Queer families traveling or living in countries that aren’t LGBT-friendly: what is it like?

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Travelling. © by Mr. iMaax., used under Creative Commons license.
My beautiful partner and I love adventuring. We go away several times a year, often to places that are quite gay unfriendly and we deal with it. We’re now planning a family and have been talking a lot about adventuring with kids. We’ve really valued the posts on Offbeat Families about travelling with kids and have felt inspired to keep an open but optimistic mind about going abroad with our future family.

However, we’ve been talking a lot about whether we would continue to visit places where the law isn’t on our side about being two mums. We feel strongly that we don’t want to lie in front of our kids about our relationship. And we’re also concerned about safety and the legalities of going to a country that won’t recognise us both as parents. However we also want our future children to be exposed to the diversity of cultures that we’ve both been lucky enough to experience over our lives, including living abroad.

So my question is: Have any other queer parents had experiences of travelling/living abroad with their kids? What was it like? — Sarah

Comments on Queer families traveling or living in countries that aren’t LGBT-friendly: what is it like?

  1. I’m not queer, nor have I traveled abroad, so I can’t answer this question.

    I just wanted to touch on one thing, and that is “We feel strongly that we don’t want to lie in front of our kids about our relationship.” Does this imply that you do lie about your relationship in those countries to avoid scrutiny? If so, couldn’t this be a learning opportunity depending on the age of children? Along the same vein as “some people believe this thing” conversations that will unfortunately occur even within a more gay-friendly country.

    • the problem about turning this type of thing into a ‘learning opportunity’ is that many of the countries where it isn’t safe to be out as a same-sex couple are countries where you would be killed or imprisoned for getting caught in such a relationship. Not nearly worth the conversation with your kids.

      • As a queer woman working in humanitarian aid, I cannot agree more. There are times to test the boundaries of others’ tolerance in order to teach and push for our rights. Travelling in places where being gay comes with a jail sentence, corrective rape, or a mob willing to strip you of your children and hurt you is not one.

        I plan to show our children the wonderful sights of amazing, tolerant countries. It’s not worth the risk.

  2. I have a personal rule that if I’m in someone elses house, state, country, car whatever, I follow their rules. I think it’s especially important in a foreign country to follow the local laws. It might not be a good idea to bring kids to countries where homosexuality is illegal in case you have to hide it etc. I have no idea what would or could happen if a foreign couple was caught “being gay” in Saudi Arabia, for example but I guess I wouln’t want to find out, especially with little kids along.

    • I see where you’re coming from, but from my experience travelling various places as part of a same-sex couple, I’m not sure how this advice would work out in practice. It’s a bit more difficult to follow local laws in this manner when it comes to being gay because a lot of the time what’s criminalised or banned is not just behaviour (which is easy altered to politely conform with local standards) but your sexual identity itself, your relationship or your relationship status (not easily altered at all).

      So, should a gay couple married in Washington should take off their wedding rings if they happen to drive through Georgia? What about the time when I flew to Australia with a stop-over in Dubai? Was I supposed to become straight for a couple of hours while I was in the airport? Or choose a much more expensive flight which didn’t have the stopover (and which frankly would have meant I couldn’t afford the trip)?

      If you’re gay and you travel, this is a genuine dilemma. You can restrict yourself to gay-friendly areas only – which definition btw excludes both most of the world, and most of the USA. That’s a big ask for a traveller. It can also get complicated, because many of the countries and states you mention have homophobic laws but also have some queer culture, people who do live with same-sex partners, and so on. Should I tell my gay friends in Georgia that I can’t visit them because the environment isn’t gay-friendly enough for me?

      If you don’t go the no-compromises, gay-friendly places only route (which isn’t necessarily the easy option anyway), you’re faced with resigning yourself to some degree of dissembling, discretion or flying under the radar – even if that only means shuffling through your Dubai airport stopover hoping that no one will ask why you and your wife have the same surname in your passports.

  3. My wife and I face the same difficult choices, and for us what it comes down to is the degree of homophobia that we’d really be likely to face in any given location. Is it a matter of maybe getting disapproving, sideways glances or having people make comments or ask invasive questions? We can live with those potential ramifications and even see them as learning opportunities. But if there’s risk of physical harm involved, or legal repercussions, then there’s no way we want to put ourselves…much less our child…in that situation.

    I’m no good at being closeted. Now, that doesn’t mean that I need to make out publicly or be otherwise disrespectful of cultural mores; it does mean, though, that I’m likely to slip up with a “babe” or other term of endearment now and again or to move through the world with a habitual ease of physical proximity to my wife, simply because our intimate familiarity is, at this point, a completely habitual matter of fact. Being closeted is not just about overtly lying about the nature of the relationship, it’s about having to be constantly vigilant with regard to the subtle clues that we’re often not consciously aware of even giving off. If I can’t imagine pulling that off 100% of the time myself, I certainly can’t expect a child to manage it, or to deal well with the tremendous burden of responsibility that would come along with trying. And how would we even go about deciding who gets to be Mama while abroad, while the other is relegated to the position of auntie or friend? That’s not to say that I think it’s wrong or bad to want to try…we just don’t think it’s right or realistic for our family.

  4. I think it’s a balancing act. Maybe you don’t go to Saudi Arabia- but hey, no one can “just go” to Saudi Arabia in any case- but maybe you just research each place on a case by case basis and work out what the actual laws are, what the cultural norms are, and where you are comfortable in those loose guidelines.

    I don’t have a one size fits all answer, because every country is so different, but I am sure there are many places you can visit, some just might need to wait until the kids are old enough that you can explain to them that people are not going to necessarily “get” that they have two mums.

  5. My wife and I live in Thailand and I am 7 months pregnant. Until I became pregnant, we thought Thailand was extremely gay friendly. After all, there are so many trans women here and out gay people in Bangkok. Pre-pregnancy, we were never discriminated against. However, the second you viscerally remind them that you and your partner are more than friends or sisters, the establishment will shun you (but cite reasons other than homophobia). Our landlord won’t renew our lease, which is up the week after my due date. They blind sided us with that new. Our OB suggested we find another doctor after, for the third time, he asked my wife if she was my sister and she said “no I’m her wife.” He claimed that he will probably be out of town when I give birth in February. I’m having a difficult time finding a doula. As a tourist you can absolutely visit Thailand (and most of South East Asia) and experience no homophobia. But living here and scratching the cultural surface is a different story.

    • I am so sorry to hear about your troubles in Thailand. That sounds incredibly difficult and you and your family deserve so much better than that kind of treatment. I hope you can find a way to make things work.
      I’ve got to agree with you about Asia, in that at least Japan is similarly okay for tourists, though that really involves ignoring homosexuality most of the time. An abnormally large number of people don’t believe gay people really exist, which means two women could hold hands walking down the street in rainbow colors and no one would look twice (except to stare at the foreigners) until someone kisses someone else. If you have the same surnames, even if you look nothing alike, they would probably assume sisterhood and leave it at that.

      Interracial marriages still cause a lot of strange looks out here, so same-sex relationships and marriages don’t tend to register for most people.
      The great thing though is that even if they do suddenly realize that a couple is gay, most Japanese people I’ve seen are so afraid of looking bad in public that they wouldn’t say or do anything stupid. They’ll mostly just ignore you.

  6. Might I suggest having a copy (if not the orignal!) if your child’s birth certificate? This way you could proove your affiliation very quickly if you have problems with the authorities. Also have a signed letter of the other parent giving you full rights to take your kid out of the country (include dates, country of origin and destination, for vacation/work/visiting family). If you ever get separated, you can still have autority over your kid.

    And this holds even when you travel to gay friendly places. My friend got once stuck at the USA border because her two boys have the name of their deceased father and not her’s. My aunt was forbidden entry back to Canada with her son after a month in Australia because they did not had ”official consent” from the father (who was in Istambul at the time…try to get consent now!) Not a happy vacation begining or ending. I can’t imagine what it would have been with a country that did not recognized same sex parenting!!

  7. I guess travelling in many non-lgbt-friendly countries is no problem because in many of these countries it´s not appropriate to kiss your partner in the street or on the beach anyway. So no one can tell you´re more than just friends or sisters. Noone will think twice when two women sleep in one bed in South East Asia, thats just something completely normal there.
    The problem starts only when you really wanna make friends in such countries (and not only friends who have travelled the world and share the same values). Even then it could be ok as long as they just think of you as a tourist – but if you want to stay longer and not only be the tourist who does weird things anyway but a real PERSON I guess it won´t be that easy.
    Then again, thats not just a challenge for queer people but also for other people doing “crazy” things like non-married couples travelling together or women travelling on their own.

    • I agree with this! While I was traveling alone in India I got many people asking where my husband was and why he was letting me travel alone. And then they asked why my father was letting me travel alone…didn’t he love me?

  8. We are the parents of an 11 month old and we haven’t yet traveled with her internationally, so I don’t have any practical advice. This is something I consider however when we are traveling domestically as well. I tend to do a lot of research when heading to an unknown area to make sure that we will be staying someplace gay friendly. I check and see if the place we are staying is one Purple Roofs (http://www.purpleroofs.com/), or if in online reviews I can tell if queer folks have stayed there before. Living in a big, gay-friendly city, I am very aware that not every place is going to be as welcoming of gay people (but these days more are than not, which is a pleasant surprise).

    • I would second the advice about staying in queer-friendly accommodation. When my partner and I have travelled to not-entirely-queer-friendly places, it’s a lot easier when your hotel, bed and breakfast, rental, etc. is either gay-owned or explicitly gay-friendly, so you can step through the door, relax and be yourselves without worrying. If you have small children and are planning on doing a lot of eating and hanging out at your accommodation, this goes double.

      Queer-owned and very queer-friendly accommodation often advertise that fact internationally and are seeking LGBT business, so Google is your friend here! Sidebar: “gay-friendly hotel Cityname” is going to get you more hits than “queer-friendly hotel Cityname”.

  9. My wife and I moved to Central America a little over a year ago. We don’t have children yet, but planned to start trying to get pregnant some time into our first year here. One of the biggest motivators for us in moving to Central America was to raise children here: exposure to different cultures, learning fluent Spanish, fresh air, healthy food, and a generally more relaxed (and less commercialized) attitude about raising children. We knew we would be the only queer people in our tiny rural community here, but thought that would be fine.

    Fast forward a year, and we’ve put the brakes on trying to get pregnant and are now trying to sell our place here and move back to Canada so we can start a family. As the reality of raising kids here got closer, we realized that just because no one gives you a hard time or harasses you for being queer, doesn’t mean a place is queer-POSITIVE. We’ve come to realize that for us, being surrounded by like minded people and a supportive community of other queer families is important to us as we build a family of our own. We are fortunate enough that our other home base is Toronto, which has a wealth of resources for queers and queer families, and has a huge international queer population.

    While I can drag myself through trying to explain to people that “no, we aren’t sisters”, and “no, I DO mean to say ‘wife’ and it’s not a mistake because of my bad Spanish”… that doesn’t mean I want that to be my kids’ life. I think we romanticized living abroad, holding up rural Central American life as somehow more “pure” than our tainted North American culture, but we failed to take into consideration things like an invisibility of queers, the status of women, and the very rigid expectations in terms of gender presentation (which has meant my very genderqueer spouse stands out like a sore thumb and has led to some very uncomfortable moments… Government officials with machine guns don’t like doing a double-take because they think a dude just gave them a woman’s passport!). I still want to travel extensively with my children, and I would still consider living abroad with them. But this past year has made me realize that I demand more for my family than just being tolerated or politely ignored, I want to be welcomed and recognized and celebrated in our queerness.

    I know this doesn’t really answer the question, but I thought I would share my experience in trying to have a queer family abroad. It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but I would would recommend taking into careful consideration how important the daily living out of your queer identity is to you (and will be for your family), and if living abroad is going to compromise that for you is that something you can handle.

  10. We live in Canada and are legally married with a three year old. Both if our names are on her birth certificate and passport. If we travel together we now cross every border as a gay family.

    Children aren’t supposed to be taken across borders with out both parents permission. We are so lucky to live in Canada and at the same time all the legal rights and protection we have here, means we can’t cross as and pretend we are friends. We traveled a lot before having a child and could do so with reasonable safety regardless of the countryside laws. Now it is much more complex.

    In general, my aim is to avoid countries where it is illegal to be gay. I dont want to risk imprisonment. For us that means we would never get to visit the country where my spouse is from. That is a huge loss. We are hoping to find a way to still go.

    We are talking travel non stop right now and figuring where is not only good for a family with a young child, has some adventure and interest for us and does not have a risk of imprisonment.

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