I love travelling. It’s right up there with breathing, dreaming of Bradley Cooper and eating-tiramisu-while-thinking-I-should-be-eating-salad on my list of favourite things to do. And I try to do a lot of it.
My plan is to take a few months off every two years to go travelling, to break up my retirement and use it throughout my life while I’m still young enough to appreciate it (and to revel in other cultures, rather than bitch about how noisy everything is).
I’ve backpacked across large parts of South America, Southeast Asia and Europe. And I’ve done quite a bit of that on my own. It’s sometimes a little scary, but only for the first few days until I find my feet, after which point I feel energised and alive to be out and seeing the world. The one thing that really dampens the experience for me, though, is being gay.
There comes a time, in every hostel I’ve stayed in, where I’m presented with the choice between ‘coming out’ all over again, and going along with a bunch of assumptions that don’t reflect who I am. I’ll go down into the hostel’s communal area, keen to meet some other travellers and maybe hit the town together or find some cool things to do in that particular town.
There will always be people who are keen to explore a temple, or go for a walk in an area I want to explore. And making those kinds of transitory friends is part of the appeal of hostels – it keeps the loneliness at bay, makes travelling more sociable, and exposes me to interesting people from across the world.
The problem is that these other travellers will always assume I am straight. They’ll talk about going to a bar to ‘meet chicks’, or ask me if I’ve slept with any hot Brazilian girls. Sometimes the girls give me that weird look that makes me feel like if I hang out with them they’ll interpret it as me making a move. A few years ago I probably would have taken all of that as a compliment, but actually it’s just plain irritating.
I don’t want to have to make an announcement about my sexual orientation. I’m not sixteen anymore and the whole idea of coming out irritates me. Why should people assume that everyone is straight unless they say something? Why does it have to be the gay guy who feels awkward for bringing up his gayness? He wouldn’t have to if people asked about ‘partners’ instead of ‘girlfriends’; or suggested ‘meeting hot Brazilians’ rather than ‘beautiful chicks.’
It gets exhausting and many times on my travels, when I knew I would only be in that place for a day, I didn’t bother. I just went along with the act because I didn’t want to risk losing their company if they turned out to be homophobes. And when you’re doing that on repeat, it becomes quite depressing – like you’re back in the closet and can’t be true to yourself.
And I’ve realised that actually, single gay travellers have it easy compared to the couples. My friends have recently gotten back from five months in South America together, and they were full of stories of hostels apologising profusely for having put them in a double bed, having to ask for ‘matrimonial’ beds (apparently that’s what the Spanish call them) when hostels saw they were both men and separated them, and even being laughed at by management. They have all the awkward conversations with fellow travellers too, and the risk of having their relationship mocked.
This kind of thing happens in South Africa too, I know. In fact, despite our trailblazing laws, South Africa is a very conservative country and I have felt incredibly nervous going for weekends away with my boyfriend. As soon as we leave the comfort and security of the big cities, self-righteous conservatism is the norm. Imagine asking for a double room in the Karoo, or in rural Mpumalanga? I have even felt anxious about making a reservation in the Winelands – which is so close to Cape Town that it’s teeming with homosexuals – after that gay couple was blocked from having their wedding on a wine farm. I saw the proclamation about being a ‘family run establishment’ on the website and worried that it was a warning shot to the gays.
The difference, of course, is that I know the law is on our side in South Africa. Checking in as a gay couple may embarrass the bed and breakfast, but if it ever came to a confrontation the Constitutional Court is on our side. You cannot legally turn someone away for being gay here. That knowledge is very empowering. We don’t realise it until we’re travelling abroad.
The law there may not be so forgiving, and that immediately puts us on the back foot. In fact, as infuriating as it is that we even have to think about this, being a gay traveller is actually quite dangerous in many parts of the world. There are huge swathes of the world that I will not go to because it’s illegal to be gay there – Russia has just joined this dubious club of countries, which includes most of Africa and the Muslim world – but plenty of others are more subtly homophobic.
I’m not quite sure what the solution is. If we restrict ourselves to the countries where gay guys have full legal protection, we are limiting our experience of the world quite dramatically. For the same reason, I’m personally not interested in gay package holidays or staying only in gay-run establishments, but I can completely understand why they have such appeal. Maybe an option is to use social networks to find gay guys in the cities we visit, or to break up our travels with periods of recuperation in gay bars.
I just know that in my travels so far, I have come across very few other gay travellers in the hostels I’ve stayed in. Perhaps we’re all just too nervous to go backpacking, or are all playing the demeaning straight-boy act while we do. I think we need a collective effort here; an agreement that we’ll all go travelling more, and be more unapologetically gay when we do. There is safety in numbers. And in 2013, we really shouldn’t have to worry about this anymore.