Finding Your LGBTQ Community While Abroad
This article was initially published in “Add you viewing Tips and Tales: LGBTQ Traveler’s Perspectives.” Download the full eBook for more tips like these and personal stories from LGBT travel pros.
If you’re anything like me, then you’ve probably done time in the nebulous social construct colloquially known as “The Closet.” This isn’t the kind of fun, magical closet with satyrs and talking lions. It’s a place where you suppress thoughts, avoid questions, even lie when you’re confronted. It’s a place where you try on a beard or two, or maybe a place to hang out with a cute classmate. (“We’re just friends, Mom!”)
While no one has an ideal experience in the closet, one good thing that came out of it for me was the opportunity to connect with queer people who share many of my same experiences. As I made more of those connections and my circle of LGBTQ friends grew larger and larger, my need to hide grew less and less, until I had built a community where I could be myself.
Unfortunately, homophobia isn’t an exclusively American phenomenon, and coming out isn’t a one-time experience. When I left America for the first time, I wasn’t just arriving in a new country, but also a new closet. In such an unfamiliar environment, I didn’t want to risk negative reactions from my coworkers and flatmates to my sexuality. So instead I reverted to hiding it, feeling like I was right back where I had started.
I quickly realized, however, that building a community where you feel safe is always possible, even if it’s not always easy. Here’s how:
Do Your Research
Familiarize yourself with how your sexual or gender identity is viewed not only socially, but legally. Research the program you’re traveling with to see what sorts of resources are available to you while you’re in-country, particularly resources for LGBT community’s unique needs.
Ultimately your safety should be your priority. If your research doesn’t reveal what you were hoping for, don’t be afraid to look at other programs or even other countries. Challenges are inevitable, but traveling doesn’t have to come at the expense of your security as a queer person.
Feeling lost in your search? Our online advisors are here to help!
Start Networking Before You Go
Once you’ve decided on a program and destination, you’re ready to start making connections. You can start building relationships with other program participants at home in a cultural context you’re more familiar with, that way you have a connection before you go. Talk with your friends at home and alumni of the program to see if they can put you in touch with any of their friends in the region you’re traveling to.
Remember That People Are People, Everywhere
Your research may have told you the pervasive attitudes of a region, but it can’t tell you the personal ideologies of the people you will meet. Regardless of a country’s policies or social norms, you will always find individual exceptions. Approach each new relationship with no assumptions and you may be pleasantly surprised. Before you start holding hands and singing “It’s a Small World,” remember this goes both ways. Just as there are queer folks and allies everywhere in the world, there are also bigots.
Like a literal gaydar, dating apps will help introduce you to nearby queer folk. Despite its reputation as a glorified meat market, Grindr and apps like it can lead to surprisingly meaningful friendships. If you’re looking for apps that cater to more diverse genders and sexuality, Tinder and OKCupid are also viable options. OKCupid even allows you to change your displayed location to anywhere in the world, so you can start browsing for matches in your host country before you arrive.
All three apps are popular globally, and the convenience and security of a virtual queer-friendly space is enough to make up for having to wade through a few dozen headless torso pics. Or maybe the torso pics are an added bonus. I’m not here to judge.
Find Queer Spaces
There’s a good chance your travel destination has some sort of queer-friendly space, from nightclubs to book clubs. If you’re lucky this may be publicly displayed in a bar or advertised on the local message board. In regions where LGBTQ people are less tolerated, queer-friendly spaces are rarely labeled as such. In these regions it’s best to start by making individual connections, then having a member of the community invite you to such a space. Even the most intolerant regions often have that one “unofficial” gay bar.
Keep Your Connections at Home
Even though I felt like I had to start over the first time I left the country, the reality was that my queer and allied friends hadn’t gone anywhere. Everything I had read living abroad had told me to “disconnect,” but I wasn’t so ready to give up the community I had built. While you shouldn’t ever use it as an excuse to not build local relationships, there should be no shame or guilt in seeking the comfort and support of your friends back home.
LGBT-friendly travel programs
If you’re looking for your perfect program, but not finding anything that fits your needs as an LGBTQ traveler, check out a few of these different programs.
- Study gender & sexuality abroad in Morocco & the Netherlands with
- Volunteer abroad with
- Teach English abroad in Germany with the
- Intern abroad in Madrid with
Keep reading: LGBT travel destinations + more advice
If you just can’t get enough, here are more resource for you to read through as you plan your next adventure abroad.
- Where to Study Abroad as a LGBTQ Student
- 5 Award-Worthy LGBT Study Abroad Programs
- Raising Awareness About the Needs of Transgender Students
- 7 Tips for Coming Out to Your Host Family Abroad
LGBT travel doesn’t seem so scary now, huh?
The cliche of travel is that a culture’s beauty lies not in its differences, but in its similarities to your own. The same goes double for people whose identities have been persecuted for most of human history. There are few more rewarding moments in travel than when someone reaches across not only cultural boundaries, but global norms and historical precedents to take your hand and tell you “I understand.”