide these issues for themselves, and do what feels right for them.

But we’re very comfortable with our choices, and we hope more people will make similar ones.

Visit these countries, but do it mindfully. Become aware of LGBTQ+ people and issues, and help spread the word about them.

More talking and listening is almost always better than less. We say: Let’s keep the conversation going.

Brent Hartinger and Michael Jensen, are a gay “digital nomad” couple — two men who travel the world continuously, living in different countries for anywhere from one to three months at a time. Subscribe to their newsletter at

Want to help advance LGBTQ+ equality in other countries? Here are some worthwhile groups doing great work that could use your support.


LGBT Deystvie

Istanbul Pride

Háttér Society
Magyar LMBT Association


Tbilisi Pride

Same-Sex Marriage Philippines

Outright International

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