Travelling to different cultures can present a wide array of challenges, particularly if your basic rights change in your destination of choice. One writer considers the difficulties of travel as part of a gay couple
A middle-aged gay couple I know recently toured the southern states of the US. In a Floridian bar they encountered a formerly-homeless man to whom they gave a considerable amount of money many years ago. The gentleman had turned his life around. With the couple's money he had bought himself a suit and got himself a good job. He had since met a woman and settled down comfortably in the Orlando suburbs with his OJ and white picket fence to match. They reminisced and chatted enthusiastically until the man's devout Christian wife realised the two men who helped her husband were gay. Her smile dropped quicker than the pound.
"Y'all are going to hell!" she exclaimed.
Travelling as a gay couple can be a little daunting. I mean – the prospect of being imprisoned, taunted, or chucked off a building half way through your piña colada doesn't really sit well with most of us. Of course that's the extreme; but you need only fly east of Germany to start running into some very varied attitudes towards homosexuality that can make the UK's 'not arsed' mentality seem miles away. Travelling to less progressive corners of the world suddenly presents a ream of anxieties:
If we're at a romantic restaurant together, will we be stared at?
If we book a double bed at the hotel will we be looked down upon?
If we act too effeminately will we be abused in the street?
Will devout Christian women shout at us too?
So the inevitable question then begins to present itself: Is it worth travelling to exotic countries if we constantly have to pretend we're just 'friends' and not boy-friends?
LGBT travel in Europe and beyond
I wish there was a simple answer. Denying my sexuality has at times kept me safe both abroad and here in the UK. I can apparently 'pass for straight' (whatever that entails) but my LGBT ancestors didn’t march on Stonewall to only be proud sometimes. That cognitive dissonance is a struggle – home and away.
A part of me feels ridiculous for writing this article because I have no satisfying answers to anything I’m putting forward. I’m really just musing and venting my frustration that I must frantically google what the public opinion and local laws say about my sexuality in countries X, Y and Z. The antiquities of the Ottoman Empire may be beautiful, but the antiquated laws and values are not.
The most recent time I felt weary about my flamboyance was when my boyfriend and I visited Budapest. Hungary is pretty divided on the gay rights issue – with the government once taking the stance of 'you can be gay, just don’t parade it about' and the Pride parade being repeatedly attacked by hooligans. Eastern European friends of mine told me that we would be fine because it’s a metropolitan city – yet I have experienced homophobic abuse in Manchester, a 'metropolitan' city in the more progressive half of Europe.
A lack of embrace of LGBT rights is hardly surprising for Hungary. This was a country occupied by the Nazis and then stuck with the bloody Soviet Union. I don't picture 'em waving rainbows about too soon. If you're gay then hand-holding and public displays of affection seem to be simply out of the question. It adds a level of consideration that straight people just don't have to worry about.
Luckily we were fine in Budapest, and we enjoyed the 'Paris of the East' without hassle. We didn’t cross the Danube in heels, which probably helped.
What us LGBT travellers really have to ask ourselves is this: why do we travel? Some say it is to learn and enrich the mind – but I disagree. I don’t need to stare at an old castle to feel enlightened. Renaissance cathedrals are beautiful – but I don’t feel the omnipotence of God. I travel to have experiences and to make memories.
I recently visited Rome with some friends, and although the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel were breath-taking, my friend comically falling down the steps of St. Peter's Basilica (to our loud and inappropriate amusement) is the memory I will treasure most. The disapproving glances I got in the Vatican for wearing my Faith No More top were even more memorably amusing. Who knew that band names could be offensive, eh?
The point I’m trying to make here is this: will you allow conservative countries to hinder your memories? To hinder your experiences?
I wish I could tell you to strut your stuff down the Nile and sashay your way through the bazaars of Morocco but to do so may be foolish. A lack of respect for the local culture is going to end badly, even if it’s a culture you don’t have any respect for. My partner is much more c’est la vie about the intolerance of some parts of the world – whereas I’m far too proud (in both senses of the word) to want to play up to it.
LGBT-friendly countries (and what to do in the others)
The only compromise I can suggest is to think about taking two different types of holidays – the 'romantic couple' sightseeing holiday and the 'we’re just mates' sightseeing holiday. There are plenty of places in Europe and the Americas where you will not be judged for your sexuality. Historically-rich countries like Spain, Canada and the Netherlands frequently top the polls of the most gay-friendly places in the world.
Towns like Spain's Sitges feature more same-sex couples holding hands in the street than opposite-sex couples. This is in a Catholic country! The Netherlands famously doesn't give a toss about anything. Dutch tolerance doesn't just extend to prostitution and drugs – it includes sexual minorities too. I could skip down the streets of Amsterdam with a rainbow-coloured Mohawk singing the entire soundtrack of Cabaret and I'd probably struggle to get a disinterested glance.
There are numerous progressive and inclusive countries my partner and I are looking forward to visiting. I feel invigorated that we can share a dip in Reykjavík’s thermal lagoons. I feel excited that we can ascend Toronto’s CN tower. I feel blessed that we can relax on the beaches of Copenhagen. All without looking over our shoulders.
Alas – if you are an LGBT couple and you really want to visit countries like Egypt, Russia, and Kenya then you should. However you should take into account that you are going to have to pretend to be 'just friends' sometimes and perhaps you will find yourself having to book a twin room in your hotel rather than a double room. If playing your sexuality down won’t greatly affect your experience then go for it. No one wants to pay all that money to be self-conscious.
Perhaps though you should do as I have – and prioritise the more enlightened and progressive parts of the world for your travels. Visit countries where you can enjoy your experiences without fear of backlash and hatred. Visit countries that celebrate your rights and your love rather than vilify it. Visit countries that are living in the 21st century.
It’s all down to you really – but I know where I'd rather spend my money.
Now pass me that Stroopwafel.