SOMETIMES BEING LGBTQI means having a drunken insult rubbed in your face as you ride home on the night bus. Sometimes it’s a cocktail glass full of ice thrown at you for kissing your girlfriend in the club. At worst, it’s a fist to the jaw. Acid in the face. A stab in the darkness. These things are just some of what being queer can mean for a person. But there are other things. Things so subtle and pervasive, that at times, we forget they’re there.
It was the 31st of December 2013 and the South African summer sun was burning high over the fynbos-covered mountains. My cousin was getting married to his fiancé Kerry. The small wedding was under the thick shade of two enormous trees in a river valley not far outside of Robertson. It was my first ever wedding. The ceremony was grounded, and honest, and heartfelt. I looked around at the rows of smiling friends and family, many of whom had flown thousands of kilometers to be there — myself included. All these kin and companions assembled just to witness two people and their love.
The beauty of that thought came up against a deep sadness too. I realized in that moment that as a gay woman whose girlfriend — even after eight years — couldn’t grace me with that title in front of her own family, a wedding seemed out of the question. I simply couldn’t imagine taking up that kind of space. Believing in my own importance enough to send out invites. Putting my love on display. Claiming it’s worth the plane ticket just to see.
It was one of the most poignant experiences I’ve had of how being queer can strip a person of their sense of entitlement to some of the most commonplace and potentially meaningful rites of passage. What seems second nature to some, is straight, cis-gender privilege to others.
Travel is no different. Much of what a straight, gender-conforming person can do without a second thought while traveling, represents a minefield for the LGBTQI traveler. Here are some of the ways we find ourselves holding in and protecting our queerness while on the move:
1. We present more neutrally.
Most of you have heard of a gaydar, right? Your average queer person often has a conflicted relationship with it. When closeted, a keen gaydar (or LGBTQI-dar, if you will), is a feared and loathsome thing. What if a non-ally sniffs you out? What if your essence unwittingly betrays you and puts you in danger? That paralyzing fear generally evaporates once you’re out, at peace with your identity, and (hopefully) surrounded by a loving squad. Only then does the gaydar becomes your best friend; what better way to spot hotties that play for your team and make sure they spot you?
The thing is, traveling often requires LGBTQI people to step back into the closet. Despite some significant strides forward in the last few years, it remains extremely dangerous to deviate from the straight, cis-gender norm even in countries where LGBTQI rights are protected by law. Leaving the queer-friendly universes many of us live in can be an unpleasant, exhausting, and dangerous experience.
When travel is on the cards, we find ourselves having to think twice about the way we communicate ourselves to the world. It can quickly turn into a terrible rerun of all those, “Do I look too gay/queer/trans in this?” moments back when we still harbored self-loathing. While most people generally only need to take the weather into consideration when packing their bags, LGBTQI travelers can find themselves fretting over their gender-queer wardrobe, or whether or not to dye their new fem locks pink, because we can’t be too sure who is out there and what they’ll see when they see us.
2. We avoid attractively affordable flights with transfers in places like Dubai and Doha.
Airports can be a place of harassment and trauma, especially for gender non-conforming, gender non-binary, and trans people. For trans travelers, being recognized and accepted for their true gender is made very difficult when your body and passport are under scrutiny. Keep in mind that, according to Amnesty International, “to change your legal gender, many countries require you to have a psychiatric diagnosis, lengthy hormone treatment, and medical surgery which will leave you sterile.” Suffice to say getting your identity documents to match up with who you really are is no easy task — and for those who identify as neither pink nor blue, only a handful of countries offer “a third gender” option.
Airport security often treat what they see as a discrepancy between appearance and label as an excuse to pull you aside, subject you to repeated pat downs, and prolonged humiliation. This kind of thing happens regularly on domestic flights in countries that supposedly protect LGBTQI rights, so just imagine how much worse it could get if passing through a country where it’s against the law to be gender non-conforming.
3. We avoid airport bathrooms.
To quote Ivan Coyote, “There are a few things that we all need: fresh air, water, food, shelter, love … and a safe place to pee.” While airplanes might be blessed — out of necessity — with gender-neutral bathrooms, airports generally aren’t. Public restrooms and changing rooms are where trans and gender non-conforming people are most likely to be questioned and harassed. The possibility of being whispered about, challenged, removed from the public bathrooms by security, or even physically assaulted can lead those who don’t fit into either of the two traditional gender boxes to just “hold it in”.
4. We curate our luggage cautiously.
Whether wearing a strap-on while out on the town is your idea of fun foreplay before holiday-sex, or if you’re FTM and your silicone accessory is an important part of your identity, traveling with sex toys can be tricky.
If the way you present yourself leads to you getting pulled over by hostile airport security and getting your luggage searched, then traveling with anything too “conspicuous” in your bags will only serve to escalate the problem. Rather than tempt fate, many of us choose to leave our accessories at home.
5. We pretend to be siblings when booking into a hotel.
When traveling with bae to places where being queer is frowned upon — if not downright dangerous — the malaise and glimmer of fear that comes from being eyed with suspicion by a hotel receptionist can spur some of us to do unusual things. Pretending to be siblings can seem like your only shot at quelling your host’s concerns while still enabling you to share a room with your lover. That being said — depending on your destination of course — once you push your twin beds together, the fear that the hotel staff will tip off local law enforcement remains an issue.
6. We reduce PDA to zero.
Most queer people will remember their first half-fearful, half-playful flirtations with public displays of affection.
Some of us have to dial down the kisses, cuddles, and longing looks just to take our significant other back to our hometown to visit the parents, so when traveling to places where even straight displays of PDA are taboo, queer affection drops to nil.
Grasping the cultural nuances of any place and gauging its queer climate takes time — time which most travelers simply don’t have. For example, it’s not uncommon to see black men all the way from Uganda to South Africa holding hands in the street or “greeting each other with a handshake that lingers into a hand interlock that lasts for a substantial part of the conversation.” Older Greek and Italian men can be seen indulging in buoyant male affection. None of that means that you and your boyfriend are safe to do the same.
7. We take our cues from others.
Most societies around the world have trained our brains to think in pink and blue. We quickly scan the people we meet and make gender assessments based on physical indicators — everything from hair to facial features, to physique, to clothing. These assessments inform the pronouns we apply to people and the way we behave around them.
Even though many trans and genderqueer people identify as neither pink nor blue, they are constantly being scanned for gender signifiers that will allow onlookers to slot them into the only two boxes they know or accept. Non-binary travelers are particularly vulnerable abroad, so rather than affirming the pronoun they identify with, they will rather rely on other people’s assessments and behave accordingly. This can entail talking as little as possible and becoming extremely compliant with other people’s ideas of them.
8. We have to be the bigger person.
Something about belonging to a minority allows, even forces a person to access their deepest humanity.
When brought face to face with ignorance, bigotry, and threat, we have to rise above the base behavior to which we are being subjected. We do this primarily out of self-preservation; The “angry black woman” stereotype is the perfect example of how speaking up for yourself can be misconstrued and used against you. As a LGBTQI traveler, showing any kind of resistance in an unfamiliar or airport security situation could be extremely dangerous.
But there is grace in practicing patience as your documents are painstakingly checked for fraudulence simply because you are trans. There is grace in the stoicism it takes to keep staring out the bus window while a drunken man spits insults at you and thrusts a condom in your face claiming all you need is a real man. There is grace in being the bigger person when faced with another human’s short-comings.
It is my deepest wish that things only get better for LGBTQI people the world over. Perhaps one day we won’t have to think about any of these things and will be free to live and travel as others do. In the meantime, keep safe and being magical.