In 2011, when I traveled to Mongolia by myself at the tender age of 28, my mother told me that the phrase, “dangerous gay travel Mongolia”, was her most commonly searched term of the year. In 2013, I joked with my now-husband, David, that the only places in the world I would ever take him were the places whose gay pride marches required military escorts. In 2017, I find myself aching to get to Grozny, Chechnya, the site of a current attempt at gay male genocide.
Travel as a member of any minority group is tricky at best. It’s something that David and I, to be honest, have had a rather easy time navigating. We’re not people of color, or in an interracial relationship – our minority status is largely hidden (aside from when I feel the need to vogue down a bus aisle, but that’s another story…) We can assert ourselves as NOT gay, rather just brothers in law or friends or some platonic association of two men. 95% of the time we get no questions. 4% of the time, we come out to very warm, receptive people, who accept us as we are. The other 1% of the time, we encounter homophobic graffiti, hotel staff who insist on giving us a room with two separate beds, or taxi drivers who don’t accept or believe that our “wives” are back in America.
David and I are in the habit of not being limited by international perceptions of gay people when determining where we’ll travel next. If we (ok, I…) want to see some ancient Armenian stone monasteries, then we’ll try to mosey our way around the Orthodox protesters calling for the death of homosexuals. When I inform friends and colleagues about our upcoming travels, we are often met with aghast looks and statements questioning our sanity for traveling to places that seem to be so dangerous for LGBT folks.
The truth is, as Americans, we are incredibly privileged. There is still a worldwide perception that Westerners, and particularly Americans, are somehow superior due to our relative strength on the global stage (I should say that in light of our new Orange in Chief, this seems to be diminishing). Because of this, we, as American homos, are permitted some leeway due to our perceived ethnic “superiority”. How this will or could change in coming years during the potential American political reckoning is TBD.
The issue remains, however, of traveling in areas where one may be a member of a minority group, but acknowledged as other due to tourist outsider status. How can we be solid, woke LGBT citizens traveling in areas where our brothers and sisters are repressed?
Our compromise has been to be as open as we possibly can with our relationship as we travel. We can’t recommend to anyone that being completely out will always be a positive thing, but as gay people, we have a better inherent knowledge of people we meet and how well they will be receptive to us. Whenever possible, we make a point to reveal our relationship to everyday people in the places we travel – be it Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, or Suriname. The only way to normalize “other” versions of gender or sexual identity is to make them visible. And for travelers, like Americans, who often have the opportunity, privilege, and a safe space to do so, visibility is the only way to smash existing, outdated rhetoric.
The other issue with exclusively traveling to gay friendly places is that, frankly, it severely limits one’s travel options. Those places that are accepting of LBGT people are, on the whole, more Western nations – places like Australia, Thailand, and much of Western Europe. And while I won’t say that these places aren’t worth visiting, they tend to also be places with a very well-developed tourist infrastructure, and where it’s harder to get off the beaten path. Travel, for us, is about getting outside of our comfort zones, and getting to know a culture as different from our own as possible. That is why we end up taking trips to lesser known corners of the world – places like the former Soviet bloc – because stepping off a plane in a culture so drastically and immediately palpably different is the single most compelling reason for us to get on that plane in the first place.
Being gay friendly is largely symptomatic of being allied with the West – North America and Western Europe. Other cultures rooted in ancient traditions are often ones where the heteronormative family structure is emphasized for the reason of reproduction and continued survival. In America and other cultures of abundance and privilege, we gay folks are accepted because we’re not seen as a threat to the continued livelihood of the nation state and its collective identity. In places like Russia, where population is declining, homosexuality presents a perceived threat to the survival of the nation. A frame of thought exists that states, “if you’re not doing your part to preserve our cultural identity, then what is your purpose?” This, of course, ignores the fact that gay people can adopt or have children through surrogacy, but those details are largely beyond the scope of this argument, especially in places where 99.99% of people don’t have the means to seek alternative methods for family planning. But I digress…
Tactically speaking, as tourists largely interact with people involved in the international tourism business around the world, we primarily encounter people with more expanded worldviews due to enabled interaction with people from many different cultures. For this reason, there is little threat in coming out to people on the road, even in less gay-friendly places around the world. We don’t fear being gay in these places, even if homosexuality or homosexual acts are illegal, because we carry a special privilege as white, cisgendered, American men. It would be difficult, to say the least, to encounter a hostel owner who hasn’t met their fair share of gay travelers.
A great way to combat culturally-derived homophobia is simple discourse. We find ourselves much more comfortable talking about our relationship with people when we have strength in numbers, and once we’ve already demonstrated a respect for and a little bit of knowledge about the local culture. If you appear as genuine in trying to forge a relationship with a person, wherever you are in the world., that person will be genuinely more willing to try and do the same, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender or race. It’s just plain reductive to label all members of a culture, ANY culture, as homophobic due to actions of particular groups of people who wield power and control over that place’s cultural apparatus (I’m looking at you, Putin). And the only cure to ignorance is frank, and open discussion about differences in lifestyles and culture, no matter if you’re queer, Georgian, black, Vietnamese, gender non-conforming, or any combination of the previous.
The truth is, there is inherent danger in life itself. I feel more danger to my personal safety as a gay man any time I drive more than thirty or so miles out of Seattle than I do when sidling up to the Chechen border in Northern Georgia. The rewards of traveling as a gay person can be far more rewarding than risky so long as you’re careful about the way in which you approach the “coming out” conversation. For example, we feel much more comfortable coming out to someone we’ve spent a day with, and about whom we know some personal details acquired through normal conversation. We don’t feel the need to come out in the third line of dialogue with taxi drivers or hotel receptionists because it’s not something we’d do if we were having the same conversation in the USA. Sharing personal details is best done organically, and we’ve found over many years of travel in tens of countries we’ve been personally warned about as being “unsafe for gay people”, that if we put in the time to make a connection with someone where we’re traveling, we receive a warm welcome even if our relationship seems to be at odds with a nation’s cultural consciousness.
And who knows, it may be those conversations, between gay travelers and curious locals, that create the more liberal mindsets that allow cultures to shift to be more accepting of local people who don’t necessarily conform to the rigid gender/sexual norms accepted by the majority of a place. Our words have the power to dismantle, albeit slowly, the constructs kept in place from a bygone era, and I have faith that our global society has the ability to accept and embrace all people, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or race.
I’d be doing a disservice to other gay travelers out there to not mention public displays of affection – every travel guide to just about any part of the developing world says to avoid them, and we agree. We’re not particularly big on public displays of affection in general, and this holds true especially well in less gay-friendly parts of the world. Things could very well get better in this department in coming generations, but for now, if you’d be hard pressed to not hold hands or canoodle in public, then it’s probably best to avoid the destinations I write about.
We’re currently in Tbilisi, Georgia – a city perceived (somewhat rightfully) as extremely homophobic at best, and dangerous for queer people at worst. Despite this, Tbilisi is my favorite city in the world, and I’m eager to get reacquainted.
If you have questions about our experiences as gay travelers in any of the regions I write about, please feel free to write me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) – I’d love to persuade you that the less-visited places we travel are well worth exploring!