Safety tips for LGBTQ travelers in Mexico and Central America
You Guys. I hate that we still have to talk about this, but we do. Karin and I get questions all of the time about what it was like to travel, by car, through Mexico and Central America as an open, married lesbian couple. Was it safe? Were you out? Were you scared? Did you see other gay people? I’m happy to report that although not always perfect, overall, we were pleasantly surprised by the experience. Central America is pretty damned gay. Belize was the most difficult for us and you can read more about that in our blog post: Why we took down the About Us page on our website while in Belize. More generally, we learned a lot, we stayed safe and we stayed true to ourselves. What we don’t want to do is put all LGBTQ people in a box or suggest we know who you are or what matters to you. I have been an activist my entire life, one search of my name on the internet and you’ll find that I started the LGBT Legal Relief Fund and was president of the LGBTQ Student Association at my law school and interned with both the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force – my instinct is to push back against the status quo. I am a femme, cisgender lesbian and so is Karin – in many ways we live with the privilege of passability. Our experiences may not speak to you but it is what we have to draw from. This is what we recommend:
1. Learn the laws related to same-sex relationships in the places you visit but don’t let that be the end of your inquiry. If you read our blog post about Belize then you know that at the time we entered the country, Belize was the last country in Central America (I guess Belize is technically North America…but I can’t remember) to have anti-gay laws on the books. Two, specifically – one that outlawed gay sex and made it punishable by up to ten years in prison and another that made it illegal for a gay foreigner to enter the country at all. The second one is still on the books but the first was struck down by the Belizean supreme court on our last day in the country. I can’t say we felt safe being out in Belize and our decision was to not be. Both Karin and I are “passable” and don’t purposefully draw a lot of attention to ourselves BUT we did become painfully aware of the little gestures and interactions between us (or any couple that has been together a long time) that make it clear we aren’t sisters. In Belize, we chose to primarily travel with other friends and we had a story ready for the reason we were two women traveling together – and we were asked, often. For us, I think sexism and antiquated beliefs about gender played a bigger part in our experience than being lesbians.
In contrast, lets talk about Costa Rica – Costa Rica doesn’t have specifically anti-gay laws on the books but gay marriage is not yet legal. However, we found Costa Rica to be the most accepting of the LGBT community, full of gay bars, drag queens and men openly holding hands without repercussion. Laws and social acceptance don’t always match up. The latter usually precedes the former. There is rumor that the newly elected Costa Rican president may prioritize the legalization of marriage. The laws are only one part of the total picture. You must know them for your own safety and planning and we won’t judge you if you decide to not visit a place because of their laws but for us, it was important that we went to all of the places we wanted to go.
2. Find the friendly and safe-spaces. Every country has them. Gay people are EVERYWHERE and we always create and find our community. Allies are everywhere, you only have to look. The internet makes it easy – there are websites like purpleroofs.com that provide lists of LGBT-friendly accommodations. The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association can direct you to gay-friendly businesses. There are facebook pages for the LGBT communities of every major city. There are blogs and travel websites like this one that can provide contacts and information (always feel free to send us a message or comment on a post and we can probably give you some direction). Except for Belize, we have yet to visit a country that didn’t have at least one or two gay bars in its major cities. Even Belize has a small but annual gay pride parade and the regular DJ for Pride, DJ Nathalie, owns a campsite and hostel called “Backpackers Paradise” in Sartaneja. We found private, gay-only resorts in Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In finding your people, you find safety.
3. Talk to gay locals and do what they do. But never forget, you are not a local. Staying true to ourselves is always a priority for us. The only thing more important for us, is our personal safety. The only times while traveling through Central America that we held hands openly were in places like Guadalajara, Mexico, where they have a gay zone that has 26 gay bars and LGBT people holding hands is accepted and ordinary (in that zone). Even then, we were careful about the when and where. In San Jose, Costa Rica, we were only in the country for a few hours when we saw two gay male couples holding hands walking down a main road. This eased our minds but we still waited until we were in a neighborhood known for progressive attitudes and younger people before PDA. In Guatemala, we found our people in Antigua and in Guatemala City. Antigua, has five gay bars and one prominent lesbian-owned restaurant and night club, Frida’s. Still, the city overall has a very conservative undertone. Except inside of those bars, we followed the lead of the locals and did not show much affection in public. In Guatemala City, we attended a huge gay pride celebration and this was the perfect time to be loud and proud.
4. Always have an exit plan. In some ways, this was easier for us than non-car travelers and in other ways, more difficult but we were always ready to leave a location at the moment one of us felt unsafe. We reminded each other often of our agreement to trust each other and get out. With every new place, we had a generalized plan of where we would go if we needed to leave or if we got separated. We always kept a certain amount of cash hidden in the vehicle and a small amount hidden on each of our persons in case of emergency.
5. Use Google Translate or whatever translating app you are comfortable with but have one. An emergency situation is not the time to fumble around a new language. And often, by not having a mode of fluid communication, you miss out on finding those safe spaces and people we talked about earlier. And by the way, gayspeak is gayspeak everywhere. We all know that LGBTQ’s have our own language – what we learned is that that vocabulary applies no matter what language it is you’re actually speaking. Gays in Costa Rica knew as much about the time frame of a “hot minute” and a person being “fierce” as we did.
6. Leave Grindr and Tinder at home. I’m not gonna lie – as a criminal defense attorney who has seen the worst of people, I don’t love these apps even in the States. But I REALLY don’t like them in foreign countries. You are a stranger in a strange land. In Central America, prostitution is rampant (in some places, legal) and expectations may be very different than what you expect. You may find yourself exposed to dangerous situations that you didn’t count on and without the safety nets or street smarts of home .
7. Be prepared for twin beds. If you aren’t staying in a known gay-friendly accommodation, know that in Central America it is VERY common for rentals to have two twin beds in a room. We experienced many raised eyebrows when we asked for a single bed. Although it never happened to us, we heard stories of other couples being denied a room because of it. It is a surefire way to alert a rental-owner of your status and that may not always be what you want to do. If we had known ahead of time that this may be an issue, we would have been better prepared for it.
8. Be wary of the quality of condoms and contraceptives In the major cities of Central America, this won’t be an issue but in smaller towns and villages, pay attention to packaging and to expiration dates. Also know that materials and standards may be very different – not to be ethnocentric, but try to find American brands for these items.
9. Do all of the obvious things. Make copies of your passport and itinerary and provide those copies to a friend or family member. Use the safe in your hotel or room. Get travel insurance. Don’t carry large amounts of cash or wear flashy jewelry – these are all tips for any travel to any country, not just LGBTQ and not just in Mexico or Central America.
Most importantly, have fun! If you act frightened or nervous, you make yourself a target. These tips aren’t to scare you but quite the opposite – with a little preparation and mindfulness, you can relax and have an amazing