In February a young man’s thoughts turn to going south — fast. I have never been to South Beach, Mykonos or Thailand and my first and only trip to West Hollywood occurred so long ago that Playgirl was still considered hot stuff. In fact the farthest south I’ve ever been is LA. So, really, I’m not even gay, but that’s another story.
Don’t you just love the idea of the South? Not the actual trip. That involves getting on a plane and losing your luggage and picking up annoying ailments.
No, it’s the idea that’s so compelling. The idea of sun, sweat and sensuality. Warm climates are pretty much synonymous with getting laid.
Travel has always been known to promote a libidinal surge. Sometimes, in fact, the very idea of sex tourism seems redundant. Why else would you travel? People are more apt to get laid on vacation, mostly because they’re in a good mood, but also because different locales prompt different desires and warmer climes in particular seem to promote a more forgiving and expansive worldview.
The great French writer Gustave Flaubert was straight for most of his life. Indeed he’s known for his tales of straight romantic dis-illusionment. But during a trip to Egypt in the late 19th century he apparently sampled same-sex desire at a Cairo bathhouse.
Most of his gay contemporaries wouldn’t have been in the least surprised. For reasons of law and culture European homos, and especially Anglo-Europeans, have always headed south for sex.
The 19th-century French composer Camille Saint-Saens spent his later years, or at least the winters thereof, in Algeria. At the time, according to Glbtq.com, an online encyclopedia of queer culture, it was “a favoured holiday spot for European homosexuals who enjoyed the adolescent male companionship offered there.”
English homos were even quicker to flee their rainy land. Bisexual Byron fled to the continent when his amorous intrigues grew too complicated. Oscar Wilde was urged to do the same (but declined) when his affair with Bosie threatened to ruin him.
The list of fictional characters who’ve fled south is almost too long to mention. The heroine of EM Forster’s A Room with a View finds love in Florence. The hero of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice finds symphonic longing on the sands of the Lido. Whenever a fictional character needs sexual awakening, his or her author sends them south.
As late as the 1950s Lawrence Durrell set his Alexandria Quartet on the shores of the Egyptian Mediterranean, no doubt in part because the setting suited his deeply sensual hymn to the illusion and intensity of romantic love, both gay and straight. (Nothing ends happily in this book, but by the time you’ve finished reading it — all four volumes — you’ll be wishing for a little erotic pain of your own.)
Even snow-loving Canadians have not been immune to the lure of the sunny south. Scott Symons fled to Mexico in the 1960s with a young lover and later set up house in Morocco. Edward Lacey, the pioneering gay poet, spent much of his life abroad in Mexico, Trinidad, Brazil, Greece and Thailand. And apparently these Canadians weren’t exactly alone in looking sun-ward. Gay-lit expert Robert K Martin describes the “motif of the desire of the northern mind for the physical south… [as] one of the enduring structures of gay male writing in Canada.”
Even the indomitably repressed Henry James may have found foreign parts freeing. He spent most of his life in London, but was forever dashing off to Florence, Rome and especially Venice. One of his observers, Graham Robb, notes that James seems to have had a thing for gondoliers. “Most people,” wrote James in Italian Hours, “either like their gondolier or hate him; and if they like him, like him very much.” How far James’ own desires in this direction went we don’t know, but it is an amusingly suggestive remark.
Why northern gays should have felt more at home in cultures like Catholic southern Europe and Muslim northern Africa that were officially repressive is beyond my power to explain.
However some of the south’s appeal is quite obvious. Different cultures breed different attitudes. Homosexuality was legal in France long before it was legal in England (and had been since the Revolution) and the southern marketplace may have offered a better deal on sex.
The same factors that make it cheaper to manufacture Nikes abroad also make it cheaper to buy sex and northerners with cash no doubt found it easier to buy sex there. Colonialism aside, it’s probably also true to say that many gays found themselves abroad for other reasons. Going abroad is often a way of coming home, especially for people who feel like strangers in their own land.
Besides, a little sun does wonders for sensuality. It’s hard to get naked in a cold climate.