With this year’s World Cup being hosted in Qatar, a spotlight has been shone on the issues that LGBT travellers are confronted with when attempting to traverse the globe. Prior to any trip abroad is the customary Google to see whether or not homosexuality is acceptable in your destination of choice.
In Qatar, like in 67 other countries around the world, it is illegal to be gay. If you are Muslim, this is punishable by death. The hosting of this year’s World Cup is seen by many as Qatar’s attempt to put itself on the tourism map, replicating the year-round tourist hotspot Dubai in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates.
A large and varied range of tourists, from Instagram influencers to octogenarians, have flocked to the Jewel of the Desert to bask in the sheer wealth that permeates the streets. I, however, have no intention of ever visiting Dubai.
In recent months, countless well-intentioned people have suggested Dubai and other homophobic countries as ideal holiday destinations for myself and my partner. Such a suggestion is often accompanied by phrases like, “You’ll be fine! There are loads of gay people who live in Dubai!” or “My friend who’s gay has been and had no trouble.”
Like I said: well-intentioned, but ignorant. To go to a country where it is illegal to be myself is not exactly the holiday thrill I am looking for. Bungee jumping? Sure! Scuba Diving? Why not? Persecution and incarceration? I think I’ll leave it, cheers.
The criminalisation of homosexuality is not limited to the Middle East. The Kingdom of Brunei reinstated stoning to death for gay sex in 2019. In July 2022, in Nigeria, three men were sentenced to death by stoning for engaging in homosexual acts. It is important to note, however, that whilst we in Britain may look at these laws as inhumane, a large number of the countries that criminalise homosexuality, particularly in Africa and Asia, are ex-colonies of the British Empire. Their laws are often remnants of the British penal codes forced upon them.
The chances of punishments being handed out to tourists are slim, but not unheard of. In 2017, a British tourist by the name of Jamie Harron was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison for brushing against another man’s hip in a busy bar in Dubai. Thankfully, Harron was released after an intervention from the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
The worrying thing about this case is that Harron identifies as straight. Whilst this shouldn’t matter, it does. Harron faced an immense uphill battle to secure his freedom, it was only until the highest official in Dubai saw the negative press coverage gathering and decided to nip it in the bud. Imagine if I, as a gay man, had been accused of the same ‘crime’. Would I have been believed in the same way? Would the ruler of Dubai have intervened for an openly gay man? I suspect not.
I’m sure many LGBTQ+ people have visited Dubai without issue, but for me, any holiday in Dubai would be spent in a constant state of paranoia about looking ‘too gay’ with my partner. I’d worry over the smallest transgressions; an accidental handhold, an overly long hug, or a quick peck on the cheek could result in a prison sentence.
This level of paranoia whilst abroad doesn’t exactly scream “holiday”. The sheer nervousness I felt when travelling through Qatar a few years ago led me to delete Grindr from my mobile. That was just for a two-hour layover. This paranoia is unfortunately justified, a recent report in the i, describes the horrific ordeal one person went through when they were lured into a trap by Qatari police posing as a gay man on a dating app.
A common response to the LGBTQ+ community’s concerns and fears about travelling to homophobic countries is to be “respectful of other cultures”. When travelling, I always endeavour to be respectful of the country’s customs and traditions; I am a guest and must always remember that. In reality, this is not an issue of respect but one of tolerance. I can be the most respectable tourist the country has ever seen, but because of the necessity for homophobic regimes to vigorously police homosexuality, there is no room for tolerance. My existence is deemed disrespectful.
The years of misery I spent trying to hide my sexuality from the world took such an emotional toll. Lying to friends, family, and colleagues for years is damaging beyond belief. Do I really want to relive these feelings for the sake of taking a photo of the Burj Khalifa and pretending to my Instagram followers that I’m rich for a week? The closet door only opens one way.
I’m often told I don’t ‘look gay’ (for the sake of time and my own sanity I’ll avoid unpacking this staggeringly uneducated remark), so it might be possible for me to go to a homophobic country and run into very few problems. What about my partner? What about every other LGBTQ+ person who might not align with this absurd vision of straightness?
People always give me a quizzical look when I mention the countless problems with Dubai as a holiday destination for my partner and I. It’s as if I’m overreacting. Until you have trawled the internet to find out if you and your partner are allowed to hold hands, slow dance, kiss, or simply show affection in a public place whilst abroad, please just suggest a rainy week in Skegness so we can all move on with our lives.