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People march during the LGBTQ+ parade at the Old Town Square in Prague, August 12, 2023. On May 7, 2024, the Czech Republic’s highest legal authority dismissed part of a law requiring surgery for people to officially change their gender.

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Traveling abroad for Pride Month? LGBTQ+ Chicagoans respond to worldwide travel alert

The U.S. State Department issued a “worldwide caution” alert, saying it had learned of an “increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events.”

The gay community is often subjected to threats and violence.

But those threats reached a new level as the federal intelligence community issued a warning to international travelers, citing potential attacks against LGBTQ+ events during Pride Month in June.

The U.S. State Department issued a “worldwide caution” alert Friday, saying it had learned of an “increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events.”

The State Department did not specify where the threats may happen, but CBS News reported the alert was based on intelligence citing threats by ISIS against Pride events in parts of Europe.

The warning concerns Dan Ware, owner of Rogers Park-based Toto Tours, which has served a mostly gay clientele since the 1990s.

Dan Ware, owner of Toto Tours a gay friendly tour company sits at his home office at his Rogers Park apartment, Monday, May 20, 2024. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Dan Ware

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“This is the first time I’ve come across this,” he said of the alert.

Ware has a tour group leaving next week for São Paulo to attend Pride events in Brazil. Though the warning in Europe doesn’t affect the group, he tells his customers to be on alert and avoid gatherings where there’s confrontation or a sign of protest.

“Everybody knows we take our chances when we travel internationally — even in the United States. I don’t think there’s any place that’s 100% safe,” he said.

The alert came a week after the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a more general warning that foreign terrorist groups may target Pride Month events, even domestically.

“Foreign terrorist organizations or supporters may seek to exploit increased gatherings associated with the upcoming June 2024 Pride Month,” the warning said.

LGBTQ+ supporters wave rainbow flags and carry signs against homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia during a rally at a white stone square in San Salvador.

Members of LGBTQ+ groups wave rainbow flags during a rally last week marking the International Day against homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia in San Salvador.

Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

In its warning, the FBI and Homeland Security pointed to recent incidents in which terrorist groups promoted the targeting of LGBTQ+ events. One was a June 2023 plot in which three alleged ISIS sympathizers were arrested on suspicion of trying to attack a Pride parade in Vienna.

The agencies also noted ISIS messaging in February 2023 that called for attacks on LGBTQ+ venues among other targets.

This year also marks the eighth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where an attacker killed 49 people and wounded another 53. The agencies said “pro-ISIS messaging praised this attack as one of the high-profile attacks in Western countries.”

Rick Garcia wears a black overcoat and walks through a crosswalk in The Loop as brick and stone office buildings and skyscrapers loom behind.

Rick Garcia, founder of Equality Illinois, walks to his office in The Loop.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rick Garcia, founder of the advocacy group Equality Illinois, said the warning is “very serious” and a sign that people in the LGBTQ+ community “always have to be cautious.”

“I think we get a little complacent because we have it great here in the great state of Illinois and other places,” Garcia said. “That doesn’t mean we’re free from these kinds of terrorist activities. When I talk to my friends about planning vacations, we first talk about where it’s safe.”

Joli Robinson, chief executive of the advocate group Center on Halsted, said the government’s alert “is indicative of many unfortunate experiences that individuals have [who] are viewed as ‘the other.’”

Threats against the LGBTQ+ community come from within the U.S. as well. Nearly a year ago, the Human Rights Campaign declared a “national state of emergency” for LGBTQ+ Americans — the first time in its history — in response to the more than 550 anti-LGBTQ+ state bills introduced across the country.

A framed map of the world is marked with a vast array of pushpins.

Toto Tours owner Dan Ware keeps pins on a map of countries he has visited over the last 30 years. He says he’s never seen a warning like the one issued last week by U.S. intelligence about threats to the LGBTQ+ community abroad.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“It’s an ever-present reminder of the safety concerns that those of us who are LGBTQ+ need to think about while traveling abroad or within our borders,” Robinson said.

Ware, the travel company owner, says he has never seen a government travel warning like this one before, but he has dealt with threats.

Toto Tours canceled a group trip to Ethiopia in 2019 after death threats in the East African country. Ware said it was the result of a concerted effort by religious groups there to scare away his customers.

“They whipped up such a furor,” he said. The State Department told him they couldn’t guarantee his travelers’ safety.

Turmoil globally may be affecting potential travelers’ decisions to go abroad, Ware said.

“With all the turmoil in the world, I’ve noticed bookings are down,” he said.

Ware says he expects the government’s warning to have at least some effect on LGBTQ+ travel to Europe.

“I think the community is going to be alarmed by it and maybe hold off on a trip to a European Pride celebration,” Ware said.

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