At least coffee is still legal in Utah | A GLBT travel perspective

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Last Updated on December 5, 2012 by Jess

A while back while traveling Central America, we wrote this piece about how it feels as a lesbian couple to jump back into the closet while traveling and this one on how we live a bit of a half-in, half-out lifestyle. In this guest post by Lane of Southwest Compass, she tells how an exhausted momentary lapse of a travel habit resulted in that gut-wrenchingly awkward check-in situation gay and lesbian couples often face while traveling. Read on for one glimpse of what travel can be like for GLBT travelers, even in their own relative backyard.

After five years of traveling together, we finally encountered our first truly awkward GLBT situation. You’re probably thinking that this incident occurred in a third world country or some unknown backwater, that is what we would have expected, too. No, we successfully have traveled to places as far as China, as contentious as parts of Eastern Europe and as small as tiny island nations without anyone raising an eyebrow. What made this so painful for us is that it happened in the United States, in our own region of the country – the Southwest.

The Sinners – SouthWest Compass

Now, we knew the history of Mormons and the GLBT community – simply Google ‘Mormon funding for California’s Prop 8’ and you’ll see what I am referring to. That the Mormon community in Utah is conservative, that we knew as well, though we did still raise an eyebrow at the billboard we read crossing the border into the state that warned: ‘last 6% beer available here.’

After dinner at a steakhouse, I can confirm that it’s true. Utah-brewed beer has about as much kick as Kool-Aid. If you want to take some of the hard stuff home, you will need to stop at a state-licensed liquor store. Being easy on the alcohol is one thing, but I need my cup of Joe! Every morning I wandered around in search of a strong coffee in Moab, but all I found was essentially burnt water. Then, a little coffeehouse slogan caught my attention, ‘Coffee: Still Legal in Utah.’

Coffee, the first sin

Coffee, tobacco and alcohol are all shunned by Mormons, but we hadn’t realized how much the Mormon aspect of Utah would affect us on our five-day trip, innocently intended for scenic drives and great photo opportunities. After those beautiful yet exhausting five days, we hit the road at 4am and drove most of the day to our next destination. Being so drained, all we wanted was to crawl into bed, pull the sheets over our heads, and sleep like the dead. This sleep deprivation caused us to detour from our normal check-in routine. Juliet, the organized one, handles the checking-in process while I park the car and check the engine fluids.

This process doesn’t only play to our strengths. It has been a way to prevent that dreaded question of “One bed or two?” It sounds innocent enough, but given that we tend to book hotel rooms, complete with ONE king bed far in advance, we find that showing up together as two women results in being given twin beds or just gives us the feeling of having our personal lives pried into. The question is really code for: gay or straight?

It is like at Starbucks when they ask your name and scrawl it across the cup. Imagine if, instead of your name, you had to declare hetero or homo. You have no relationship with your barista, or that hotel clerk, and it’s nobody’s business either way. I’ll stop dreaming of good coffee and get back to Utah.

So, out of our routine, we run into the owner, who was just pulling out of the driveway. Spotting us, she stared,mouth hanging open (literally) at two women checking in together. Shock crossed her face as though she had seen a bear, or an alien, and that familiar dread settled in the pit of my stomach. If I have to announce straight or gay, then those in the hospitality field should be required to declare ‘bigoted’ or ‘live and let live.’ It seemed pretty clear in which category the cabin owner belonged.

The Cabin of Sin

I considered our various options, such as pretending we were ‘sisters,’ not saying anything or storming off. You could see the options running through her head at the same time. Refuse to rent to us, but what if she was wrong about her assumption? After beginning several sentences and failing to finish them, she offered to get us extra sheets for the roll out couch. Did we accept them or say that we didn’t need them? And, how far away was the next hotel that allowed dogs? We didn’t know.

I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights. I marched in the Pride parades back in Ohio in the early 1990s – when they still threw glass bottles and bits of brick at us. I had written to many governors, mayors and politicians over the years suggesting that they were morons. And, we had marched in protest over Prop 8 while we still lived in Los Angeles. I had waved my rainbow flag until my arms ached but, today, I was just exhausted. Not just exhausted from the drive, but also from the attitudes of ‘family values’ groups, which have bled over into our society and government. I’m exhausted from fighting for the right to live my life without being hassled about who is sleeping in my bed. The fact that this is happening in my own country is perhaps the most frustrating of all. But I don’t want to deal with trying to change someone’s mind. I’m exhausted, and I just want to go to bed, listening to Juliet mumble in her sleep next to me.

We politely took the extra sheets, thanked her and started unloading the car. Later, as we finally crawled into bed, we had the television on. The broadcaster announced that Washington, Maine and Maryland had voted to legalize gay marriage in their states.

“When do you think Utah will catch up with the rest of the country?” Juliet asked.

Sleepily, I replied, “when the Mormons start drinking coffee.”

Guest writer bio: Lane is one-half of the duo, Southwest Compass, and is a recovering screenwriter and travel blogger. Find Southwest Compass on Facebook  and on Twitter  @sw_compass

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  1. Hi Dani & Jess,

    Thanks for the opportunity of this guest post. Even though the experience of Utah was frustrating, we still thought our visit was well worth it. The scenery is stunning!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience – this is a really well written post! I’ve never been to Utah, nor is it anywhere that’s really on my radar to visit, so I appreciate the insight into being a bit different in a very strongly cultured place.

    In your situation, I think I’d also take the extra sheets. Sometimes it’s nice to take the path of least resistance, and regain strength for the moments we’re ready to assert ourselves.

    Travel on ladies. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comments Bessie. If we knew of another dog-friendly hotel, or we not so tired, we may have voiced our frustration to the owner.

      There will be other opportunities to educate people. This time, I was on vacation. :o)

  3. I love hiking in Utah, it’s a truly stunning place! The extremely high level of conservative Mormons, which is the majority of the population in the southern part of the state are ridiculous. I could never live there but Utah is so blessed with beauty.

  4. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to have random strangers judge you all the time. I’m not gay but I do travel with a female friend sometimes & we quite often end up with rooms with one bed. I guess because nothing else is available no one even blinks at us sharing a bed. Although booking an over the water bungalow with a king bed in Bora Bora meant they assumed we were a couple. At least they were polite! I’d hate to have to hide who I am but I can completely understand why it’s necessary sometimes. The worst I have to deal with is occasionally having to smile & nod when people say “when you have kids…” because it’s not worth explaining I don’t want kids. Some people don’t know how to handle “different” & I guess you have to pick your battles.

    1. Bora Bora! Ah, we did that one Valentine’s Day. No one blinked. No one cared. It was an amazing trip.

      We’ve never run into the abroad. The “who’s in your bed” syndrome is purely American.

      Thanks for your comments.

      1. I’d hesitate to say that the who’s in your bed syndrome is purely an American phenomenon. I think if you travel to certain Catholic countries you would have some of the same issues, as well as many countries in Africa. We had no issues in Asia at all whatsoever, nor did we have any issues in Canada. But in the UK just a few years ago there was a huge hullaballoo about an innkeeper who was strongly anti-gay because of their religion and wouldn’t let a gay couple share a bed. She said her house her rules. They sued for discrimination and won, in the end, as she was a registered inn-keeper and therefore had to abide by anti-discrimination laws, but I believe there are accepting people and also a very strong anti-gay contingent worldwide. Just my two cents on this one….

        1. True, Jess. When traveling we generally stay in bigger cities. Universally, it’s the more rural places where problems are encountered. At least that has been our experience.

  5. This is a really insightful post. I’ve wondered about how GLBT couples manage abroad and this post gives a peek in. Sorry that you have to still deal with such backwards people. Hopefully we’ll see a serious change in the way people view GLBT couples in this lifetime.

  6. Hi Reg,

    As disappointing as it was, times have already changed. I came out in 1992 (publicly). This was before Ellen and any protection for jobs or apartment rentals was established. We would’ve NEVER believed that gay marriage would be legal in NINE states! That was a pipe dream. None of my GLBT friends were out to family or work. None. That’s all changed. So, I have hope.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  7. I love this post – serious subject matter, but told in a way that made me laugh at points: ” I had written to many governors, mayors and politicians over the years suggesting that they were morons”

    It’s a shame that this is still happening in the USA and it’s also a reason why I really, REALLY hope that my partner and I will be able to find CouchSurfing hosts in Virginia, South Carolina & Georgia next year. I could be stereotyping there, but I’d rather avoid this kind of situation completely.

    Also, I knew Utah was mormon, but I didn’t know it was THAT mormon to the extent that good beer and good coffee are pretty much non-existent!

    1. Hi Tom, I just wanted to chime in and say that if you go through gay couchsurfing groups you can find gay hosts that way. If not, just be really open and honest about your sexuality when applying to stay with people. Honestly, Dani and I were welcomed with open arms in the South – it’s just a matter of being careful, smart and knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em (ie, fly under the rader a bit, to stay safe). Couchsurfing is great that way though, with such an active gay community! Good luck!

  8. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for stopping by. I haven’t been to the South for several years so I’m not certain if the social climate has changed. The last time I visited South Carolina they still had “private clubs” — read that as gay clubs. Good luck in finding good couchsurfing hosts.

  9. I’m sorry that you felt judged in Utah. Arches and the other National Parks in Southern Utah are superb places for some great hiking and camping…and not to be missed by anyone wanting to see some real Western landscapes! Not to mention the ski resorts in Northern Utah! Not everyone in Utah is Mormon…only 1/4 of people in the county where Moab is located, are members of the LDS church. And in SLC that count is a little less than 1/2. Perhaps the owner’s face could have been misconstrued to be judging you–but was based on a sincere desire to simply know which option suited you. How do you know what to offer, without asking? Sometimes I feel we go into situations with preconceived notions of being judged, when really we’re the ones judging ourselves and other’s perceptions of us. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt, and try not to lay blame on a whole state based on one person who made a face–a person who may not have even been Mormon!

    1. Hi Alisa,
      I’ll let Southwest Compass ladies respond to this in terms of the actual situation they experienced, but I feel the need to chime in on a general level here. I think that when you live your entire life as gay or lesbian,and you travel with your gay or lesbian partner all the time, you pretty much know when you’re being judged or not. While I do agree with the idea of traveling with pre-conceived notions, the line between stereotypes and actual, hard-earned experience is not a fine one. Just like you would know if your boss or co-worker was making a sexist remark to you at work, just like a racial minority would understand if someone where being racist, not ‘just joking around’.

      Our major issue with these kind of check-in situations is one of hospitality. Hotel owners and their staff, and this goes for small bed and breakfasts and innkeepers, are in the business of hospitality – ensuring that as a paying guest, my stay is one filled with comfort. If I am paying $10 a night, I exchange some of that quality experience for an easy night on the budget. But if I book, like they seem to have, a nice cabin, far in advance, for what was surely NOT a budget rate, then I expect that owner of that establishment to ensure my quality experience. No matter what, this woman should never greet her paying customers with a mouth hanging open – whether that be because they are two lesbians or because one of them had a piece of bean or spinach inadvertently dangling from their two front teeth.

      There is a level of discretion and respect that should be present at all times from anyone working in the hospitality industry, especially hotels and accommodation providers. Personal values, no matter what, should be kept out, and these ladies should have been made to feel right at home no matter what.

      1. She was very much judging us. It wasn’t just her open mouth but that she wouldn’t look us in the eye. She couldn’t even finish a sentence. I have no doubt in mind that she was judging us.

        I didn’t say she was Mormon. Frankly, I don’t care if she was. My point in the article was the Mormon influence on the governing and social aspect of Utah.

  10. This lovely post reminds me of the time when I was booking a room and corresponding with the hotel manager to arrange something special for our anniversary. When we showed up, he was shocked and refused to honor the reservation. Great anniversary present, I can never forget. Hope that situation changes for good and for ever. 🙂

    1. Priyank – this is a tough one for us as well. Sometimes as we travel we might have wanted to arrange little surprises or treats for each other but at some point we kind of just stopped because of strange reactions like that. Even just surprising Dani in a restaurant with flowers, in, say, Guatemala, would have felt just too strange for me to do even if it’s for her birthday. Of course it all depends where you go – obviously the same thing in San Francisco or even Mexico City wouldn’t feel exposing at all in those gay-friendly cities.

    1. To each his own. But, we never assumed the inn keeper was Mormon. We were pointing out that the government is very influenced by the Mormon religion. We have no idea of her religion.

      Our experience in buying both alcohol and coffee was difficult. Maybe we didn’t know where to go but in Moab, it wasn’t easy. In fact, in the back of their local guide it thoroughly explains the liquor laws. Being from out-of-town we had to assume that those laws were in effect.

      This wasn’t our first experience with conservative values. We have found finding lodging in the Southern states and Montana difficult as well.

      I still think Utah is a beautiful state but we’ll research our lodging better next time.

      1. Do you have any stories about lodging issues in other parts of the U.S.? It would be interesting to hear how they compared to this one in Utah?

    2. is a great resource, ladies, and have accommodation around the world. However, we do find that it can, as always, lean in favor of gay men over lesbian-owned/friendly spots. The only problem with exclusively using that site is that you are stuck to those room rates, which isn’t necessarily the budget-friendly option 🙂

      1. We LOVE staying with gay guys. On our honeymoon we wanted to stay at a gay friendly area so we picked a gay hotel in Puerto Vallarta. When they found out it was our honeymoon, we were treated like Queens — of the royal type. :o)

  11. I am a straight, non-Mormon male living in Salt Lake City and I feel I must protect my state. I’m sorry you felt like you were being judged for your sexuality – The Mormon church definitely has their stance against marriage equality and I find it appalling as you do. However, your assumption that the Inn Keep was a Mormon is exactly the same as them assuming you are gay. In fact, Grand County, where Moab is – is only 28% Mormon. Salt Lake City was voted by The Advocate as the “Gayest City in America.” That shocks most people because of the LDS church’s stance on gay marriage. I think a lot of people confuse Mormon views as hatred, when they, albeit close-minded, really just want to protect their ridiculous ideal of marriage. (Don’t get me started on the whole polygamy thing…)

    I’m also tired of the stereotype that you can’t buy normal full strength beer or coffee here. You absolutely can. Utah has state-run liquor stores, much like many other states where you can buy literally hundreds of different kinds of full-strength beer, any hard liquor, wine or other spirit you desire. The grocery stores sell the ‘Kool-Aid’ beer. Does this make sense? No. It certainly does not, but the beer is available and you can drink it.

    Based on the Prop-8 experience with the Mormon church, it sounds to me like you entered Utah with a pre-conceived notion that you’d not be able to find coffee, beer or equality, and that seems a little unfair and hypocritical. I completely support human equality and gay rights, but I just want to give a more accurate representation of the people of Utah.

    1. Juliet was able to dig out the guide that we found in Moab. It was printed by Moab Menu Guide. It clearly explains the liquor laws in Utah.

    2. Hey Joshua, thanks for your comment on here, and I definitely understand your need to defend your state! 🙂 I think you are correct to say that a lot of this was based on assumption…not necessarily that the innkeep was Mormon, but just that any negativity would be in response to a state at least heavily influenced by Mormons, although now that you say it, I remember reading about how gay-friendly Salt Lake City is, and also recently a news piece on Gay Mormons. It’s obviously really hard to know either way how or why people react the way they do. But in my experience, that sort of anger, or the feeling of injustice in the gut, that happens in moments like these, when all you want to do is check-in, that is the sort of sensitive issue at hand. This could as easily happen in other states, and has definitely happened to us in other countries. It’s not only Utah or Mormon-specific, for sure. Hey, and maybe for white, heterosexual polygamous Mormon men wanting to check in to a hotel with their three wives and 10 kids could identify with those feelings a bit 🙂

    3. Joshua,
      I wanted to thank you for your comment. I am a heterosexual Mormon who has at times lived in Utah, but I’m not from there–and now travel the world with my family.

      I love how you pointed out that people sometimes confuse Mormon’s support of traditional marriage with hatred–we are not taught within the church to hate. It is not part of our doctrine. I’m not looking to open a discussion about the marriage issue, etc. What I’m trying to express is that I have many wonderful gay friends who I love and adore (in and out of UT), and it certainly isn’t “normal” for a Mormon to have animosity towards gay people. Just because we don’t live a certain lifestyle does not mean we reject people of other backgrounds (i.e. we love following this blog!).

      I know that you gals have made it clear you weren’t saying this person was or wasn’t Mormon…but there was the slight suggestion that because there is a Mormon influence in the community, that it means there is an intolerance.

      I don’t want to undermine your feelings and interpretations of the experience, but you never know the true flip side unless you are in a person’s shoes. The person’s reaction could have been more out of surprise than intolerance (b/c let’s face it…how many gay travelers do you think she comes across?)–and it certainly doesn’t reflect the whole Mormon-influenced area, in general. By posting that you had this “awful” experience in Utah, and connecting that with Mormonism–you are in fact, attacking and generalizing a whole community of people, who are vast and varied, just as gay and straight couples are throughout the world.

      Joshua, I’m glad you pointed out that the drinks can be purchased in UT–but yes, since government is a reflection of the wishes of the majority of its residents, it is not as widely available as in other states.

      Isn’t the purpose of a governing body to reflect the values or opinions of its people? Isn’t that the point? And that is the reasons there is a division of states…so that different issues and laws can be made to reflect the wishes of its people since there is such a variety of people in the US. If people don’t like something…they have the ability to find a place that more fits their lifestyle.

      Next time you go through UT you may want to do a little more research in advance to obtain some of the drinks/amenities you may be used to–the services are out there–but there ARE less businesses out there that cater to that culture–simply because there isn’t a high demand in the area!

      p.s. There’s no such thing as a “Mormon” polygamist in this century. Sorry–but you cannot be a member of the church and practice polygamy (and yes–I understand it was a light joke–a funny one, at that! But for those who do not realize, I just wanted to clear that up!).

  12. Thanks for sharing this. As a black traveler, I have encountered some questionable experiences traveling abroad and know the feeling of being too tired to even try to even discuss it. I can only hope that people take notice of the normalcy of travelers who come into their towns that they think are so different from them and that it has some effect on them!

    1. Definitely think hearing about the experience of black travelers is interesting and wish people would talk about it a bit more. We so rarely see black travelers on the road, anyway, so that must mean that locals also have stronger reactions as well. I wonder how similar the experiences are between black and GLBT travelers (and if there is a black LGBT traveler out there it would be awesome to hear from them!), but also how different race vs sexuality is handled and treated around the world.

  13. Thanks for your comments. I hadn’t thought of what black travelers go through. That could be enlightening. You should share your story too.

  14. I just wanted to thank you for sharing this story, as hard as it is for many of us to read. As a married heterosexual woman, I have not experienced this kind of discrimination while traveling, however, my husband and I have certainly faced our fair share while on the road (and while living in the American South) because of the color of my skin. Although I was born in Canada, my skin is not milky white and many people assume I am Hispanic… traveling in Arizona, Puerto Rico, and even living Nashville, TN, we have received more than a few raised eyebrows. It’s been intensified here in the Philippines as many people mistake me as Filipina and assume that my husband and I have some kind of shady relationship going on… it has made for a few awkward situations where people assume the worst about us or my husband and has definitely been unsettling. It’s not identical to what you experienced in Utah, but discrimination and perceived censure about any relationship is never pleasant, wherever you happen to find yourself!

  15. Interesting article. I have heard of Mormons before but did not know that even something harmless like coffee will off the menu. How is anyone supposed to get out of bed without a strong cup of coffee.

    Just a few days back, an Indian woman was allowed to die in Catholic Ireland because the doctors thought they heard a heartbeat. The women died later.

    I think religion is being taken too far unnecessarily. Time to rethink about religion.

  16. On day four I had finally found an indie coffeehouse — with a Pride flag hanging over it. I think we found the hipsters of Moab. :o)

    Thanks for your comments.

  17. Sorry y’all had to go through this & what’s sad is that it was in the USA. I mean really… our country is so backwards sometimes and it makes me sad. I can so see this happening in UTAH of all places. I worked for a company based in SLC & sadly in the company handbook they never placed sexual orientation as a reason to not be fired. So yes I could have been fired if they wanted because of my sexual orientation and I would have no legal battle at all. Anyway sorry for getting off topic. I always find it interesting to see how GLBT couples travel and if they are ever discriminated against. I hope one day I get the opportunity to travel with my partner and hope I never have to encounter anything like this. As for being gay and traveling alone, well I have not once had a problem at all with accommodation. I did recently though come across to American men who hated gays and sadly cried cus of things they said. I wrote about it recently on my blog. I know GLBT rights have come a long way but they still have along way to go and I hope soon we get all the rights we deserve and stop being treated like 2nd class citizens. We must continue to share our stories and our battles when they do occur because the more we share the more people will realize we are only humans trying to be happy.

    1. As I’ve said in this thread, I do have hope for this country. The strides we’ve taken as a society have been amazing. My grandkids (yes, we have a daughter) will not believe the stories I tell them about the GLBT community from yesteryear. :o)

  18. Thanksfor sharing your story. Ithink that i’s relly importantfor people to read stories like his for change to happen.

    Even though a few commenters felt that this was unfair to Mormons or Utah, I think the larger take home is that traveling GLBT isn’t like traveling as a heterosexual. People look at them as the “not normal” thing. I guess my take home point from this is that it is hard to frequently feel like the “other” in your own country.

    Keep traveling and keep telling stories.

    1. Hi Lisa, I just wanted to say that I do understand why some people may feel that this shines a negative light on Mormons, or Utah, etc. However, what you say is true – if these stories aren’t told, nothing changes. If Lane and Juliet had been a straight couple, there would have been no story – except, maybe, about the coffee in Utah. Traveling as a gay couple does mean coming up against these situations that straight couples do not even think about. Thanks for your encouragement to keep telling these stories, I am sure that SouthWest Compass and also us GlobetrotterGirls will! 😉

  19. This is a great guest post! It’s sad that this is still such a problem but I cannot say I am surprised. I’m sorry this is such a struggle for you guys all the time, but I am glad that, for the post part, it doesn’t affect your travels together!

    1. Thanks for the comments Reas. You know, I’d rather struggle traveling with Juliet than traveling freely with anyone else. We usually just shake our heads and continue exploring a new area together. It’s who you’re with not where you’re going. :o)

    2. Just wanted to pipe in and say it isn’t ‘such a struggle’ for us, it’s just a sort of constant under current that occasionally surfaces. People always might react, and they might react really badly, but most of the time it isn’t so different to straight couples traveling. But I do think that that constant underlying awareness of gauging people’s reactions, etc, can be really stressful and take its toll over all. It is easy to see why some of the gay community sticks with gay-owned and gay-friendly accommodation, especially, because then that stress just entirely disappears.

  20. Thanks for stopping by Lisa. We have hope that one day everywhere — even small towns and rural communities — will treat us as every couple should be treated. So much has changed since I first told my family back in 1992. Mind boggling really. Give it another decade and we’ll probably be stunned. :o)

    1. The next generation, kids born after 2010, probably won’t even be able to fathom how the argument could have even been made that we shouldn’t be able to get married. Well, fingers crossed anyway.

  21. Thank you SO much for posting this article. My wife and I travel all around the world as an out lesbian couple (except for that one time in Abu Dhabi 😉 and homophobia stings the most when it’s in your own country. I am American and my wife is Canadian, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005. I find myself so embarrassed when the States, a country which boasts freedom for all, is so behind our neighbors to the north. There is one place in the world where checking is as a lesbian couple is a delight. Any guesses where? …Lesbos 🙂

    1. Hey ladies, we know what you mean about homophobia in the US. It’s strange to be in the the ‘land of the free’ and feel like we could still come under some serious harm in certain areas. Especially when I was able to get a visa to live and work in the UK because Dani was a resident there. She is from Germany but can reside anywhere in the EU and as her unmarried partner I have the right to reside there with her. It felt amazing to be respected in that way, especially since we have no idea when she could ever get the same type of visa to live in the US with me! Good thing we’ll be nomads for awhile 🙂

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