There we were, five casual acquaintances thrown together on a youth hostel tour, in a car headed out of South Africa. As we neared the border, our driver said, “I don’t know anything about you, but we’re crossing into Zimbabwe now. Make sure you keep your sexual orientation to yourselves.”
I flushed a bit. Was he talking to me, the late-blooming lesbian? Did he know? If so, how did he know? It was 1996, and I’d been out less than a year – and hadn’t yet said a word to my fellow travellers. I joined them in the exchange of quizzical looks, and we resumed watching the landscape roll by. That moment marked the beginning of my two weeks in Zimbabwe, one of my all-time favorite trips of my travelling life.
Zimbabwe is on my mind these days, because of Sochi, because of Uganda, because of Nigeria, because of the U-turn in India. In my media position at IGLTA, I am often asked if the association boycotts countries that pass (and revel in) anti-gay laws. The short answer is: we don’t. We support our member businesses wherever they’re located, because they are sending a welcoming message, regardless of governmental attitudes. If they are willing to stand up for equality it would feel repugnant – from our comfortable headquarters in a South Florida gaybourhood – to close the door on them and their needs.
For individual travellers, it’s certainly not so black and white. We addressed the topic recently on our Facebook page: “Would you travel to a homophobic country, and would you be out while doing so?” Within moments we’d received more impassioned comments than ever. The majority said the equivalent of “No f’ing way!” But we also saw, “I believe we should travel widely to help open up discussion in other countries.”
That cuts right to the heart of travel. Not cocktail-by-the-pool holidays, but travel. Not the visiting and arriving, but the experiencing and connecting. It’s unpredictable, challenging, sometimes downright uncomfortable, as I found on the Zimbabwean border – it’s also utterly transformative. There’s no reason why LGBT travellers can’t help to change the global conversation. We know from a history of gay activism that silence never achieves anything, in fact, it is utterly counterproductive. We owe it to the gay people living under oppressive regimes, and we owe it to ourselves – because we deserve to see the wonders of the world as much as any other traveller. After all, if we skip the Taj Mahal or a mountain trek to see silverback gorillas in their natural habitat, who is the real loser?
I’m not advocating the risking of life and limb. Some places just aren’t safe right now, at all – so do your homework. But don’t just stay at home. Had I skipped that border crossing, I would have missed seeing the stunning avalanche of water that is Victoria Falls, and the quiet reaches of the Zambezi River where applause-worthy sunsets are witnessed by only a few kayakers and hundreds of hippos. I would have missed coming out to the backpacking couple sharing a ride with me, who went on to become my partners on the road for a month, and friends for much longer.
Nearly two decades later, one of those blazing Zambezi sunsets greets me every week at the IGLTA office in the form of a co-worker’s screensaver; last year, he and his partner stayed in a lodge on the Zambia side of the river, as an openly gay couple, and had the time of their lives, with no repercussions.
If you’re really concerned about travelling to a particular destination, the IGLTA website is a great resource, where you’ll find LGBT-friendly tourism businesses in more than 75 countries. In the Fall of 2013, the nonprofit IGLTA Foundation launched an emerging destinations program to underwrite IGLTA memberships for small LGBT-welcoming businesses in places without institutional backing. The first to join was a hostel in Belgrade, Serbia – it’s only a matter of time before Zimbabwe is in the mix.