Most LGBT+ people feel the need to hide their sexuality or identity when traveling abroad, with many fearing their holiday could be ruined by discrimination, new research suggests.
While 84% of straight couples are at ease showing affection to a partner abroad, just one in 20 LGBT+ travellers feels that same.
What’s more, one in three LGBT+ travellers has experienced discrimination – including judgement and ridicule - on holiday, while one in 10 has been threatened with physical violence.
The research comes as new figures from the Office of National Statistics show more than one million people in the UK over the age of 16 now identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
The research, conducted by Virgin Holidays with Attitude magazine, asked 1,000 LGBT+ people and 1,000 straight people about their experiences of holidaying.
Of the one in three LGBT+ people who said they’d faced discrimination abroad, 58% said they’ve been stared at, 35% have been laughed at and a third (29%) had been verbally abused.
In addition, two thirds of LGBT+ people surveyed said they feel uncomfortable with everyday activities on holiday, such as applying sunscreen to their partner’s back.
Sadly, those surveyed said discrimination was evident from tourists from around the world, with one in four saying they had been discriminated against by other British holidaymakers.
However, hoteliers played a big role in the issue, with a third of LGBT+ travellers saying they feared judgement from staff.
More than half of LGBT+ respondents had had their relationship status questioned, including being offered single hotel rooms and having their beds separated by housekeeping staff.
This has resulted in eight out of 10 LGBT+ couples refusing to hold hands on holiday at all, with more than half even refusing to hold hands in the comfort and safety of their hotel.
Feeling the need to hide one’s sexuality abroad is something that’s all too familiar for Beka Alexander, 26, and her girlfriend Sarah Wood, 30, who have felt pressurised to “uncouple” while on holiday.
“Two years ago my girlfriend and I went on our first big holiday together - we booked an all-inclusive hotel in the Sharm El Sheik region of Egypt for 10 days without thinking about how we would be received as a couple,” Beka told HuffPost UK.
“Living in east London means we have the luxury of not really having to think about being coupley in public. But after seeing a few surprised reactions at us going on a romantic holiday in Egypt from family and friends, we spent every day actively avoiding touching each other; no kissing, no holding hands, jumping away from one another if we forgot where we were for a second, for fear that we might spark an adverse reaction.”
Despite this vigilance, Beka said they still received a lot of unwelcome attention.
“Two girls throwing each other about in the swimming pool meant we got a lot of stares (and a lot of men wanting to take these two ‘girls who are just friends’, and ‘no, no boyfriends’ for a drink), which just meant we stayed further away from each other,” she explained.
“It became so normal not to act like a couple that holding hands when we came home actually felt a little alien. It was the first time that I had realised how lucky we are to live in a city where, for the most part, we are accepted and left alone.”
Matt Ewington, a 26-year-old from London, said he feared potential discrimination for being gay while backpacking through south east Asia.
“I was travelling through Malaysia where being gay can be punishable by death. Because of this, I did not mention my sexuality to locals and became quite nervous of anyone finding out,” he told HuffPost UK.
“I hooked up with a guy from Grindr one night in my hostel and became quite paranoid that someone from the hostel would find out and report us to the police.
“Saying that I was also quite surprised at the number of Malaysians on Grindr, clearly they weren’t as scared of the law as I was!”
Matt said hiding his sexuality while abroad made him feel “uncomfortable” as it’s not something he’s used doing in the UK.
“No one should have to hide who they are. However, saying that I love travel so it has not put me off going to places where I’d have to hide my sexuality again, I guess it’s just something you have to accept in some countries,” he said.
Commenting on the survey findings, Matt Cain, editor-in-chief of Attitude, Europe’s largest gay magazine, said the results confirm what the magazine has been “aware of for a long time”.
“We’re glad that a popular holiday company like Virgin Holidays is now drawing attention to the enduring, uncomfortable truth about how gay people are treated when travelling to so many destinations around the world,” he said in statement.
“It’s important that we keep the conversation going to tackle overt and underlying discrimination so that gay men no longer expect to encounter homophobia on holiday – and don’t have to put up with it.”
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson added that “everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to be whoever they are, wherever they are”.
The research is part of a three-year plan Virgin Holidays unveiled in 2016 to better enable LGBT+ holidaymakers to have better experiences.
The plan is focussed on raising awareness of some of the problems LGBT+ people face on holiday, educating customers and empowering staff to make holidays more enjoyable for all.