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Welcome to our latest guest post from the LGBT travel community. Maria Stevens is a story-teller, volunteer laborer, and an experience junkie. In her moreconventional life, she is a movement and flexibility specialist, personal trainer, and blogger on nutrition and fitness. She was raised in Seattle and received a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale University in 2006. Most of her post-collegiate life has been spent independently wandering on a shoestring budget, observing the impact of the 2008 economic crisis, and envisioning a future in which access is preferred to ownership, and community and cooperation are prioritized. Check out her travel blog for more of her adventures.
Travel is the greatest of all teachers, but this is often far beyond the lessons you knowingly spread when you return home and speak exuberantly about all you have learned. The lessons you have taught others while abroad are often overlooked in favor of those you share with your own people about the world at large. While all travelers are ambassadors for their country and culture, as an LGBT traveler, you are a representative of an oft-hidden group of people who rely on exposure to their community in order to gain worldwide acceptance.
On the Camino de Santiago – no sharing a bed for love or budget
Let’s say you and your girlfriend, the lovely Katie, travel on $10 a day, ($3,650 per year) is an exercise in frugality. It teaches you to seek value—quality, not quantity. It teaches you to be creative, to adapt, and to always think about how to make something possible.
Don’t misunderstand. No one would ever describe you as “fringe” or “hippie” or “bohemian.” You’re a pair of very organized, dedicated, and goal-oriented twenty-somethings who decided to invest a couple years of post-collegiate youth into an activity that reached far beyond traditional curriculum.
The budget, being what it is, seldom permits you to check into a hotel room, which makes the LGBT-awkward one bed or two dilema completely irrelevant. Your hosts — be they from work exchanges, couchsurfing, or hitchhiking—never have two beds to offer. Two traveling girls share a sleeping surface all the time. This innocuous little habit among girls has probably been every lesbian couple’s get-out-of-jail-free card at one time or another — for double beds, at least.
Your travel method includes a broad mixture of couchsurfing, work exchanges, stealth camping, and talking yourselves into people’s homes; your transportation is predominantly hitchhiking, with a smattering of planes, trains, and paid-for automobiles, when the budget permits. Sometimes you move frequently, every day or so. Other times, you stay put for a couple weeks and tile a floor, weed a garden, or organize a workshop in exchange for a bed and food — if only to catch your breath from being on the move all the time.
So what about it when you decided to walk Camino de Santiago, a 780-km traditionally Catholic pilgrimage, in which you found yourselves checking into cheap €5 refuges nearly every night?
“Is it possible to share a bed?” you asked, budget it mind. It had nothing to do with being a lesbian. It had everything to do with being cheap. The Spanish hosts had all looked at you, bewildered. How on earth could you even suggest such a thing? A twin bunk bed is impossibly small.
“Don’t worry about that! These two girls can share a park bench!” your friend chimed in on your behalf.
No dice. Every night, you bought two beds; and every night, you crammed into one, if only to keep warm in those old monasteries. People stared at you. The Catholic Spaniards, especially, with wide, snoopy, unblinking eyes.
You ignored them all, feeling safe in the numbers of your little walking group. As a couple, your public displays of affection were limited to sleeping bag “caterpillar cuddling,” zealous hugging in front of the camera, and occasional hand holding while walking; and when properly insulated by your friendly walking group, you and Katie were as affectionate as any couple.
“Do you ever feel weird doing such a religious walk as two lesbians? Did you ever talk about how to be with each other?” one of your French-Canadian walking buddies asked. “Like, do you ever wonder what other people might think?”
How ‘Out’ should you be?
Katie was quick to respond. “Knowing how Christians think and behave—you know, because I used to be really involved in the church—if I were walking this walk for religious reasons, and I encountered two lesbians, I would think it was some kind of sign or challenge that I was meant to deal with on the trip. Not a lot of devout Christians knowingly encounter gay people in their daily lives.”
Your buddy made a few disclaimers about not wanting to be offensive — after all, he is religious himself. “I have to admit, I don’t really know any homosexual couples. And I’m just struck by how normal you girls are. I mean, you act and behave just like any normal couple. You hold hands, you kiss each other, you’re playful the way that I’m playful with my own girlfriend. And you do it so naturally. It’s not like you’re thinking about it. I just think it’s really cool. You show others how natural it really is. I think it’s a good thing, that you are walking The Camino in this way.”
This made you think. Generally speaking, you’re an out-and-proud, flag-waving lesbian, resilient enough to absorb a few prejudicial darts thrown your way now and again from folks who haven’t stepped onto the curve of gay acceptance. You’d never really considered the darts you might have tossed at others with your gayness; this was a religious pilgrimage in Spain, after all, and you were no longer on your own turf.
Your friend made you realize that you and Katie were like ambassadors, representing not just Americans, but lesbians, and that your out-ness was a positive acceleration of a movement slower to gain ground in more conservative environments. This realization flooded you with warm-and-fuzzies, as well as with an urgent desire to publicly hold Katie’s hand as often as possible.
Exposure: sexuality is only a ‘private matter’ if you’re gay
As a result, many people on The Camino were exposed to their first lesbian couple, and (you hope) experienced you as nothing other than sweet, polite, considerate women, albeit odd for squishing into a twin bed together.
In order to perpetuate the LGBT equality cause, it is not enough to explain that queers exist, for this does not lead others past the point of awareness. The newly aware person will politely say, “I don’t care what people do in their bedrooms. His sexual preferences are a private matter.”
Here’s your correction: sexual orientation is only a private matter if you’re gay. To everyone else, it’s public. The proof? Nobody says to a newly engaged young woman: “Whoa, whoa, now. Wait just a second. I don’t really want to hear about how you plan to spend the rest of your life with some young man. That’s nobody’s business but yours!” That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in straight discourse.
When they say it is a “private matter” person actually said was, “I don’t want exposure to gay culture.”
Through exposure, you can help nudge people from awareness to acceptance. It’s far more difficult to be written off by others when they know you—when they’ve just walked several hundred kilometers with you, or hosted you, or helped you in some way already. Covering is cautious, and every queer person has done it; but it is important to take controlled social risks at home and especially abroad. In other words, it’s important to first make some friends and then to out yourself.
Think of it this way: how many people have formed an entirely new opinion about a certain race, culture, or minority group once they finally got exposure to it? Isn’t that the point of exposure: to open your mind, to open to experience, to learn, and to see what is and what isn’t for yourself? The world needs to learn just as much as the traveler does, and fortunately, the LGBT traveler is in a unique position to teach the rest of the world how to move from tolerance to acceptance.
What to do when your sexuality is a crime?
Take a country like Morocco, for example, where being gay is still illegal. Moroccan culture leaves absolutely no space and has not an ounce of forgiveness for homosexuality. Certainly, it sounds foolhardy to go there and start outing yourself in the name of Pride. But if you don’t do your part to nudge things along, who will?
Admittedly, you and Katie were biting your nails about Morocco as you tried to understand the social pressures faced not only by queer individuals, but also by women. But you went there, to a place that scared you. The point was to see the culture, learn about it, and to understand the religion.
On the streets of Tangier, you were cat-called, sucked at, kissed at, hissed at, winked at, and intimidated to no end. The culture is sexually segregated, traditional, and largely conservative. In traditional Morocco, a woman’s domain is in the home, and her role is wife to a man, and mother to children. Outside, she is considered very vulnerable, and should usually be accompanied by a male family member—especially when she is traveling.
It was a very tall cultural order for you and Katie, being that you were independent women, unmarried, childless, traveling, and lesbians. Nothing about that paradigm applied. You and Katie answered questions with selective honesty like a contortionist slipping from his bounds. “Are you married? Do you have boyfriends? Why don’t you want children?” Each question, each cat-call, each greedy-looking stare had you backing towards the closet door. You were learning lessons from your travels faster than you could count them.
At times, you were worn thin by the gender inequality. You wanted to scream in their faces, shove them, hit them, insult them. You wanted to drill a lesson home with force. But you didn’t. What would it accomplish? All it would do is paint a bad portrait of Americans.
“Which one of you is the man?” is a first step, at least
You are an ambassador. The question remained: how could you teach?
It started with honesty; you had to out yourselves to your hosts. Some found out from Facebook or Couchsurfing after-the-fact; others found out in person. “So you’re a couple?” Pause. “Which one of you is the man?”
It’s a common enough question, even back at home. People try to superimpose models. What you found delightful, though, was the opportunity to teach your hosts things beyond gay or straight—things like gender dynamics, gender expression, sexual independence, and how your own partnership works.
One of your hosts, a younger, more liberal guy with a taste for Western culture said to you, “I really don’t have a problem with the idea of two women together. But two men together… I don’t like that. It feels wrong.” You spent ample time helping him unwrap his statement from layers of cultural prejudice and hetero-normative assumptions that men cannot be on the “receiving end” of things. You suppose that in a country absent sex shops, such a discussion might have required considerable mental acrobatics.
At the end of the day, your host learned a few new things about how some men relate to men, and some women (like yourselves) relate to women, and what it all meant within the context of his own society. In return, you learned a great many things, such as what you used to take for granted as a lesbian in America—your freedom to transcend most traditional boundaries of expression for women. The value of travel doesn’t flow merely in one direction.
It teaches everyone involved. You know this, and you embrace the opportunity to participate with great honesty and diplomacy as an LGBT traveler whenever possible.
Are you an LGBT traveler on the road? Do you have a story to share? We welcome guest posts highlighting what life on the road is like for gay and lesbian travelers. We would love to feature your story here on GlobetrotterGirls.com!