It’s inadvertent and only there to help you be a well informed traveler. But travel blogs, articles and information that we perused before embarking on our trip through Southeast Asia, left us with a small amount of baggage that has been the heaviest to carry. Fear.
First, we’re women. Next, we’re traveling alone. Finally, we’re gay. This is a combination of attributes that, from much of our reading, makes us extremely vulnerable anywhere in the world.
I sometimes wonder if this fear keeps gay people from traveling – we have met and seen a few others in Southeast Asia, but just look up lesbian travel blogs and you’ll be surprised at how few there are – shocking because I feel there is a need.
So, I wanted to take this post to address the things we noticed as we made our way through this area of the world, to share a personal perspective that I haven’t really seen after doing my own research.
1. We can pass sometimes… maybe? Because of Constance’s gender presentation, androgynous/slightly masculine, and mine, traditionally female, we are often mistaken as a straight couple in Southeast Asia by locals. Constance has been addressed as sir or hey, man! so many times that we’ve lost count. Once, when walking down a dark street, a tuk-tuk driver called over me to Constance, even though I was closer to him. He asked her, “Tuk-tuk, sir?” When noticing her chest, he quickly apologized. But we wondered, if he thinks Constance is a man, so much so that she is automatically given the authority to make decisions for us as a couple, are we getting other straight privileges? Are we being hassled less? Do we not get catcalled because I have a “man/boyfriend/protector?” There is no way to know if these thoughts are true or valid – but they do somehow make us feel safer.
2. For the most part, it seems like Southeast Asians just don’t really care if you appear gay. What you wear or how you present yourself is not really the issue. As long as we are respecting the cultural norm of not showing affection publicly, no one glances at us strangely. This rule applies to everyone, gay or straight. Also, it kind of leaves it up to you to come out. Globetrotter Girls coined a term that I find fascinating: the travel closet. Despite being out at home to our friends and families, we’re back in the closet here, selectively outing ourselves as we feel comfortable.
3. I know that some countries in this region, especially Thailand, are already well known for being gay travel destinations. But I feel like this title is so often only for the boys. So, I was very surprised to see so many visible lesbians in Southeast Asia. I have seen lesbian partners in school uniforms flirting on a subway train, in a hair salon, offering advice about a haircut, at markets eating together and laughing, traveling together. They are everywhere. I haven’t been in the United States for some time now but it feels like I’ve seen more openly gay women in Southeast Asia than at home. It’s glorious.
On top of this, trans people are also visible. They were our nurses, clerks, servers, guesthouse attendants. It feels like there is a space for trans people here that isn’t made in the west.
4. I illogically feared locals refusing to give us a place to stay because of our obvious gayness. The people that we have come to be weary of are westerners. Being drunk and ignorant is probably one of the worst combinations of all time. This was especially true in Korea. When Con and I would enter a foreigner bar, hoping to find the comforts of home, we also took on the issues of that place. Sitting at a sports bar filled with westerners, an older gentleman wagged his pointer finger in our faces and said, “No!” Another made lewd hand motions every time he saw us, regardless if we were being close or not. While Koreans would often mistake Constance for a man, we never felt in danger because of those confusions. It’s a different story with people from back home. Is it because we are more comfortable in western spaces abroad? Do we inadvertently hold back our affections in spaces dominated by local people? Would this bring about more aggressive behavior on their parts?
5. The fear that might have held us back from traveling to a more traditionally conservative country was entirely unfounded. Yes, you must be safe and protect yourself. This goes for everyone. You have to be mindful that you are a representative for gay people, and your home country, when you travel. You are a cultural ambassador. I often don’t want to play that role. I don’t want to be the educator. So I don’t offer up my relationship as what it really is. I wonder if that makes the experience for myself, and the others around me, suffer. Regardless of the answer to that, traveling has been an enriching experience for me. I would not allow my sexuality to stand in the way personal growth.
If you would like some other personal perspectives on traveling as a lesbian woman/couple here are some resources:
One Bed or Two – Globetrotter Girls
Traveling in and out of the Closet – Bounding Over our Steps
Lesbian Travel: What to Expect – 30Traveler