Working overseas brings many rewards, from the chance to experience new cultures to career advances. But making the decision can be a greater challenge for LGBTQIA+ expats than it is for heterosexuals.
Besides the usual decisions such as career impact or healthcare quality, gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and transgender individuals often have to consider more severe consequences. Though they may work for an LGBTQ+ friendly organization, national laws can force expats to stay in or return to the closet. As a result, their sexual orientation or gender identity might open them up to harassment or persecution.
To make the decision easier, we’ve shortlisted the top LGBTQIA+ friendly countries for expats. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does examine the unique challenges facing queer individuals considering a stint abroad.
- The Netherlands
- Hong Kong
- New Zealand
- South Africa
As the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001, the Netherlands has an emotional connection with LGBTQ+ people. The Netherlands decriminalized homosexuality in 1811; the first gay bar opened in Amsterdam in 1927; and in 1987, Amsterdam unveiled the Homomonument, a memorial for gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis.
Religious solemnizations of same-sex marriages have been performed since the 1960s. Civil marriage officiants cannot refuse same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage isn’t possible in Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten, however.
Expats can sponsor their partners. They must prove an exclusive relationship, sufficient income, and pass the integration exam. Same-sex couples can adopt or use surrogacy services. Discrimination of sexual orientation in employment and housing is illegal. Same-sex couples enjoy equal tax and inheritance rights.
Children can change their gender. Trans adults can self-identify without a doctor’s statement. Dutch nationals may apply for gender-neutral passports. Activists say more must be done regarding intersex rights.
About 74% of the population has a positive attitude towards homosexuality and bisexuality. Roughly 57% are positive about transgender people and gender diversity, according to a 2017 study by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.
Although an LGBTQ+ friendly country, the Netherlands fares worse than its neighbors regarding hate crime and speech and conversion therapy remains legal. The flatlands ranked 12th in Europe for same-sex rights in 2019. Same-sex couples enjoy half the rights that heterosexual couples have.
LGBT+ events in the Netherlands
The Dutch capital, often dubbed the gayway to Europe, has a vibrant LGBTQ+ culture and caters to all appetites and fetishes. The gay scene extends well beyond Amsterdam, however, with bars, saunas, and cinemas in several Dutch cities, including Rotterdam, The Hague (Den Haag), Amersfoort, Enschede, and Groningen. Many cities also hold their own pride events, complete with participation from local politicians. Pride Amsterdam, with its canal parade, is the largest and attracts some 350,000 people each August.
Dutch LGBTQIA+ support groups have a countrywide network; there are also specific organizations that support refugees.
LGBTQ+ rights in Belgium are among the most progressive in the world; the country ranks second on the 2019 edition of ILGA’s Rainbow Europe Index. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1795, when the country was a French territory. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been outlawed since 2003, the year Belgium legalized same-sex marriage.
Couples enjoy the same rights as opposite-sex couples; they can adopt, and lesbians have access to in vitro fertilization. Same-sex marriages account for 2.5% of all weddings in Belgium.
Expats can marry in Belgium if one partner has been living there for at least three months. It’s also possible for non-EU/EEA nationals who are authorized to stay in Belgium to sponsor their partners on a Belgian family reunification visa.
Transgender rights are highly advanced in Belgium, where individuals may change their legal gender without surgery. However, ILGA recommends that more work be done in terms of intersex people; Belgium has yet to ban unnecessary medical interventions such as carrying out sexual determination surgeries on babies. Hate crime legislation for transsexual and intersex people has yet to be passed. A third gender on legal documents has yet to be introduced.
In general, Belgium displays an extremely high level of homosexual acceptance. The 2015 Eurobarometer found that 77% of Belgians thought same-sex marriage should be allowed throughout Europe, while 20% disagreed.
LGBT+ friendly scene in Belgium
Belgium has a large and well-developed LGBTQ+ scene that caters to a diverse range of orientations and preferences. Antwerp (Antwerpen) had the edgier and more forward-thinking community, but Brussels has shed its bourgeois image in recent years. Bruges (Brugge), Ghent (Gent), Liège, and Ostend (Oostende) all have an active gay nightlife.
May is generally Pride Month across the Kingdom, with Brussels hosting the biggest parade.
Envision yourself knocking back cava with your husband on a terrace in Madrid? The rise of anti-LGBTQ+ political parties notwithstanding, Spain is one of the most culturally liberal places for gay people. Same-sex marriage in Spain has been legal since 2005 and Spanish literature, music, and cinema frequently explore LGBTQ+ themes.
From Madrid to Gran Canaria, the country has a diverse and welcoming scene for all members of the queer community.
Same-sex expat couples living in Spain have a number of legal rights when they register their partnership. These include adoption, automatic parenthood recognition on birth certificates, inheritance tax, rights to survivor pensions, recognition for immigration purposes, equal treatment for tax purposes – including inheritance tax – and protection from domestic violence. Spain ranked 11th in Europe for same-sex rights in 2019, with full equality at about 60%.
Since 2007, people have been able to change their gender in Spain, and the country is one of the world’s most supportive of trans rights. In 2018, 27-year old LGBTQ+ activist Angela Ponce became the first transgender woman to compete in the Miss Universe contest, where she received a standing ovation.
LGBT+ events in Spain
For a Catholic country, Spain is extremely LGBTQ+ friendly. Nearly 90% of the population accepts homosexuality, according to the last Pew Research poll. In 2006, Sitges unveiled the country’s first LGBTQIA+ monument to commemorate a 1996 police crackdown on gay men at the beach at night.
Valletta doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think of the world’s gay capitals, but tiny Malta has topped the Europe Rainbow Index for four years in a row. Malta beats out 48 other countries with a score of 90% when ranked on LGBT+ friendly policies and lifestyle acceptance.
Malta is one of just a handful of countries whose constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of both sexual orientation and gender identity, including in the workplace. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2017 and there are no minimum residency requirements; Malta is ideal for a destination wedding as a result.
Single individuals and couples, regardless of sexual orientation, enjoy adoption rights, and lesbians may access in vitro fertilization treatment. Homosexuals also serve openly in the military. Gay men are, however, banned from donating blood.
Transgender and intersex rights are amongst the strongest in the world. People may change their gender legally without surgery.
Public attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community have changed radically over the past decade. A 2016 Eurobarometer reported that 65% of Maltese were in favor of same-sex marriage; this was a significant jump from just 18% in 2006.
LGBTQ+ events in Malta
Despite having an LGBTQ+ friendly government, the queer scene is not as well developed in Malta as it is other European countries, with relatively fewer dedicated bars and cafés. Nonetheless, a majority of nightlife venues and beaches are LGBT+ friendly and welcome the community. The pride parade in Valletta every September is a major tourist draw, often with local politicians in attendance.
A 2018 recognition of spousal visas for same-sex couples by the Court of Final Appeal raised the hopes of expats looking to move to Asia’s financial hub. Homosexuality itself has been legal since 1991; however, local law doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. This could change following the Hong Kong High Court’s January 2019 agreement to hear two separate challenges to the territory’s ban on same-sex marriage. In May 2019, a local pastor also moved the High Court, arguing that the ban hinders his congregation’s freedom to worship.
Anti-discrimination laws are also fairly weak. Although LGBTQ+ people may not be legally hindered in their access to government services, campaigners say discrimination is widespread. Same-sex couples cannot apply for public housing or enjoy their partner’s pension benefits. Nonetheless, cohabiting same-sex couples enjoy some protections under local domestic violence laws.
Transgender people may not change legal documents to reflect their identities without gender-confirmation surgery, according to a February 2019 ruling.
Social acceptance grew as the territory has become more LGBTQ+ friendly in recent years. In a 2013 poll by the University of Hong Kong, 33.3% of respondents supported same-sex marriage, with 43% opposed. The following year, the same poll threw up similar results, though 74% of respondents agreed that same-sex couples should have the same or some rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples. By 2017, the survey found that 50.4% of respondents supported same-sex marriage.
LGBT+ scene in Hong Kong
Expat-heavy Hong Kong has a confident and thriving LGBTQ+ subculture. The city is home to an annual pride parade. There is also a wide variety of bars, clubs, and gay saunas; this is possible because of social pressures to conform to traditional heteronormative models.
Local films and television productions regularly explore queer themes; several entertainers have even come out in recent years, usually to a largely positive reception.
Hong Kong Pride is held each November and attracts an estimated 10,000 people.
With Taiwan becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in early 2019, LGBTQ+ interest in the island has skyrocketed. Hundreds of couples have since tied the knot, although same-sex marriage is restricted to couples where at least one partner is Taiwanese.
Homosexuality has never actually been illegal in Taiwan. The government banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in educational institutions in 2004; further legislation covering the rest of society in 2017. LGBTQ+ people have been able to serve openly in the military since 2002. Taiwan is increasingly LGBTQ+ friendly; however, same-sex couples cannot adopt.
The country is also progressive when it comes to trans rights; Taiwan plans on introducing a third gender on government documents in 2020. After upholding the country’s first transgender marriage in 2013 – albeit of a couple who had both had gender-reaffirming surgery – the country appointed its first transgender minister, Audrey Tang, in 2016. The government announced that people may change their legal gender without surgery; no policy is in place, however.
Expats report that contrary to expectations, local residents warmly accept LGBTQ+ people; social attitudes vary, however. Although the country’s 2012 and 2015 Social Change Surveys found a slight majority in favor of legalization, a 2018 referendum won only 25% of all votes. There was, however, widespread agreement that those who live together should enjoy legal protections.
LGBT+ scene in Taipei
Taipei has one of Asia’s most dynamic LGBTQ+ scenes, with a wide range of options for lesbians and gay men. Besides bars, clubs, and cafés, Taiwan hosts a gay beach, two popular gay hot springs, and even a cruisy gay bookshop. Taipei Gay Pride is the largest in Asia, with an estimated 80,000 people attending each year each October.
Often voted one of the best places to be an expat, progressive New Zealand also has a great record on LGBTQ+ rights. New Zealand’s constitution is LGBT+ friendly, offering several protections based on sexual orientation. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2013. Unmarried couples of any gender may adopt children jointly. Lesbians have access to in vitro fertilization treatments.
New Zealand also recognizes married or de facto relationships for expat couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual. An expat may sponsor their partner, but must at least have permanent residence. Australian citizens or permanent residents may be able to sponsor a partner’s visa.
The law is unclear on transgender rights, however. Discrimination on grounds of gender identity isn’t explicitly outlawed. People may change their gender on their driving license or passport with a statutory declaration; however, doing the same on a birth certificate requires proof of medical treatment towards transition. As of March 2019, a bill allowing self-identification has been delayed pending public consultation.
New Zealand’s history of tolerance goes back to pre-colonial Māori times, although British colonization resulted in anti-sodomy laws. The country decriminalized homosexuality between men in 1986; lesbian activity was never a crime in New Zealand. There have since been several out-and-proud gay and transgender members of parliament. Over 75% of New Zealanders accept homosexuality.
New Zealand’s anti-discrimination laws and same-sex marriage do not extend to its realm, however.
LGBT+ friendly New Zealand
New Zealand has a reasonably sized scene that extends across the country. Wellington and Auckland boast the largest number of gay bars and clubs, but LGBTQ+ residents in Tauranga, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Hamilton are also guaranteed a good night out. Pride parades have been organized since the early seventies, and today there are at least six different major events each year.
As the only African country to legalize same-sex marriage, the Rainbow Nation is an inspiration. The 1996 constitution banned discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; LGBT+ people have been able to marry since 2007. Same-sex couples may adopt children and arrange IVF or surrogacy. Foreigners may also marry in South Africa. Partners of expats may apply for either a spousal or life partner permit for South Africa.
Yet, not everyone here is LGBTQ+ friendly. In practice, attitudes to queer communities are shaped by a complex history influenced by morals, colonialism, the lingering effects of apartheid, and the human rights movement that contributed to its abolition. Homophobia remains a major challenge. Civil servants may refuse to solemnize civil unions if they object on grounds of conscience, religion, or belief.
Transgender people enjoy similar protections. However, people who want to change their gender legally must undergo medical treatment, surgical treatment, or hormone replacement therapy.
Residents believe more conversations about LGBTQ+ issues are necessary. In 2017:
- 67% of South Africans believed that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people should have equal rights; 17% disagreed
- 72% agreed that they should have protection from workplace discrimination
- 24% of South Africans believe that people in same-sex relationships are criminals.
The Other Foundation reported that 51% of respondents in a survey on attitudes and gender non-conformity felt gay people should have the same human rights; 72% thought same-sex activity was morally wrong.
LGBTQ+ events in South Africa
Cape Town has a reputation for being the best gay scene in Africa; it hosts plenty of summer events, including Mother City Queer Project and Cape Town Pride. Johannesburg, too, has a wide and inclusive scene; several smaller towns also have gay bars or events. Pride parades, in particular, have been widespread since at least 2012, with more than a dozen annual events.
Latin America’s beacon of LGBTQIA+ rights, Argentina’s queer history goes back to the indigenous Mapuche and Guaraní people. These groups not only accepted the third gender, but also treated male, female, transgender, and intersex people as equal.
As an LGBTQ+ friendly country, Argentina has had a thriving queer scene since its return to democracy in 1983. In 2010, it became the first country in Latin America and the tenth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, a milestone for a Catholic country anywhere.
The law allows same-sex couples to adopt, and lesbian couples have equal access to in vitro fertilization treatment. Prisons permit conjugal visits for gay prisoners. Same-sex expats and tourists can also get married in Argentina; however, those marriages are not recognized and such unions remain illegal.
Transgender rights in Argentina are among the most advanced worldwide. Thanks to the 2012 Gender Identity Law, people may change their gender without facing medical interventions.
Overall, the public is extremely supportive of the LGBT+ community. Argentina had the most positive attitudes of all Latin American countries in Pew Research Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes Survey, with 74% of those surveyed saying homosexuality should be accepted.
LGBTQ+ friendly Argentina
Buenos Aires is Argentina’s gay capital. It has been an LGBT+ tourist destination since the early 2000s, with its Queer Tango festival among the major highlights. Expat-friendly neighborhoods such as Palermo Viejo and San Telmo boast several gay-friendly establishments. However, the scene extends to Rosario, Córdoba, Mar del Plata, and Mendoza in the center of the Argentine wine country.
With its liberal policies and relatively welcoming attitudes to immigration, Canada has long attracted LGBTQ+ individuals from abroad. High quality of life and healthcare services are a bonus.
Since 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has guaranteed fundamental human rights to the LGBTQ+ community. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005 (although the world’s first gay marriages took place in Toronto in 2001). Same-sex couples can adopt children and have access to altruistic surrogacy. They’ll also enjoy equal social and tax benefits, including those relating to pensions, old age security, and bankruptcy protection.
Trans people can change their names and legal sex without surgery; those who elect to have surgery can use public healthcare coverage. Since 2017, people with non-binary gender identities can note this on their passports.
Civic attitudes to LGBTQ+ people are progressive, with a 2013 Pew survey noting that 80% of Canadians accept homosexuality. Subsequent polls show most Canadians agree that same-sex couples should have equal parental rights. In April 2019, Canada released a commemorative loonie (the one-dollar coin) to celebrate 50 years of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality.
LGBT+ scene in Canada
As is the case elsewhere, LGBTQ+ life tends to be concentrated around the major cities, particularly Toronto, Vancouver (often rated among the world’s best cities for expats), and Montreal. Edmonton and Winnipeg also boast LGBTQ+ scenes. Pride parades occur across the country each summer with participation from regional and national politicians; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the country’s first head of government to take part in Pride Toronto in 2016.