Photo: Beatriz Vera/Shutterstock

4 Things I Learned as a Queer Traveler

by Sian Ferguson Dec 3, 2015

1. Being queer at home is hard. Being queer while traveling is harder.

Before I travelled around South Africa with my partner, I never really realized the difference between being queer at home and queer while traveling. I study in Grahamstown and I seldom experience any outright discrimination in the area where I live. In your home town — or at least, in places you’re familiar with — it’s easier to anticipate whether people will be accepting of your queerness or not.

But when my partner and I travel around the country, knowing that hate crimes are common, fear is maximized when we’re in new places, especially since we’re both small women who are often traveling alone. Since it’s difficult to pinpoint the culture and norms around sexual orientation and heterosexism in a place where we’ve never been before, the threat of violence can often loom over our head.

2. Traveling gets easier when people think you’re straight.

I identify as bisexual and I’ve mostly dated men, which means that for most of my life, people have assumed that I was straight. When I travelled across South Africa with a male partner, I was never afraid to hold his hand or kiss him in public.

However, when I travel through the exact same places with my female-presenting partner, in the past, we’ve received uncomfortable leers and scowls from strangers when holding hands in new places. Though we’ve never experienced physical violence because of our orientation, I know now that while traveling, if I act like myself with the person I love, I can put us both at risk.

On one occasion, my partner and I were traveling from Grahamstown to East London — a city a few hours away — with a group of friends, who all happened to be queer. When we stopped for petrol and food in the small, conservative King William’s Town, we immediately pretended to be interested in the men on the covers of the magazines in the store. I acted as if a gay male friend of mine was my boyfriend. A friend of mine — usually pretty androgynous — used feminine gesticulations and pushed her voice half an octave higher. We all knew we had to make a conscious effort to ‘act heterosexual’ for fear of discrimination. Of course, seeing my group of friends act so uncharacteristically straight is in some ways amusing and hilarious. But I also know it’s sometimes necessary for safety.

3. Even though some places have reputations for being gay-friendly, this doesn’t mean it’s devoid of all forms of bigotry.

An example of this is my home town — Cape Town. It’s often called the ‘pink capital’ of South Africa, since it’s supposed to be very LGBTI-friendly and has a large queer community.

However, even in Cape Town certain spaces are safer than others. The city’s mainstream ‘gay rights’ activism often focuses on rich, white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied, gay men. It often excludes women, people of low-incomes, black people, transgender people, disabled people, bisexual people and asexual people — some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

Despite the tireless efforts of intersectional, inclusive activists, many queer people in the city still remain very vulnerable to oppression. Many queer women — particularly low-income, black women — are often subjected to ‘corrective rape.’ A study carried out by The Triangle Project and the UNISA Centre for Applied Psychology showed that 44% of white lesbian women and 86% of black lesbian women in the area fear being sexually assaulted because of their orientation.

When I tell people that I myself have experienced a great deal of biphobia in Cape Town, many people refuse to believe it, since they mostly here of the city’s ‘gay-friendly’ reputation. But if we continue pretending that bigotry and discrimination can’t possibly exist in certain places, we silence those who do experience bigotry there.

4. While traveling, you realize that there are an infinite number of ways to experience being queer.

Though all queer people face heterosexism, our experiences will all differ. A transgender experience is different than a cisgender one. A queer black experience can be different than a queer white one. A queer male experience can be different than a queer female one. And, a queer experience living in one place will be different than a queer experience in another place.

While traveling, these differences become even more clear. This is all the more reason why it’s important while traveling to listen to one another and exchange experiences.

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