Ellie Mackin shares her tips and tricks for travelling safely as a queer trans woman
BY ELLIE MACKIN
The big, unsmiling customs official flicks through my passport with a well-licked finger. I hold my breath as I step through the X-ray machine, praying it won’t betray me. With a nod he hands me back my passport and says the words I still can’t believe I’m hearing; “Welcome to Russia.”
As I head off into St. Petersburg I can’t help but feel elated that I, an openly gay woman, am here, in the country with perhaps the most well documented anti-LGBTQI+ laws in the world. But why am I here, how am I here and what can I do to keep myself safe?
The “why” is quite easy to answer: I love travelling and I’ve firmly resolved that neither coming out as queer or as a trans woman will stop me seeing as much of the world as possible. The “how” is harder to answer.
A year before, I applied for a Russian Visa to spend some time in Moscow, but one look at my medical history and I was quickly refused, which only made me more determined to get into the country. A couple of hours of studying the consulate’s Visa rules revealed that while visiting Russia doesn’t actually require a Visa, staying there does. With this in mind, I did some thinking and came up with the solution. Staying on a boat in St. Petersburg harbour for a few nights, and going through customs each day to get in and out of the country.
Three days after that first nervous entry into Russia, I was heading back to Tallinn, Estonia on the boat I’d stayed on with a rucksack full of vodka and a supply of uniquely St. Petersburg experiences, but also a thought. Just how could I persuade other LGBTQI+ people that the world is theirs to travel, as long as they do it safely?
“It’s not what you say, but what you don’t say…” Monika laughs as we clink wineglasses. We’re in a bar in Khiva, a medieval walled city on the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that’s become known as the heartland of lesbian culture in the Central Asian country. There are still stringent anti-LGBTQI+ laws here, yet I don’t feel threatened at all. “If you like boys you wear blue,” Monika explains. “And if you like girls, you wear red. If the government asks, you pretend you never heard of this before and they can’t prove it.” She says all this with a big smile and points to her blue shirt and red jumper. “See, I like boys and girls, or red and blue. Depends who’s asking” she grins, ordering more wine.
This attitude is one I’ve come across a lot on my travels; that as long as you pretend to know nothing about LGBTQI+ culture, you’ll get on just fine. While I (and most other activists) wouldn’t usually condone this kind of erasure, if it keeps you safe and allows you to travel, then a little feigned ignorance can be forgiven.
Of course, this doesn’t help if you’re filling in the “spouse” section of a Visa and you happen to be in a same-sex couple – most countries with anti-LGBTQI+ laws would reject an application straightaway. However Visas, for UK and EU citizens at least, are gradually becoming a thing of the past. In the last decade alone, more than 50 countries have removed the need for Visas for people visiting for a short period, usually less than 90 days. This includes almost all of the Caribbean islands, most of South America and large sections of Central Asia.
“Of course,” Monika tells me, “They’re only doing this for the money.” No Visa requirement means tourists are less put off by bureaucracy and are able to be more spontaneous, as well as not handing over as much personal information. Until 10 years ago, explains Monika, almost all of Khiva’s visitors came from two countries: China and Russia. Now, with Visa regulations relaxed or removed and tourism from Europe on the rise, things are changing. As we walk through the narrow cobbled streets that have been here for centuries, she points out western-style toilet blocks, exchange rates in dollars and pounds at the exchange kiosk, and other things that weren’t there just a few years ago.
Attitudes are changing too. With an influx of people from other countries, many places are making an attempt to become more LGBTQI+ friendly: for tourists, if not for residents. The majority of consulate websites now carry information for LGBTQI+ tourists which is usually very accurate, but with Visas disappearing and countries becoming more tolerant, there can still be issues.
Some countries, most notably Russia, China, India and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, have complex application processes which ask in depth questions. Some people find this off-putting, but if you’re like me and can’t resist the lure of travel then the best thing to do is find an advisor. These should be easy to find – especially for India and China in my experience – and they can guide you through the application process step by step for a small fee, ensuring you avoid anything which might get you disqualified.
Because advisors live in the UK, they’re usually quite culturally aware and might tell you to lie about certain things on your application; of course, it’s up to you whether you feel comfortable doing so. If you’re able to, I’d also suggest traveling in a group, or as part of an organised tour anywhere where you feel you might be unsafe. That way you’re not on your own and can get through tricky situations as a group. You might also want to hire a guide who speaks the local language. Ultimately, I hope that, with relaxed regulations and more tourist-friendly approaches, and with the right precautions and preparations, that the whole world can be a place where every LGBTQI+ person can explore.
As I get off the boat in Tallinn I feel triumphant. Soon the memories will have faded – perhaps something to do with the six bottles of St. Petersburg’s finest tucked away in my rucksack – but the three Russian stamps in my passport will still be there, and whenever I see them I will feel the same feeling; I did it! I got there! And so can you.
This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!