Same-Sex Expat Experiences

Contributed by Jamie Waddell, 09 May, 2014

A recent survey conducted by Pew Research found Europe to be the continent most tolerant of homosexuality, with Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic all having over 80 per cent of respondents agree that homosexuality should be accepted in society.

The Western world prides itself on taking a liberal and progressive attitude towards other values and lifestyles. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights have certainly come a long way in Western countries, with the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK clearly like a long-overdue amendment.

Living in a tolerant modern society, it's difficult to imagine what life is like to live in a country without common civil rights. Homosexual couples in Europe take for granted the fact that they can go out to a bar and not be treated like outsiders. However recent anti-gay propaganda campaigns Russia, Uganda, Greece and the Middle East go to show that gay activists still have a long way to go in their struggle for social equality worldwide.

What is it like to go from living in a liberal and accepting society to one that perhaps challenges and contradicts who you are? We asked a number of LGBT expats about their experiences living abroad in a country potentially less-progressive than their home.

Ligeia and Mindy in Thailand

Ligeia and Mindy, from the USA and Canada, were both expats in Berlin when they met. They have been living in Thailand for the past two years and have found people to be only superficially tolerant of homosexuality:

'At first glance, society may seem rather inclusive of homosexuality given its understanding and belief of a third gender (katoey). However, we have discovered that homophobia is quite rampant, although it wears a different mask than we're used to.

'Butch lesbians (and effeminate gay men) are seen as "normal" because it's clear that these people "born this way" as the third gender. However, for more feminine lesbians (and masculine men) it is seen as strange and abnormal to be attracted to other feminine women. In this way butch women are often referred to as "he" and "Mr".

'As long as lesbian couples fit the butch/femme stereotype, they have a place in Thai society. Conversely, most Thais would be shocked at the prospect of two "ladies" (or muscle men) together. Thai society, therefore, seems to see us as a straight couple, labelling Mindy as a man.’

We also asked Liegeia and Mindy if there is a LGBT community is like in Thailand:

'The lesbian scene is Bangkok is much larger than the city of Chiang Mai, where we live, where it is virtually non-existent. Because lesbians aren't seen here as "lesbians" by society and perhaps even themselves, there is no need for a "lesbian scene".

'Instead, we have found that those our Western eyes see as lesbians simply hang out with everyone else, having no need to separate themselves. We have come across a few other lesbian expats while living here and they report the same findings in Chiang Mai. It is, therefore, easy to feel isolated.'

Court and Sylvain in Ecuador

Court (from Boston) and Sylvain (from Paris), met and fell in love in 1990 whilst Court was studying in France. Ten years later they moved to New York and tried all they could to get Sylvain a green card. However after receiving no help from the relevant authorities, Sylvain was eventually deported. After ten years Sylvain re-entered the USA illegally and the couple lived in New York for two more years in constant fear of the government. They eventually decided to move to Ecuador.

'We first moved to Cuenca which is a smaller city in the South of Ecuador. There is not much of a gay community there. The gays that are there are very closeted in this very Catholic country. People there didn't understand we were gay. We would have lots of women trying to marry us – and not understand we were just not interested. They didn't seem to even comprehend that we were gay. 

'After six months, we decided to move to the capital, Quito which has a gay community and a more modern understanding of being gay. We are very happy here and have found great friends here.'

They started their own business Freedom Bike Rental in 2009 and were married in France on March 20th 2014, although their marriage is not recognised in Ecuador.

'There is a conflict between the constitution and the actual law here that needs to be resolved.  It would appear that the Constitution grants the right to marriage equality but it hasn't been put into law.  There needs to be a fight to get the actual law changed.  Ecuador has come a long way since the year 2000, where homosexuality was illegal and gays faced imprisonment [but] it still has a little way to go and progress is being made.'

Auston and David in Madrid

Auston and David, from Chicago, during a round-the-world trip decided to start a new life in Madrid. Despite being a broadly Catholic country, there is an impressive 88 percent acceptance rate of homosexuality in Spain, making it one of the best places in the world for gay expats to live:

'We've felt completely welcome in Madrid, our new home. Luckily, both Madrid and Spain as a whole are incredible gay friendly. Madrid has an estimated population of 500,000 LGBT people so we fit right into the dynamic. Spain is one of the best countries in Europe to experience gay life and Madrid is undoubtedly the gay capital. For example, Madrid's Gay Pride (called "Madrid Orgullo") is the largest in Europe nearly 2 million people each year.

'Spain currently has a conservative prime minister and government and there have been talks about trying to repeal or limit some of the LGBT rights that have been granted in years past. Spain is also extremely catholic and of course, the religious groups oppose gay marriage. But even though Spain is 90% catholic, only a small percentage of people actually go to church these days and it’s mostly the older generations who oppose the law.

'I would absolutely recommend an LGBT person to move to Madrid. We live in Chueca which is the centre of the gay community in Madrid. The people are friendly and extremely accepting. If you're big into the nightlife scene, Chueca is a great place to live. There's always something going on in the neighbourhood and plenty to do.'

If you want to find out more about their travels have a look at their blog: TwoBadTourists.

Living abroad is an exciting concept for any couple, but it is definitely worth researching your country of destination thoroughly before making the move. For LGBT couples it is even more important, as there are so many more impediments.

Michael Brinksman is editor at expat lifestyle publication WhichOffshore and outlines some things for homosexual couples to consider before planning on living abroad:

'Same-sex marriages and civil unions are not recognised in most countries, and so LGBT expats cannot expect to take the same routes as other couples. Instead, gay expat partners often have to qualify for a visa independently.

'For LGBT couples, financial matters like obtaining family savings accounts, insurance policies and joint-mortgages may prove difficult if not impossible in some countries. If you have children there could also be issues regarding parentage – both partners may not be considered the legal parents of the children.

'Then there is the more serious political legislation to contemplate. In some countries, governments actively rally against LGBT people, making for a hostile and even dangerous atmosphere. The anti-gay propaganda laws in Russia for example are aggressively enforced and those who break it face a hefty fine. On top of that, foreigners are punished with 15 days of prison and deportation.

'The world has a long way to go before all gay people around the world have the same civil rights as their heterosexual neighbours, and although LGBT couples should not be afraid to live in less-progressive countries, they should be fully aware of the political and cultural stigmas before making a bold move.'

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