Last week I had lunch with some friends who are also gay and the topic of travel and the LGBT community arose. We talked about countries we wouldn’t visit due to their abysmal record of human rights as they relate to the LGBT community (I’m looking at you Uganda) and we shared stories of the realities of traveling as an openly gay man in certain corners of the world. On the drive home I thought about the topic a lot and realized that most people probably don’t have a clue what it really is like to travel as a gay person. I’ve been asked that question before, but haven’t truly gotten into the heart of the matter so I wanted to share some points with you today. It’s not all boas and half naked men; traveling as a gay man can be difficult and even dangerous at times.
Dangerous – During that lunch my friends shared a shocking story about friends of theirs who had been beaten up on a beach. It’s not important to give the country, the fact is that it wasn’t a robbery or a random act of violence, it was a malicious attack by a gang of men who obviously didn’t want gay people hanging around. Many of us of a certain age had difficult experiences coming out. Years of repression, self-hatred and God knows what else has bred into us a certain hesitation I think when it comes to being open about who we are. If we live in a welcoming community, have friends and acquaintances who don’t care that we’re gay, we forget that some people consider it to be an issue. We enter new counties and situations behaving just as we would at home, which can be downright dangerous at times. It shouldn’t be this way and it’s not fair that it is, but it’s a hard truth.
Wherever we choose to travel and if we are open about who we are as human beings, we expose ourselves to danger. Don’t get me wrong, this could happen as easily in Los Angeles as it could Rio de Janeiro or Rome. It can happen everywhere and at any time and it’s frankly a risk we take when we leave our cocoon of acceptance. Does the potential for random acts of violence exist for every traveler? You bet and sadly they do occur. But we in the LGBT community are at a heightened level of risk I believe and it can be downright frightening at times. That is why when I travel I do so mindfully, always recognizing the local attitudes. I wish I didn’t have to, I wish I could give my partner a random peck on the check, but it’s frankly not a smart way to travel in certain parts of the world.
Awkward – It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle once you come out. In a very unscientific way, I’ve noticed certain phases amongst some peers who have come out. The first is obviously repression, then after coming out many people turn into super gays. After years of keeping those feelings bottled inside, the individual wants nothing more than to show how very gay they are. Psychologically it makes sense, it’s a form of healing for the individual and sets the stage hopefully for true acceptance of one’s self. I went through this stage myself, down to the pink vanity eyeglasses and glitter chap stick. Thank God those days are over. After the super-homo phase, the individual starts to settle into acceptance and peace with their life. They hopefully find someone to love and live a pretty normal life really. These are broad generalizations of course, but it’s a fairly common chain of events. This can be awkward though when traveling.
A friend told me that in Africa he and his partner were advised to not share a bed for fear of police raids. Apparently the hotel staff had a habit of tipping off the local gendarmes. If you are straight, could you imagine being put in that same situation with your wife? In that one instant, all of those prepubescent fears come rushing back and it’s as if nothing had really changed. There you are, being forced to lie AGAIN, to pretend AGAIN, to be someone you aren’t AGAIN. It’s painful and it’s not fair, but that is ultimately the world in which we live. There are also certain countries where being gay is not only frowned upon, but actually illegal. I had some concerns when my partner and I traveled to North Africa for this very reason. After doing some research I knew that acceptance in certain areas was high and we weren’t likely to be targeted, but we were careful. We didn’t do anything that would raise any flags or seem out of place. Once again, it’s a very awkward thing to have to think about; something most people don’t even have to consider at all. I’m envious of those straight couples that can stand in a scenic location, watch the sunset and give each other a kiss. In many parts of the world that’s a luxury not afforded to me.
Respect – When it comes down to it, ultimately LGBT travelers explore the world the same way anyone else does. When I go to Paris I visit the Louvre and the Eiffel Tour, not an all-male revue. If I find myself in Bangkok I love to explore the city’s canals and ancient temples, not the Ladyboy District. There are exceptions to every rule of course, and I know many in the LGBT community enjoy connecting with like-minded people in local communities, they enjoy seeing what the ‘gay scene’ is like, and that’s fine. That’s no different than a straight couple exploring the nightlife on their own terms. But the actual act of travel itself is no different; we don’t need special opportunities all we need is simple respect.
I’ve used this example before, but I think it proves a point. It is not at all unusual for my partner and I to be asked when we check into a hotel, “Oh I’m sorry, we have you and your friend in a king size bed, let me change that to two doubles for you.” That has happened in some of the best hotels in the world and it’s horribly embarrassing. I have to correct them, deal with the raised eyebrows and once again feel like a second-class citizen. It’s not right and it shouldn’t happen when all I’m asking for is a little respect. I’m not asking anyone to like me, agree with me or join me in a high heel race. I’m asking for a little dignity and respect and that shouldn’t be an impossible request.
The travel industry does some things right when it comes to reaching out to the gay and lesbian community, but it makes a lot of mistakes as well. It’s all well and good for a company to launch a ‘gay-friendly’ ad but what I want is their staff to go through sensitivity training. I don’t gay travel any more than I gay eat or gay park my car. I don’t need special extras when I hit the road, all I want are some assurances that I won’t be arrested, harassed or embarrassed. Ultimately that’s not a hard ask, but we’re not there yet. Not even close.
And that, that is the truth of what it’s like to travel as a gay man.