Depending on where they’re headed, gay travelers can face great risks. In April, the country of Brunei enacted an Islamic law making it legal to flog and stone LGBTQ people to death. And it’s not the only country to have the death penalty on the books: A few others include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran. According to Equaldex, a range of gay activities are illegal in 71 countries.
“This is horrifying,” says journalist Lyric Fergusson, who runs a blog with her husband Asher that is focused on travel safety. In an attempt to help determine the worst places for gay travelers, the duo has created a new LGBTQ+ Danger Index that ranks the world’s most dangerous—and safest—countries for gay travelers. “We have seen LGBTQ+ people dear to our hearts be discriminated against and our deepest desire for writing this article was to bring awareness to these issues and hopefully catalyze change,” says Fergusson. “As travel journalists, we wanted to help the LGBTQ+ community educate themselves on the very complex and layered world of staying safe during international travel.”
The journalists looked at the top 150 most-visited countries in the world by the number of incoming tourists, then ranked them using eight factors, including laws against gay relationships, legal protection against discrimination and more. According to the report, a few factors, such as adoption recognition and worker protections, may not affect travelers directly but are a good indication of overall attitudes within the culture. “These issues can affect everything, from your ability to show public displays of affection to being able to share a hotel room bed to the capacity at which you can use dating apps without being caught by the local police,” reads the report.
Topping the LGBTQ+ Danger Index is Nigeria, which is considered the worst country for violence against gay travelers. There, people can be put in prison for up to 14 years just for being gay, and some states even have the death penalty under Sharia law.
Sweden is the safest country in the world for LGBTQ travelers. Same-sex marriage has been legal there since 2009, and the country has more Pride festivals per capita than anywhere else in the world.
One shocking statistic: “A whopping 47 of the 70 countries that have illegal same-sex relationships were part of the British Empire. That is 67%!” says Fergusson. “This isn’t a coincidence. In almost all cases, the laws outlawing consensual gay sex were put into place under British rule and were left in place following independence.”
India is an example of a country that has taken many years to make some strides. “In 2018, India managed to annul Section 377, a British colonial-era law prohibiting ‘unnatural acts,’ in order to legalize consensual gay sex,” says Fergusson, who points out that ancient Indian literature such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana have many references to LGBTQ+ heroes including transgender warriors and two queens who made love in order for one queen to get pregnant with an heir for their kingdom. “Long story short, this points to the fact that it was likely the British influence that largely led to Indian homophobia in the first place,” she says.
Surprisingly, given this history, the United Kingdom is the sixth safest country in the world for LGBTQ+ travelers. “We found this to be a bit ironic as the reason for many of the harsh homophobic laws in countries throughout the world is largely leftover from laws created during British rule,” says Fergusson. “However, in modern times, the U.K. has made great progress with legalized same-sex marriage, worker protections and criminalization of homophobic violence.”
On the other hand, the United States did not do as well in the survey—coming in 24th out of 150 countries. “One reason for that is that there is a great deal of variation in gay rights depending on the state you’re in,” says Fergusson. “There are also no constitutional or broad protections for LGBTQ+ rights under federal law in the U.S. The U.S. might have come far, but it has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, especially for young transgender people.”
In working on the report, Fergusson says they were surprised that there are still many countries that have the death penalty, lashings or imprisonment for same-sex relationships. “These laws are not widely known amongst Western travelers, and we hope others—no matter their orientation—are shocked as well,” says Fergusson, who was also surprised by the laws and attitudes still present in many popular Caribbean vacation spots such as Jamaica. In addition to the 150 most touristed countries on the LGBTQ+ Danger Index, the report calls out five other Caribbean countries where same-sex relationships are illegal: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
“The whole research process was very eye-opening, emotional and frustrating,” says Fergusson. “Our hope is that by making this research widely known we might be able to catalyze change within some of these governments that rely heavily on tourism.”
Read on for the list of the 20 most dangerous places in the LGBTQ+ Danger Index and commentary from Fergusson, the coauthor of the study. Following this is the list of the five safest places for LGBTQ+. You can see the entire ranking of the 150 countries here and also get 37 safety tips.
The 20 Most Dangerous Places for LGBTQ+ Travelers
“Located in the heart of Africa, Nigeria ranked as the #1 most dangerous country for members of the LGBTQ+ community. It was ranked so highly 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,” says Fergusson. “The mere discussion of LGBT rights is criminalized under 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.”
“Coming in second on our LGBTQ+ Danger 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—and suspending anti-LGBT laws during the tournament has been discussed, though ultimately rejected by the Qatari government.”
“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 country 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.”
4. Saudi Arabia
“Saudi Arabia is another of the countries on our list which implements 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 East African country is renowned for its remarkable natural attractions, including Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park, making Tanzania a massive hub for international tourism. Unfortunately, this country was ranked at #5 on our LGBTQ+ Danger Index, which may inspire LGBTQ+ visitors to rethink their travel plans,” says Fergusson. “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.”
“Iran made #6 on the index, due in part to its extreme punishments for homosexuality, which include 100 lashes for homosexual intercourse or the death penalty, and 31 lashes for same-sex acts other than intercourse,” says Fergusson. “According to the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), ‘An open and free life in a same-sex partnership is unthinkable in the Islamic Republic.’ In regards to LGBTQ+ travel to Iran, travelers will want to be cautious and avoid any public displays of affection.”
“An African nation bordering the stunning Red Sea, Sudan is particularly unfriendly to the LGBTQ+ community. The first two accounts of sodomy result in 100 lashes and five years in prison, and the third offense earns either the death penalty or life in prison,” 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 legal complications.”
“This was one of the more shocking countries to appear on our list, and in the top 10, no less,” says Fergusson. “Historically, Barbados and some other Caribbean islands have had poor anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and practices, largely left over from the British occupation which put these laws in place and reinforced anti-gay attitudes. However, recently Barbados, along with with Grenada, Saint Lucia, and some others in the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE), have announced plans to begin to challenge the anti-LGBTQ+ laws currently in place.”
“This phenomenal Southeast Asian country is full of beautiful 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.”
“The punishments for homosexuality in Malawi have earned this African country spot #10 on our list,” says Fergusson. “Same-sex acts result in 14 years in prison for men and five years imprisonment for women, with or without corporal punishment. Pro-LGBTQ+ organizations are also banned by the government in Malawi and general public sentiment regards homosexuality as off-limits. Though these laws are technically in place, they are rarely enforced, particularly with tourists visiting Malawi, and discussions about changing anti-LGBT laws have begun to take place.”
“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 homosexual, which include seven years to life in prison for any same-sex act,” says Fergusson. “For LGBTQ+ and western travelers in general, it is important to be conscious of local customs and norms, which in Zambia include avoiding any forms of PDA regardless of your orientation.”
12. Saint Lucia
“One of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean, Saint Lucia came in 12th on our LGBTQ+ Danger Index,” says Fergusson. “A popular vacation destination for tourists from around the world, Saint Lucia’s high ranking came as a bit of a surprise to us. Colonial-era anti-LGBTQ+ laws, particularly that concerning consensual ‘buggery,’ which earns 10 years in prison, are still in place though are no longer truly enforced. Saint Lucia’s prime minister has stated that anti-LGBT laws are currently under review, though the government does not have an official stance as of yet.”
“One of Africa’s most populous countries, Uganda ranks #13 on our LGBTQ+ Danger 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 government has recently called to reintroduce an anti-homosexuality bill, which would include the death penalty for same-sex acts, in the midst of the recent murder of a gay Ugandan activist.”
“Same-sex relationships are considered to be taboo in Pakistan and there are strict laws governing against homosexuality. For example, homosexual intercourse can result in up to 10 years in prison with a fine or life in prison,” says Fergusson. “That said, LGBTQ+ issues are not typically at the forefront of Pakistan’s political agenda, BBC News reported that ‘Sex between men will be overlooked as long as no-one feels that tradition or religion are being challenged. At the end of it all, everyone gets married to a member of the opposite sex and nothing is spoken about.’”
15. 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 10 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.’”
“Kenya is filled with gorgeous landscapes and unique wildlife, making this East African country a favorite destination for international travelers. Currently, Kenyan law states that same-sex intercourse between males results in 14 years in prison, while all other homosexual acts between males are punished with five years imprisonment,” says Fergusson. “However, the decriminalization of gay sex is being discussed within the government, which would likely bolster LGBTQ+ travel to the country.”
“Renowned 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. “In the Maldives, homosexual acts and intercourse, as well as same-sex marriage, earn eight years in prison or 100 lashes. Though these laws are currently 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.”
“One of the Caribbean’s most popular vacation destinations for tourists worldwide, Jamaica was another shocking country to top our LGBTQ+ Danger Index,” says Fergusson. “Jamaica ranks as the third-worst Caribbean nation for members of the LGBTQ+ community behind Barbados and Saint Lucia. This is largely due to Jamaica’s ‘buggery law,’ which is leftover from the colonial era and allows for a sentence of up to 10 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.”
“Located on the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a country rich with lush landscapes and cultural diversity. Ranking 19th on our index, Ethiopia outlaws same-sex relations and ‘indecent,’ or homosexual, acts result in up to 15 years in prison,” says Fergusson. “Recently, there have been death threats by Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian community over gay tourism to the country, putting LGBTQ+ tourists at risk.”
“Renowned throughout the world for its ancient pyramids and historical and religious significance, Egypt is a massive tourist destination for international travelers everywhere. Unfortunately, Egypt ranked #20 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.”
The 5 Safest Places for LGBTQ+ Travelers
“Coming in first place as the safest country for the LGBTQ+ travel is Sweden,” says Fergusson. “Scandinavia is generally known for its friendly people and liberal attitudes towards equality for all. Sweden legalized same-sex marriage in 2009 and performed well on each of our measured categories. 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.”
“Canada’s friendly attitudes and positive legislation towards the LGBTQ+ community have earned it the title of the second safest country on our LGBTQ+ Danger Index,” says Fergusson. “Renowned for its kind locals, rich maple syrup and chilly winters, Canada has constitutional protections in place to guard the LGBTQ+ community against violence and discrimination, and same-sex marriage is of course legal. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promoted inclusivity by marching in Toronto’s Pride Parade and became the country’s first Prime Minister to visit a gay bar.”
“Known for its unbelievable landscapes, friendly people and unique culture, it’s no surprise that this Scandinavian country ranks in the top three safest countries for LGBTQ+ travelers,” says Fergusson. “Norway legalized same-sex marriage in 2009 and has protections in place against anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and violence. Additionally, since 1981, Norway became one of the first countries in the world to grant equal rights to everyone regardless of sexual orientation and is home to a variety of annual LGBTQ-friendly events.”
“One of only three countries to get an ‘A’ on our index, Portugal comes in fourth in regards to LGBTQ+ safety,” says Fergusson. “With legalized same-sex marriage since 2010 and numerous legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community, Portugal scored just behind Norway. Cities like Lisbon and Porto have the best gay scenes in the country and Portugal is hoping to host the 2022 Europride, the world’s biggest event celebrating gay pride in Europe.”
“Coming in at #5, Belgium scored highly in all eight of the researched categories. With an overall national attitude that is relaxed and accepting towards homosexuality, Belgium is known for having a vibrant gay and lesbian scene, particularly in Brussels,” says Fergusson. “One fun fact about Belgium is that same-sex sexual activity first became legal in 1795.”