Best Countries for LGBTQI+ Expats

    Where rights and safety align

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    For queer expats, moving abroad means researching whether a country is safe for them and whether it will grant them the same rights as straight and cisgender expats. Here are some destinations that are more welcoming to LGBTQI+ expats.

    Malta has been ranked as the safest country in the world for trans people

    It may come as a surprise that the country with the best legal protection for transgender people is not a major economic powerhouse, but the small Mediterranean island of Malta, which is an EU member state. In fact, some of the most economically powerful countries remain unsafe for trans people. In the U.S., for example, several states have been enacting transphobic laws in the last year. In the UK, the murder of a transgender teenager made headlines in 2023.

    Malta was slow to legalize abortion rights; it only decriminalized abortion, even in cases of rape or danger to the mother, in 2023. However, when it comes to LGBTQI+ rights, it is years ahead of other countries. Travel journalism platform Asher & Lyric conducted research on the safety of various destinations to create the Danger Index 2023. They ranked Malta as the fourth safest country for LGBTQI+ travelers and expats overall and first in terms of safety for transgender travelers and expats.

    Transgender people are particularly vulnerable to violence and homicide. European NGO Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitor reported that, in 2023 alone, there were 320 transphobic murders recorded worldwide. Unrecorded murders should make the actual number higher. Most occurred in the Americas, especially in Brazil, Mexico, the U.S. and Colombia. As for Malta, the murder rate of trans people on the island is officially zero.

    What are the legal protections for queer people in Malta? Same-sex couples can marry and adopt children jointly. Both sexual orientation and gender identity are protected in cases of employment and housing discrimination. Donating blood and enlisting in the military is allowed for everyone. Conversion therapy is illegal. Not only are male-to-female and female-to-male trans identities protected by law, but non-binary gender identity is also fully recognized, the LGBTQI+ knowledge base Equaldex reports. From the age of 16, adolescents can request hormone therapy and a gender change in their ID without parental consent.

    Some expats in Malta say that even with such strong legal protection, unfortunately, there is some discrimination in practice. Some trans expats have experienced some level of discrimination in Maltese bars and restaurants, for example, or have been misunderstood in everyday conversations.

    Canada is considered the safest country to immigrate to as a queer expat

    Canada ranks first globally in terms of safety for LGBTQI+ travelers and expats. Unfortunately, the transphobic homicide rate is not zero, but remains extremely low.

    LGBTQI+ rights are protected in several Canadian visa and immigration schemes. The federal immigration authority, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), fully allows gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary expatriates to apply for family sponsorship and economic immigration visas. As reported by CIC News, the spouse or same-sex partner of a Canadian resident/citizen can begin working on an open work visa while their own residency status is being processed. IRCC also provides funding to the Rainbow Refugee Society, which works to sponsor queer people in other countries who are being persecuted for their sexual orientation/gender identity and bring them to Canada.

    Same-sex couples can not only adopt children in Canada, but can also have children through surrogacy, as long as the surrogacy is unpaid or altruistic (to avoid exploitation of women).

    Gender affirmation surgery is rarely approved for children under the age of 16, but for adults, it is fairly easy to access this form of medical care. Hormone therapy, even for children, can be prescribed by general practitioners, as it is no longer considered a specialized area of medical care. Most Canadian provinces fund the cost of gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, the more conservative province of Alberta may soon restrict gender affirming medical care, but this is being opposed by the federal Health Minister and may not pass.

    Canada has many historic LGBTQI+ areas in its cities, such as Toronto’s Gay Village (on Church and Wellesley Streets) and Queer West Village, Montreal’s Gay Village, Vancouver’s Davie Village and Ottawa’s Bank Street Gay Village. The country’s major cities offer a rich social and cultural life for queer expatriates.

    Sweden has a long-standing reputation for being a safe country for LGBTQI+ people

    Sweden ranks as the second least dangerous country for queer travelers and expats. It has often topped that list in the past.

    Sweden has been a leader in creating progressive laws and conditions for the LGBTQI+ community. Same-gender sexual relations were decriminalized as early as the 1940s. In 1972, Sweden became the first country in the world to allow transgender people to legally change their gender identity, and discrimination based on sexual orientation has been illegal since the 1980s.

    One of the most recent legal developments is very important for expatriates. In 2013, an amendment to the Legal Gender Reform Act allowed expatriates who are not Swedish citizens to change their gender in the population registry.

    The law against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity explicitly protects even young children, not just teenagers and adults, in the Act Prohibiting Discriminatory and Other Degrading Treatment of Children and Pupils. This makes Sweden especially safe for expat families with trans children. On the forum, an American expat with a transgender teenager expressed interest in moving to Sweden precisely because it would be a safer environment for his son. He currently resides in a Republican state with transphobic laws in the US.

    South Africa can be a safe haven for LGBTQI+ expats in Africa

    The African country with the highest safety rating is South Africa. It ranks as the 16th safest destination, which is higher than Germany, Australia and New Zealand.LGBTQI+ citizens and expatriates have very strong legal protection in South Africa, but unfortunately, they may still be at risk due to other intersectional issues. As sociologist ZethuMatebeni says in the article “Being queer in Africa: the state of LGBTQI+ rights across the continent,” published in The Conversation, intersectional issues such as economic inequality, racial discrimination and violent crime still put LGBTQI+ people at risk. Expats living in more privileged parts of the country can remain fairly safe from these dangers.

    In theory, the laws are very strong. In the mid-1990s, South Africa became the first country in the world to add the illegality of discrimination based on sexual orientation to the Constitution. However, gender identity does not have the same constitutional protection. Transgender people have the right to change their legal name and undergo transition.

    For expatriates, South Africa is the only country on the African continent where your same-sex partner can obtain a dependent visa. This has been possible since 2002 through Section 13 of the Immigration Act. Even if the reality on the ground for queer people in South Africa can be unsafe under certain conditions, it can often be the only country to which queer expatriates from other sub-Saharan African countries can afford to relocate. It therefore continues to offer an important regional haven.

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