Before I get too deep into this post, let me emphasize that I’m not a legal scholar (obviously), but rather am sharing my take on something I get a lot of questions about. Furthermore, I’m not making a moral judgment call here as to the ethics of traveling to countries with laws against homosexuality, and I intend to write a separate post about that.
My guess is that lots of people already know this, but it’s a question I get all the time (both from gay and straight readers), which is why I’m addressing it here.
Laws impacting gays in the Middle East
One reader asked me the following question recently:
I have always been wondering since your June trip on the cheep emirates first class fare how you and Ford can travel to bad places that ban being gay and you don’t get thrown in jail I don’t mean to be rude but it fascinates me and i would love to know?
For someone who isn’t gay, hasn’t traveled to these countries, and/or hasn’t put much thought into it, this is a reasonable question. And it’s not an isolated question. I also get asked all the time “aren’t you scared of being thrown in jail in these countries for being gay?”
The reality — and I’m painting with a broad brush here — is that in most of the major Gulf countries that are visited by foreigners (Oman, Qatar, the UAE, etc.), being gay isn’t illegal. That’s to say that having gay “thoughts” or identifying as gay typically doesn’t violate any laws. When you arrive at immigration, they don’t ask you if you identify if you’re gay or not, and there’s no “gaydar” you have to go through to enter the country (rather I’m the one with the gaydar).
What’s often not legal in these countries is one of two things:
- Any sort of extra-marital sexual activity, whether gay or straight
- Free speech, so there may be laws against what they could view as “propaganda” (anything not in line with their agenda)
The biggest risk with traveling to some of these countries
Generally speaking I think the biggest risk with traveling to countries like the UAE (for example) is the inconsistent enforcement of laws, and often how open-ended they are.
For example, cussing by text is illegal in the UAE. 99.9999% of the time that’s not an issue. 0.0001% of the time it’s a serious issue and you’re thrown in jail. Furthermore, saying nice things about Qatar is illegal. So does saying nice things about Qatar Airways’ Qsuites while in the UAE mean I could get jailed?
In general I think the bigger concern is the inconsistent enforcement of laws that impact everyone, laws that are violated by a huge number of visitors every single day.
My comfort zone
Everyone has to stay within their comfort zone when traveling. Personally when traveling through the UAE, Qatar, Oman, etc., where do I draw the line with things?
- I have no problem adding Ford is my partner (it’s not illegal to have a legally recognized relationship with someone else in another country), though if people ask if we’re friends I usually just say yes
- I have no problem booking a room with a king bed, assuming I’m staying at a major international hotel chain (I often do the same thing when traveling with one of my parents, for example, since often a suite upgrade is only available with a single bed)
- I don’t show any sort of PDA (I don’t do that in any country, because it’s not something I’m comfortable with)
And that’s about it. Otherwise it’s business as usual for me.
Let me acknowledge once again that I’m being very broad here. I say “Middle East,” but obviously I’m not talking about Israel, which has one of the biggest pride parades in the world. Similarly, I acknowledge there’s a huge difference between Iran and the UAE, for example.
This is intended to be a mainstream observation for traveling through the major Gulf hubs, which is the context in which I get these questions most often.
But overall if traveling through a major Gulf hub and visiting a city, you generally shouldn’t face many issues as a gay traveler. Just understand the local customs, and I think the thing to be most concerned about is the inconsistent application of laws.