There’s no denying that some Caribbean islands are not known for being especially welcoming to LGBTQ travelers (although the same could be said of many parts of the world). Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the Caribbean is a diverse region that includes 13 independent nations, as well as territories of France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For example, the islands of Martinique, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Gorda (to pick three) all differ when it comes to their languages, legal systems, and cultural influences—as well as their attitudes toward homosexuality.
Ed Salvato, the editor-in-chief of the gay travel magazine Man About World, has never been deterred from visiting the region. “I love the Caribbean for its natural beauty, laid-back vibe, and proximity to New York,” he says. “As a gay traveler, I just make sure I find one of the many islands that are queer friendly and offer protections for LGBTQ people.”
If you’re looking for an island escape where the locals will likely shrug and refill your rum punch regardless of your sexual orientation, here are some ideal options.
British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) are a yachter’s favorite where many of the locals, as well as visitors, are more concerned with finding good moorings and cold beers than judging anyone. As part of the United Kingdom, the islands’ residents enjoy protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which includes employment in the hospitality industry. If you and your partner check into a resort like Rosewood Little Dix Bay, you can expect the same gracious welcome offered to any straight couple. That said, the entire population of the islands is about 30,000, which means there’s not a sufficient critical mass to keep much of a nightlife scene going. Gay and lesbian travelers and residents will often take a ferry to nearby St. Thomas or St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) for an evening out.
The Dutch island of Curaçao hosts one of the few gay pride celebrations in the Caribbean. Even if you aren’t visiting when it takes place in early autumn (from September 25 to 29 this year), you’ll find that locals generally share the same relaxed attitude toward lesbian and gay visitors as in the island’s mother country, the Netherlands. The Floris Suite Hotel actively courts LGBTQ travelers. Similarly, clubs like Cabana Beach host occasional gay events and are decidedly gay-friendly the rest of the time. While many Caribbean towns and cities are quiet after sundown, Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital, has a lively restaurant and bar scene, and no one will raise an eyebrow if you ask for a table for two with your same-sex partner. The two other Dutch islands that make up the so-called ABCs along with Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire, are similarly welcoming choices.
The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico hosts an annual gay pride celebration in the capital, San Juan, typically during the first weekend in June. (The event takes place on June 2 this year.) The lively nightlife scene in San Juan is centered in the Condado neighborhood and, increasingly, in nearby Santurce, which has emerged in recent years as a tropical hipster haven. In Condado, you’ll never have to settle for a straight bar that simply tolerates gay and lesbian revelers. Instead, after a day on the beach, you can choose from various gay bars, dance clubs, and drag shows into the early hours of the morning. Same-sex marriage became legal in Puerto Rico with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015, but the territory has gone farther than many states have by outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, as well as prohibiting conversion therapy for minors.
Just as marriage equality arrived in Puerto Rico with the 2015 Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage became legal in St. Bart’s when France (and all of its territories) passed legislation in 2013. At under 10 square miles in total area, this tiny favorite of Hollywood stars and New Yorkers alike is definitely relaxed in its attitudes toward gay and lesbian residents and visitors. Its nightlife only suffers from the same issue that some other small islands do—there aren’t enough people to support much of a gay scene, per se. During the day, Saline Beach is a popular gathering spot that’s LGBTQ-friendly (and clothing optional). After sundown, you’ll find that visitors and residents are warmly welcomed at any of the island’s bars and restaurants.
St. Martin/St. Maarten
This island has the distinction of being the world’s smallest territory shared by two different nations. Fortunately for all types of travelers, both the French (St. Martin) and Dutch (St. Maarten) sides share a similarly welcoming attitude. Both sides have gay beaches (Orient Bay Beach and Happy Bay Beach on the French side, Cupecoy Beach on the Dutch side), and St. Martin has a rarity on the Caribbean’s smaller islands, a gay dance club: Eros Club. The website Gay Sint Maarten is an excellent resource and, despite the name, covers both sides of the island. It advises travelers to exercise discretion outside of tourist areas, a suggestion that it is wise to follow on many Caribbean islands. While the locals who work at the resorts and tourist-friendly restaurants are accustomed to LGBTQ visitors, you may find that small-town residents in the Caribbean, as in the United States, are not always as tolerant.