WARNING: This post contains graphic language that some may find offensive or triggering. If that’s you, please do NOT continue.
There are places in this world I’ll never visit. Not because I don’t want to see them. But because they don’t want to see me.
Aside from political or economic strife, the entire globe is available to you if you’re a straight, white, cis man. But being a gay traveler, it isn’t possible.
In fact, I’m used to watching my back when I visit different neighborhoods in my own town. I know that stopping at the wrong gas station can get me killed. Or that holding a partner’s hand in some countries can get me thrown in jail for obscenity, or executed.
There are a few things I always think about before I decide to take a trip. As a gay traveler, my biggest goal is to make it back home.
Why is it like this?
Before I sound histrionic for no reason, there are hundreds of thousands of micro-moments that have pounded into me how watched and unwelcome I really am in some places. I’m aware of how hard-won gay rights are, even (especially?) in the US. And how they’re rapidly reverting under the current administration. It’s scary to think we live among people that regard us as sub-human, or not worth the same rights.
If I touch my partner in public, it could be perceived as “shoving my gayness down people’s throats.” At the recent Olympics, gay athletes heard similar:
Speaking about the backlash over the kiss he shared with his boyfriend, actor Matthew Wilkas, before competing inthe men’s ski slopestyle final this year — where he finished in last place — Gus Kenworthy said, “People were like, ‘We get it, we don’t need to see it though. I don’t care what you do behind closed doors, but don’t put it in my face.’ ”
“And it’s kind of like, well my entire life, in movies and commercials, in public, everywhere, you see straight heterosexual love and that’s completely fine because it’s normal, but us also showing the same type of affection isn’t shoving it in your face, it’s just us existing,” he continued.
I’ve gone to lengths to swat away the hands of men I dated instead of proudly holding hands because of these sentiments. Instead of simply existing, I have to think of “how it looks” or who I’m offending.
It starts at home
This mindset was implanted into me right here at home. And not in rural, conservative places. But cities like New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Things I’ve had to deal with for being “too gay” in public:
- In Chicago, walking down Halsted Avenue in Boystown, a car full of men threw beer cans at bottles at me. I ran into a shop before bursting into tears and to check if I was bleeding (I was a college student at the time)
- In Brooklyn, someone rolled down their car window to call me a “bitch” as I walked home with 4 bags of groceries
- In New Orleans, I sat with a friend at Cafe Du Monde for coffee. An older woman approached me to say I was “disgusting faggot” and that I was “going to hell” – totally unprompted
- In Manhattan, a man called me a “fucking faggot” and followed me as I exited the subway train and up the MTA stairs. Thank god there were cops at the turnstile, or who knows what would’ve happened. My heart was racing the entire time
You kind of never forget those things. They stay with you.
I always kind of recoil when strangers approach me. Because I never know if it’s going to be supportive or if I’m going to be called a filthy fag again.
It isn’t always negative, though. In New York, I was a little drunk and held my partner’s hand as we walked down 9th Avenue in Chelsea. A girl stopped us to tell us how happy she was for us. It was a nice gesture, to be sure. But also another little reminder that doing something normal was considered an act of defiance that required anonymous support from someone on the street.
I would never dream of going up to a straight couple and gushing about how happy I am to see them holding hands. Because it’s the norm. But my normality, my existence, is considered by some as defiance. It’s a constant reminder of the ongoing struggle.
“Normality” is pervasive
It comes in simpler ways, too. The “little reminders.”
When I get into a cab, the driver will sometimes casually – and innocently – ask me where my girlfriend is. I usually say something like, “Oh, she’s waiting for me at home,” or “This is just a work trip” (even if it’s not). It’s easier to lie than get into an argument, especially when you’re trapped in someone else’s car in an unfamiliar place.
Shopkeepers will ask if I’m shopping for myself or my girlfriend – we have lots of lovely women’s items on sale. I just say thanks and move on.
My distant family members will elbow me and jokingly ask when I’m gonna bring a girl home/settle down/have kids. Sometimes I say, “Never, because I’m gay.” But that’s a whole “thing.” Other times I’ll just shrug and brush it off.
These are all normal things to ask. Nice, even. Because being straight is normal. And 9 times out of 10, the person you ask will have the “right” answer. (Literally. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people in the US are gay/queer/trans/bi/intersex.)
It’s always sort of disarming to make the mental hurdle and realize they think they’re being nice. And they are. But again, it’s all the little reminders that add up… I don’t have a girlfriend at home… I’m not shopping for my wife… Is something wrong with that?
We take it with us
Every queer, lesbian, gay, bi, or trans person I’ve talked to about this – without exception – has a variation of the same theme: the questions, the reminders, the jarring, random hatred. We all know people who come from less-than-supportive families. Who’ve been beaten. We all know people who have killed themselves, run away from home, or turned to drugs.
We all know people who turn to random, anonymous sex to mask the pain and revel in moments of acceptance, even if it’s dangerous. Even if it ended up killing them.
All of these reasons are why we need support groups, outreach organizations, resource centers, and safe spaces. Straight people don’t need these things to this degree or magnitude. You won’t get conversion therapy for being straight. But you might get shocked in the head for being gay.
With all of this going on in the background, it’s impossible to NOT take the mindset with you when you travel. Even if you’re going to a well-known “gay” destination, like Paris, Barcelona, or Sydney. Part of you always watches your back.
I’ve had the same “normal” questions in other countries – where’s my girlfriend, would I like a souvenir for my wife, why am I alone – but not to nearly the same extent as within the US. I think it’s because overseas, I’m not a gay man first, but a tourist. An American.
And that brings up more questions like where are you from, how do you like it here, etc. But those other questions are always hanging around. The little reminders.
Places I will never go
For better or worse, I will never visit:
- Bermuda – They banned gay marriage. In February 2018. A month ago. For real???
- Jamaica – Sex between men is illegal, and if you’re targeted for being gay, you won’t be protected by their government. Officials are known to condone and participate in anti-gay violence. Guess I’ll never make it to the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall in Montego Bay. I hear the food is shitty anyway
- Lithuania – Proposed anti-gay bills recently, including anti-“gay propaganda” legislation that would have banned everything from LGBT groups to Pride parades
- Russia – You have got to be fucking kidding me. I’m sure Moscow is pretty and no doubt has lots of history but… hard pass
- Egypt – Officials have been cracking down extensively on gay men, including raiding bathhouses. And police are known to lure gay men over the internet and on smartphones. Being gay is considered criminal and “debauchery”
- Ghana – Did you know that gays worship Satan? Yeah, me either
- Nigeria – 97 percent of Nigerians believe homosexuality is unacceptable. Same-sex couples can face up to 14 years in prison, and same-sex PDA is illegal
- Senegal – Gay sex is criminalized. There are fines and jail time for “offenders” and over a dozen gay men are in jail for simply being gay
- Sudan – A 2011 report from the State Department said vigilantes routinely attack gay people here. No thanks!
- Uganda – “Kill the Gays” bill, anyone?
- Zimbabwe – Gays are considered “filth” and can be beheaded, with most of the country’s approval
So yeah, a lot of Africa is off my radar. Even if it’s “perfectly safe” for visitors, why would I want to reward anti-gay rhetoric with tourist dollars? I also still struggle with much of the Middle East, although I’d love to visit Tel Aviv someday.
In general, eastern Europe can be hit or miss. Caribbean nations like Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and even Puerto Rico have a reputation for heteronormative “machismo” attitudes. And gay men do NOT fit into that equation. This bleeds over into parts of Mexico. Although I try to be “not so gay” when I visit there. Sigh.
I watch myself at home, too
I will never forget walking down Cedar Springs Avenue, the epicenter of gay Dallas, with a guy I was dating at the time. He reached for my hand, and as usual, I swatted it away.
“It’s OK,” he said. “We’re safe here. This is the gayborhood.”
“Heh,” I replied. “Yeah, but you never know who’s gonna ride down the street and throw something at you.” An exact experience I had walking in the center of Chicago’s gay epicenter. Nowhere is really safe when you’re gay.
During a road trip through Oklahoma on the way back to Dallas in January 2018, I literally shivered as I got out to fill the tank and saw this:
There were also lots of gigantic trucks: code for fragile male egos with homophobic tendencies (a whole other problem in this country). I wondered if I looked “too gay.” If I’d get murdered for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I fueled up as fast as I could and floored it out of there.
Even in Texas, where I live now, I don’t dare venture too far out of Dallas. I still think of Boys Don’t Cry (set in Nebraska), and the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. I think of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Of all the states that actively fought against gay marriage.
But it’s NOT political. Because all the times I’ve been attacked, called a faggot, or a bitch, or felt the most unsafe were in some of the “bluest” cities in this country: Chicago, New Orleans, and New York. There’s no safe place in public. The best you can hope for is to blend in and not get caught at the wrong moment.
There is so much I don’t know
I hope this comes across and realistic and level-headed, not negative or bitter. Because it’s not like I go out looking for trouble. I try to blend in as much as possible: that’s the key for avoiding a lot of the hate.
But I can’t help but wonder what it’s like for black or Asian or POC travelers, solo women travelers, or those who are handicapped or disabled. The thing with being gay is it’s not always visible. But being black is. Being a woman is. What is it like for them? Have the same things been pounded into them when they’ve gone out in public?
I’ve seen people pull back as I approach them to compliment their outfit, or give directions when I can tell they’re lost. I know it because I do it too: that little moment of “oh god, what do you want from me?” So I let them have it – I have to – then try to be as nice as possible. Not in an over-the-top way. But perhaps in an “extra nice” kind of way. I know I always appreciate the little acts of random kindness. It’s all I can do to give that to others. Instead of “little reminders.”
I have no idea what others have to go through, and I never will. But based on my experiences of traveling while gay, I can imagine some of what they’ve had to put up with. The racial insults. The cat calls. The wondering why the man so much bigger than you is behind you for so long.
I try to erase just a little of that. But it’s so much, and so pervasive. I can’t help but think it’s like saving a grain of sand from the beach. Or throwing a glass of water on a fire. But so be it, if that’s all I can do, then I’ll do it.
Other perspectives and resources
- The 10 Places LGBT Travelers Should Never Visit – Out Traveler
- 76 Crimes – Documenting the 76+ countries with anti-gay laws
- The Complicated Ethics of Traveling While Gay – Slate
- How Gay Travel Is Different (And Why It Matters) – Nomadic Matt / Written by Adam (we’ve collaborated before on Out and Out for an article about Barcelona)
- LGBTI Travel Information – Travel.State.Gov (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) travelers face unique challenges when traveling abroad. Laws and attitudes in some countries may affect safety and ease of travel. Legal protections vary from country to country. Many countries do not legally recognize same-sex marriage. More than seventy countries consider consensual same-sex sexual relations a crime, sometimes carrying severe punishment.)
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender foreign travel advice – Gov.UK – Sad as it is practical – a must-read
You never know what someone’s going through. Or where they’ve been. What they’re thinking. There’s still a lot of hate in this world. Even if you don’t look for it.
It’s been ground into me that I’m going to hell, I’m filthy, I’m a faggot. That’s all fine. I don’t have to believe it. But it’s sad that there are people who go out of their way to make sure someone else feels bad about something they can’t change.
Traveling while gay means to take all those ideas and experiences and reminders and apply them every time you’re not at home. Travel, in this case, can mean another neighborhood in your own town. Or another country with laws that will NOT protect you.
I truly believe in the power of positivity. But there’s a fine line between “positive thinking” and “delusional.” We still have to operate within the realms of reality. And the reality is there are not-so-nice people out there.
I want to believe people are mostly good. That strangers are friends you haven’t made yet. Et cetera. But part of me will never stop checking to see if I’m being followed. Or wincing a little every time someone asks where my girlfriend is and wouldn’t I like to buy her a nice gift?
Traveling while gay means giving up some parts of the world. No “every country in the world” checklist for me. Large geographic areas to avoid – entire regions.
I have had incredible experiences while traveling. That’s why I keep doing it. It’s just that, as a gay traveler, there’s a whole other narrative playing in my head. All the time. And the only way I know to make it better is to be as nice as I can to others. And to not draw too much attention to myself.
Have you had an experience traveling as a gay person (or POC, woman, disabled person, or human)?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. The comments here are a safe space. You can say whatever you want about me, but I won’t tolerate comments that attack others.* If you liked this post, consider signing up to receive free blog posts in an RSS reader and you’ll never miss an update!
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