For three decades, people in the United States and abroad have celebrated October 11 as Coming Out Day, a moment for LGBTQ+ people to embrace their identities publicly.
Travel is universal—but for LGBTQ+ people, it can be a little more complicated. Photographer Michael George has documented what it’s like to travel as a gay man. “This was our last trip together before he joined the Navy and moved away,” George says of his former roommate, Jackson, shown here on a summer evening lakeside in Meredith, New Hampshire.
But coming out isn’t a grand, one-time affair—you’re not in the closet one day and making an announcement at a debutante ball the next. Every new job, every new friend, every new place calls for stepping out from a closet of societal assumptions, in what becomes a constant, lifelong process.
The outing is often subtle: dropping the pronoun of a partner, choosing a particular type of clothing, kissing in public. And every choice not to come out can be a painful denial of self with real consequences, like depression and anxiety.
Travel is a way to learn about different cultures and exchange new perspectives—but threats of violence or fear of discomfort rob that opportunity from millions of potential travelers. Creating environments where LGBTQ+ travelers feel safe coming out makes traveling richer for everyone.
Every summer, Brian and Shawn attend RuPaul’s “Camp” Camp, a summer retreat in southern Maine for LGBTQ adults. “With each country or destination that we visit, we often incorporate a slightly different ‘flavor’ of what our coming out might look like, with an awareness of cultural sensitivity as well as our level of comfort,” says Brian. “We always try to do it quickly, just as we’re establishing a connection.”
I’ve been out for twenty years, since the first time I disclosed my identity at the age of fourteen. However, like many in my community, I have gone back in the closet for certain travels. I wasn’t out for most of my college year abroad in Burgos, a small city in northern Spain. I didn’t want to be judged solely on being a lesbian, and I was also hesitant about what the reactions in the conservative city might be.
Elise and Carmen enjoy the waterfront in Brooklyn, New York, during Pride Month in 2018. “We do extensive research on the area we are going and will absolutely find pockets that are LGBTQ friendly,” says Elise. “However, we often find ourselves traveling without openly displaying that we are in fact a couple. It, unfortunately, comes down to a safety precaution for us. We are on the same page with how we handle these situations.”
While there, I covertly discovered another exchange student was also closeted. We would escape Burgos on weekends, taking the three-hour bus ride to Madrid to explore the bustling, rainbow-adorned gayborhood, Chueca. We’d live in the open, joyously, for hours of dancing, shopping, and people-watching before sprinting for the last Burgos-bound bus of the night.
Why go: In a culture that reveres children and families, LGBTQ families are treated no differently than others. What to know: The 13 colorful towns of the Amalfi Coast perch above azure oceans—though some are more visited than others. Less-expensive Praiano is perfect for families. Hop on the convenient local buses to sightsee, let the kids scramble over the rocks at sand-less Marina de Praia beach, and follow a tour guide through the vast grounds of nearby Pompeii. End the day with fresh-caught seafood and pasta, sangria for the adults, and gelato for all.
Why go: One of the only islands in the Caribbean that is expressly welcoming of LGBTQ travelers, Aruba attracts a gay-friendly crowd. What to know: With blindingly white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters, Aruba offers superb snorkeling and diving. A family outing on De Palm Tours’ catamaran uncovers an underwater playground of colorful fish, coral, and a shipwreck. Kids of all ages love the Aruba Butterfly Farm, where hundreds of butterflies swirl through the air and guides show visitors how to handle the insects without harming them. (Get a local’s suggestions of more activities to do on Aruba.)
Why go: Even outside of its world-renowned Pride celebrations, Puerto Vallarta is one of Mexico’s most LGBT-friendly destinations. What to know: Enjoy a quieter beachfront scene at Marina Vallarta and Nueva Vallarta. For a more active, urban experience, take a walk through downtown Puerto Vallarta to enjoy street markets, food vendors, and excellent shops. For a family outing, try a Vallarta Adventures tour of Yelapa or Islas Marietas.
Why go: Spain was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage, and Barcelona’s established LGBTQ community—plus its historic legacy of art, literature, and music—make it well worth a trip. What to know: Plan a visit to some of the city’s more than 55 museums, dedicated to everything from art and architecture to science, sports, and war. Explore iconic architect Antoni Gaudí’s famously unfinished La Sagrada Família cathedral, begun in 1882, and his Park Güell masterpieces. Head to La Rambla, the city’s famous central boulevard, and feast the senses at La Boquería food hall, where kids can wander aisles of food and treats, ogling big-eyed fish, goat heads, delicate cheese, and fresh-picked cherries. Visit in the off season to mitigate overtourism and avoid crowds.
Why go: High-service, waterfront resorts along the Riviera Maya offer enticing family packages. What to know: For Caribbean beauty without Caribbean crowds, head to Playa del Carmen. The Yucatán Peninsula boasts some of Mexico’s best preserved Maya ruins; for the best experience, book an organized tour from action-packed Alltournative or history-focused Maritur. It’s also an easy drive to the sprawling grounds of Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After a day of exploring, cool off in one of the area’s thousands of cenotes with clear, turquoise water and glinting tropical fish.
Why go: There’s always something new to do in the United Kingdom’s queer-friendly capital. What to know: Stay in tony Mayfair or Knightsbridge for views of Hyde Park and a short walk to Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and Piccadilly Circus. If your kids are Harry Potter fans, don’t miss a stop at the King’s Cross Tube station for a priceless photo opp with a luggage trolley disappearing into the brick wall of Platform 9 ¾. Save money by grabbing a London Pass for reduced admission prices to more than 80 attractions throughout the city. (Here are more things to do in London with kids.)
Why go: Hawaii is among the U.S. states with the highest percentage of LGBTQ adults, and Honolulu has long been a favorite destination for LGBTQ travelers. What to know: For families with older kids, the electric bike tours at Pedego Waikiki are a great way to whiz down the beachfront and watch the surfers. Spend time on a history lesson at Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, then snorkel off the Waikiki Coast for a chance to see green sea turtles—though remember to keep a safe distance. (Here are the 10 top things to do in Honolulu.)
Why go: In 2015, Ireland became the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, and though Dublin might have a livelier gay community, Cork offers a mix of contemporary and traditional at a slower pace. What to know: Fly to Cork airport, or land in Dublin and drive the three hours south to sightsee along the way. To kiss the famous Stone of Eloquence at nearby Blarney Castle, arrive early to avoid the crowds, then spend the afternoon wandering the grounds, complete with nature trails, fairy circles, and a poison garden. (Here’s how to take a picture-perfect road trip through the Irish countryside.)
Why go: Though it doesn’t rival the lively scene in neighboring Thailand, Cambodia is accommodating to LGBTQ visitors—the official tourism board once even sponsored a campaign welcoming gay tourists. What to know: Stroll downtown Siem Reap’s Pub Street area to enjoy affordable four-star meals. Consider lodging that gives back to the local community, like Hotel Shinta Mani, where proceeds from guest revenue are used to fund a hospitality training program helping locals become wage earners for their families. The breathtaking ruins at Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom are a must-see, but keep an eye out, as the grounds can be precarious for young kids. (Learn more about Cambodia’s rich history and cultural heritage.)
Why go: The queen of gay-friendly cities, Amsterdam is the colorful, walkable capital of a country with a long history of legal protections for LGBTQ people. What to know: Fly into Schiphol Airport, one of the world’s most surprising, before heading into the city center. Don’t bother with a car—the local streetcars are efficient, and bike tours are a great way to tour the city’s bridges and canals. With audio, video, and hands-on displays, the unforgettable Anne Frank House tells the young Holocaust victim’s story in a way kids can understand. The Van Gogh Museum allows children to paint their own canvases one day each week. Give the whole family space to explore and skip the high season to cut down on crowds. (Learn more about free things to do in Amsterdam.)
Chueca was just one of many places I’ve traveled where I felt instantly at home, comforted by my flag and in kinship with my community. When a place welcomes LGBTQ+ travelers, it puts a spotlight on how queer locals are accepted, opening up an opportunity for solidarity between the two groups.
(Related: These monuments honor LGBTQ history around the world.)
By the end of my year abroad, I realized that being gay was an undeniable part of who I was; I came out to many of the friends I’d made in Burgos, knowing them well enough to share my full self with them. I even gained the confidence to spend the following summer fully out in Sofia, Bulgaria, as an intern for what was then the only LGBTQ+ rights organization in the country.
But for many other travelers, whose trips don’t last months, the shorter duration doesn’t allow for that trust to be built.
A constant calculus
Before the pandemic, LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. averaged 6.8 trips per year and spent $63.1 billion annually on travel. LGBTQ+ Americans are also more than twice as likely to have a valid passport than non-LGBTQ+ Americans.
The LGBTQ+ travelers I spoke to cited physical safety as the primary concern for their caution when choosing to come out while on a trip. We ask ourselves: Am I in a city’s gayborhood? Am I alone in a taxicab? Am I in a country where homosexuality is illegal?
“That’s a calculus we sadly have to make,” Scott Gatz of San Francisco tells me. If he feels physically safe, the question for Gatz becomes, “Who is going to hold the discomfort? Me or them?” If someone at a check-out counter sees his wedding ring and asks where his wife is, will he uncomfortably avoid the question—or will he risk flustering the asker by telling them he’s actually married to a man?
(Related: Here are the best destinations for LGBTQ+ families.)
Being LGBTQ+ is not a singular experience. Gender, race, and other intersecting identities play a significant role in choices about whether to come out, as do whether a traveler is alone, with a partner, or with children. Transgender travelers may be outed at the first step of their trip by showing a passport with a years-old photo or going through a body scanner. Every time they show an ID with a birth name—more frequent while traveling than in daily life—is an opportunity for a tense interaction.
Vincent Jones, owner of Citizen Jones Travel, says that he notices how businesses and locals in gay travel hotspots—like Mykonos, Ibiza, and Puerto Vallarta—cater to white gay men, while Black gay tourists like him don’t receive the same treatment. On a recent vacation to Las Vegas from his Los Angeles home, Jones found that the host at an upscale restaurant seemed doubtful that Jones wanted to be seated in the restaurant instead of the lounge: “That was their way of telling me they didn’t think I could afford to eat there.”
Jessica Drucker, the author of How to Move Abroad And Why It’s The Best Thing You’ll Do, told me that while traveling with a female partner, she sometimes considers accepting the hotel staff’s assumption that they booked a king bed by mistake and actually wanted two full beds. “Maybe you let that go and mess up both beds so it looks like both are being slept in,” she says. “I think all gay people know about that awkward moment at the front desk.”
In 2007, Gatz was researching B&B options online for an upcoming trip to Boston. He saw a woman’s post on TripAdvisor.com, commenting that there were “a lot of men” in the South End neighborhood; knowing exactly what she meant, he booked there. The next year he founded the company behind GayCities.com—what he calls the “gay TripAdvisor”—to find queer-friendly neighborhoods in the world’s cities. Now, the site is a LGBTQ+ travel hub covering more than 230 cities. Other websites, like that of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, also offer resources for LGBTQ+ travelers.
The primary driver for LGBTQ+ people to travel, according to the 2019 survey, is to escape stress. While for straight travelers that could mean a rural retreat, LGBTQ+ travelers are more likely to choose big cities as destinations, and queer-friendliness is their top concern. Logically, a trip is more likely to be relaxing if you’re in a place where the choice to come out is almost always a “yes.”
(Related: Learn how rural queer communities connect through storytelling.)
Drucker has lived in several countries and knows that the signals that might out you in one place, like short hair for lesbians, will be interpreted in an entirely different context somewhere else. Same-sex hand holding, for example, is not seen as romantic in many cultures. “I actually feel safer abroad than in the U.S., in many cases,” Drucker says. “While I might get a dirty look in Cambodia, I might be more likely to be beat up in certain areas of the U.S.”
I love that there’s a LGBTQ+ community almost anywhere I travel: I can stop by a community center or certain café to find my extended family wherever I go. But no one should be required to seek out only certain spaces to feel safe. And though more destinations are welcoming LGBTQ+ visitors—the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association, for example, now includes thousands of member businesses in 80 countries—travelers still face the question of whether to come out.
For Drucker, comfort level is key to a happy trip. “There’s a level of integrity you feel walking by that hotel front desk,” she says, “knowing that you said ‘yes, we are a couple.’”
Sarah Prager is an author of two books on LGBTQ+ history whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, HuffPost, Fodor’s Travel, JSTOR Daily, Business Insider, and others. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Michael George is a New York City-based photographer and writer who strives to tell stories of our common humanity. Follow more of his work on Instagram.