Toronto
4 min

Global visions

Hooking up with other homos is the best thing about travelling abroad

BE BITCHY. The best part of writer Julia Steinecke's trip to Hong Kong was doing a guest stint on the Queer Sisters radio program with Eunice Au. Credit: Xtra files

I knew there was something different about Rosa and Carmen when I met them in Chiapas, Mexico.



It was 1989 and they’d hitchhiked from their Mexico City home to camp in the shadow of the ancient temples of Palenque. They had no tent and asked if they could store some belongings in my palapa (a kind of hut).



Soon I realized Rosa and Carmen were sharing more than their vacations. They talked about their struggles to live together in the face of family opposition and poverty. By day they taught and studied at the university and by night they cleaned office buildings. Carmen was pregnant with their first child, fathered by a man who had “no idea.” Her mother was not speaking to her. They were my first, tenuous link to Mexico’s gay and lesbian community.



Nowadays you don’t need to rely on chance to meet queer communities on the road. Everyone is putting out their feelers to make contact with counterparts around the world. Overseas websites have sections in English, and many are happy to meet with visitors and talk about their lives. Limiting travel options to safe-sounding Europe and North America doesn’t make sense anymore. Gay men and lesbians are alive and well in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And some of them are having a lot more fun than us.



Brian Davis and Stephen Nunn connected to Rio de Janeiro’s scene through www.gay-rio.com. They went to a bar called The Boy during Carnival last year.



“It was like a regular gay club and then they started playing Brazilian folk songs and everyone was singing,” says Davis. The other twist was the mix of men and women together.



“In cities where there is more acceptance of gays and lesbians, there is more of a split,” Nunn says. “In Rio everyone plays together.”



No time to read up or surf the ‘net? There are a lot of ways to connect when you reach your destination. For lesbians, of course, there’s the famous, “Can you tell me where I can find a women’s bookstore?” to be asked of anyone who looks the least bit dyke-promising.



The curious traveller can also look for hip local newspapers or entertainment rags. Hong Kong’s weekly HK magazine, for example, includes ads for lesbian and gay meeting places and events. A search through telephone white pages for “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual” and “alternative” can turn up lots of options. Bulletin boards at trendy cafés, theatres, bookstores and student hangouts can be fonts of information.



A little creativity never hurts. Globe And Mail reporter Jan Wong, author of Jan Wong’s China, got her husband to saunter past a group of men near a public toilet in Beijing known for gay cruising. He sat down and several men gathered around him. She walked up to them and announced that anyone interested in talking about gay issues could meet her at the café across the road in 10 minutes. It worked.



When you start meeting people, it’s important to be sensitive about etiquette and safety. You may be endangering the locals more than yourself. Where governments are fond of persecution, your comments in a public place could draw attention to your companions, while you and your tourist dollars are left alone. In mainland China, a friend turned to me during a TV news broadcast in a hotel lobby and told me, “It’s not safe for me to talk to you about anything.”



Of course, different people choose different levels of personal risk, and it’s best to respect their preferences – perhaps they’ve been burned before or perhaps they’re ready to speak out. A gay man who overheard that hotel lobby conversation invited me to a quiet restaurant where he talked openly about harassment by the police.



“We’re visitors in someone else’s country and we should take our lead from them,” says John Pollard, who connected with lots of people in Mexico.



Telling people how sorry you feel for them in their state of “oppression” isn’t a good move. They may feel sorry for you, too, because you and your lovers cannot hold hands on the street, or because you have no children. Many lesbians and gay men worldwide choose to marry the opposite sex and have kids, and do not see this as a contradiction. Many societies allow men to passionately embrace in public. It’s best to come in with zero assumptions.



The potential for learning is not the only reward for this effort. Imaging being out to someone on the other side of the planet, talking about your life and being understood. It means, more than ever, travelling as a whole person.



“On some vacations you leave part of yourself in the suitcase and never unpack it,” Pollard says. “To be able to go into another culture and feel accepted and validated… it’s exhilarating.”



FINDING OUT



Gay travel books and websites are proliferating, partly because they’re so handy.



• Ferrariguides.com contains a huge searchable database for worldwide destinations including hard-to-find information on countries like Pakistan and Albania. Search with city, not country names. Ferrari also publishes guides like Women’s Travel In Your Pocket ($25.95) and Men’s Travel In Your Pocket ($29.95) among others available at many bookstores, including Glad Day Bookshop at 598A Yonge St.



• The Spartacus International Gay Guide ($52.95 at Glad Day) contains info on clubs, bathhouses and cruising spots for gay men around the world. Also, Squirt.org (published by Xtra’s parent, Pink Triangle Press) contains information on gay sex spots around the world.



• Thorntree.lonelyplanet.com has various discussion groups. Scroll down to the section for gay and lesbian travellers.



• On Lesbian.org/lesbian-lists/, scroll down to the info on Travel-Dykes. On your way down the list, take note of international networking groups like Lemon, Lesbian-support, and Lesbianchitchat.



• Transalliancesociety.org contains links to transgender and transsexual sites all over the world and Transalliancesociety.org/views/hijras has an article on India’s

traditional transsexual subculture.



• There are many geographically-specific sites including the Queer Sisters site (www.qs.org.hk), www.utopia-asia.com for women’s information on many Asian countries and the Ginger Beer lesbian site (www.gingerbeer.co.uk/community.htm) in London.