The first time I went to Africa was in 2010 when I ventured to Ghana for a 3 month teaching job. I was only 21, and this trip would mark my first solo travel, as well.
I got bit by the Africa bug immediately. And then spent the next 10 years returning to as many countries within that big beautiful continent as possible. I ended up living in Kenya for a while, and working across 12 African countries over that decade abroad.
Needless to say, I’m absolutely in love with Africa as a whole. It’s a place that captured my heart from the moment I arrived, and it hasn’t let go of it since.
We all know 2020 as the year the world closed down, and travel was over as we knew it for the next two years or so. This, of course, stopped me from my annual Africa visit.
2020 was also a big year for me, because it was the year I came out. And it was the year I found my person, who happens to be a woman. We got married the following year, and- naturally- my life hasn’t been the same since.
Although I personally had a very easy time coming out, I will say that the biggest mental hurdle for me was what this would mean for my travel life. Keep in mind, I was living out of a backpack for the last 10 years, while moving around Africa and Asia. Travel was my life, and it was a huge component of my work at the time.
My Experience Traveling South Africa And Botswana As An LGBTQ Couple
This year was the first time I returned to Africa since leaving in 2019. It’s the first time I went as an openly LGBTQ person. And it’s the first time I’ve traveled to a place that’s known to be intolerant of queer folks with my wife.
This post will share about our experience traveling South Africa and Botswana as an openly queer couple, as well as tips for safe travel in Africa for LGBTQ people.
Here’s the thing, although South Africa and Botswana are neighboring countries, they are wildly different from one another. That being said, our experience with the locals was also drastically different between the two.
So, I’ll break up a summary of our experiences between the two countries, rather than generalizing and lumping them in together.
Before we dive in, I’d also just like to clarify that I’m not someone who “looks” gay. In other words, I have a very straight-passing essence. The only time someone might assume I’m queer is when I’m with my wife, because of her short hair and overall style.
That being said, I generally don’t experience discrimination anywhere in the world, because no one looks at me and thinks I’m married to a woman. My wife, on the other hand, is constantly misgendered or judged based on her looks.
If I had gone to any country in Africa (even the most intolerant ones) by myself, I wouldn’t have worried about violence or discrimination. Whereas my wife would likely be more of a target if she ever chose to travel alone.
South Africa is typically known for being the safest country to travel for LGBTQ people interested in going to Africa. I get it, it’s more developed and modernized than many countries in Africa. Plus, homosexuality is legal there, which is leaps and bounds ahead of other African countries.
It’s important to understand that while South Africa is the most recommended country to visit for queer travelers in Africa, it also has one of the highest crime rates…in the world. I say this, because it’s worth noting for all travelers, especially women.
Cape Town is known for being one of the safest parts of South Africa, and it’s the place where we spent the most time. I’d highly recommend visiting Cape Town in between more rustic safari experiences, as it’s a great place to clean up and enjoy incredible food and landscapes.
While we certainly didn’t experience any violence while we were in South Africa, we did have a pretty shocking experience at a doctor’s office that was directly related to our queerness.
Here’s how it went:
I had to go back for a second pregnancy test after my first positive result even though I already knew I’d lost the pregnancy due to the sheer volume of bleeding I was experiencing. The fertility clinic we’re going to in the States requires a negative test in order to proceed with another round of IUI, which is why I still had to go back to get the test.
Needless to say, I didn’t want to be there. I was super sensitive and emotional due to my hormones having a massive fluctuation with the sudden pregnancy loss. So, it’s safe to say I also just plainly wasn’t in the mood for the doctor’s ignorant questions.
I will say that he was more curious than he was judgmental. And usually I can handle that just fine when I can tell the person’s intentions aren’t malicious. That day was just not the day. I was too fragile.
Essentially he just asked us a lot of questions about how it was possible for us to get pregnant being that we’re two women. Considering this guy was a DOCTOR it was pretty puzzling that he really didn’t know the options for same sex conception, But I suppose this was a clear indication of where South Africa is at in terms of queer reproductive rights.
Without going over every single thing he said, I’ll just share the most offensive:
“So how do you get the sperm?” He asked.
“We got a sperm donor,” we told him simply.
“Oh, so like the government picks it out for you, or something?” He probed.
“Um…no, we picked it out ourselves from a cryobank,” we said, confused as to why he’d suggest the government would choose something like that for us.
“Really?!” He said, genuinely shocked. “So they let you pick that for yourself. Interesting.”
Again, he was curious, not judgmental. And I know he wasn’t trying to be rude. But damn, it honestly just felt kind of crazy to sit there and have someone see us as less than. Because that’s exactly how it felt.
He was genuinely surprised that we had the right to choose our own sperm donor. It was like he thought we should just accept the scraps from the table, ya know? Like we should just be grateful that we were even allowed to have a baby, and therefore we shouldn’t care about who the biological other half is.
You could tell that he didn’t see us as two people, two human freaking beings, sitting right in front of him.
I knew I wasn’t just being sensitive about it, because even my wife commented on it once we left. She really phrased it perfectly, by calling the encounter “alarming” and “sad” for all of the many LGBTQ folks living in South Africa.
Sure, it’s the safest place to travel to. And people are tolerant of queer people there. But they sure as hell have a long way to go.
We went to Botswana to go on a safari and we’d told the travel agency we’d booked with that it was our honeymoon. Yes, I know I said we got married in 2021, but that was a Covid courthouse wedding. Our actual ceremony was at the end of 2022, and we didn’t get a proper honeymoon right after, so we counted this splurge as a honeymoon.
While it can often be easier for two women to fly under the radar by sharing a room, and even sharing a bed- they definitely knew we were a couple before we arrived due to the tip off about our honeymoon.
The thing is that my wife’s name is Alix, which can obviously also be a man’s name. So, when the safari camps left welcome notes for us, it usually said Mr. Alix. But that was a genuine mistake, they really just didn’t know.
Although Alix gets misgendered often, she was never misgendered during our time in Botswana (other than those accidental notes before meeting her). As soon as people realized we were a couple, they were always very kind and welcoming.
I will say that staying in a safari camp is typically a little bubble in and of itself. It’s not until you’re in a more local town or village that you get a real feel for tolerance.
Getting stuck in Botswana
Thanks to our travel document disaster, we were stuck in Botswana for four extra days. And we only stayed in local towns or cities, rather than in the bubble of the safari camp. Although religion is extremely prevalent in Botswana, particularly Christianity, we only experienced extreme kindness and hospitality.
Due to our travel debacle, we were in need of help more often than not during those four days. And locals were always incredibly warm, generous, and willing to help regardless of Alix’s looks or our relationship status.
We felt super safe during our entire stay in Botswana.
How Stay Safe As An LGBTQ Traveler In Africa
Traveling as a queer person can come with its own set of challenges. Sure, you can try to change your look or hide your identity when you travel. But who wants to do that when they’re on their freaking honeymoon with their wife? Honestly, who wants to do that at all, right?
I could sit here and tell you to dress or act a certain way to “blend in,” aka look straight. But I’d rather just share the places you can go, and be yourself.
Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon in most African countries for all couples, not just queer couples. South Africa and Mauritius are probably the main exceptions from this rule, but otherwise, most African countries are pretty conservative when it comes to PDA.
This doesn’t mean you can’t hold hands or hug, it’s more related to perceived sexual acts like kissing.
Share Personal Details Sparingly
In general, it’s not always the best idea to share your whole life story with strangers when you’re traveling. A solo female traveler, I’ve always practiced discretion in sharing about my personal life out of protection for myself.
If you’re traveling without your partner, it might be wise to use gender neutral language if someone asks you about them. Or, you can always straight up lie, calling them your husband instead of your wife.
This also means it would be safer to avoid talking about your sexual orientation altogether, avoid using labels (like gay or bi) to describe yourself, and certainly not share your coming out story. All in all, be reserved. Think of it more as being mysterious.
Book With A Gay Friendly Travel Agency
One of the best things about the internet is that you can type anything into Google and get some kind of answer. If there’s a particular African country that you’re interested in visiting, try seeing if there’s any kind of gay-friendly travel agency that can help you with your booking.
If you want to avoid the fees of booking with an agency, then you can always look at different LGBTQ travel agencies in Africa to see the list of hotels and activities they work with. From there, you can book directly with that company or activity, knowing that you’re in a safe space.
Only Visit Tolerant Countries
Especially if you’re traveling as a couple, I would recommend only traveling to countries that are accepting of LGBTQ travelers. Keep in mind, there are some countries in Africa where being gay is actually illegal, and there’s no lenience for tourists. There are also some countries that have more reserved outlooks on homosexuality for locals than they do for tourists.
The Best Countries To Visit For LGBTQ Travelers
- South Africa
- Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe or Zambia/Botswana
Avoid Countries With LGBTQ Violence
If you’re a straight passing person like me, and you’re traveling alone, then you may be able to get by traveling to intolerant countries. However, social media can reveal a lot, and there have been queer solo travelers in the past who have had a target on their back due to their social media, rather than their physical appearance.
My suggestion would be to travel with caution to these countries, or avoid them altogether. The map in this article share African countries that still have the death penality for homosexuliaty, as well as the countries that criminalize gayness.
African Countries To Avoid As An LGBTQ Traveler
It is possible to travel Africa as an openly queer person, or openly queer couple. You just have to be a little more selective, exercise a bit of caution, and make sure to choose the right place!
You’re going to have the time of your life. I just know it.