Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]
One of the things I like about aging is that it makes "traveling while gay" more comfortable. What's that mean? Happily, after a certain point in life, the fact that two women might prefer each other's company to that of men they encounter ceases to act as a slightly dangerous affront. Some of us may regret that gray hair can make us apparently invisible to young things, but I'm sure lesbians are not the only women who rather like not receiving unwanted attention.
No, I don't think this works quite the same way for gay men: perhaps more of them might like to be noticed by younger men. Certainly I know older gay men who bemoan their age-acquired invisibility.
In the present United States, it is somewhat unusual for more or less visible LGBT people to encounter trouble when we leave our usual haunts, but this has not always been true. All of us over a certain age instinctively watch our backs in new settings.
Nonetheless we've often wanted to travel; in consequence since the 1960s, there have been many gay travel guides that pointed to bars and other public venues where being gay was okay. In the early 1990s, I remember one aimed at lesbians called Are You Two Together? That title catches the flavor of the mild caution that still goes with traveling.
Since some gay travelers feel safer with their own kind, there is a good-sized market niche for gay travel agents, package tour providers, even a lesbian cruise line. These trips aren't my idea of a good time, but I have known people who loved them.
I've enjoyed some wonderful benefits of "traveling while gay." When you go someplace where being gay is harder, if you do manage to make contact with the local LGBT community, you can find yourself quickly admitted to aspects of the local life you would not have seen otherwise.
Sometimes people don't announce that they also are gay, but they take you under their wings. I've experienced this in South Africa, Lebanon, and Mexico among other places. Sometimes your welcome is very explicit.
In Cuba in 1988, when gays were just beginning to get out from under serious state repression, we spent a lovely afternoon hearing tales from two gay Havanans. Some years later we saw the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate and realized the central gay character might well have been modeled on one of our Cuban acquaintances.
Traveling while gay leads to "the bed question." It's pretty normal in U.S. hotels for a single room to include two double beds but most of the world gets by with less excess. Recently in Patagonian Chile, my partner and I were asked, in a rural hosteria, did we want (single) beds or a "cama de matrimonio" (double bed)? The innkeeper didn't blink when we chose the latter.
One feature of traveling while gay that our straight friends might not be aware of is the high proportion of LGBT people who seem to work in the "hospitality industry" all over the world. I don't know why this is - maybe dealing with tourists is considered a little adventurous or perhaps sleazy in traditional societies, just the spot to park a weird uncle or aunt.
Anyway, the result is that occasionally, gay travelers get what we think of as "family" benefits. Last summer I was part of a gay group who enjoyed this kind of special welcome in Anaheim. But my partner and I have also encounter this in places as different from each other as El Calafate, Argentina and Amman, Jordan.
In the latter location, the sprightly young male hotel staff took one look at us, explained they wanted to offer us a choice of two different rooms, and successively showed us a dark one with single beds and a large, well-lighted one with a double bed. They also gave us exceptional service when we later herded a group of Americans around in that unfamiliar place, all with big, knowing smiles.
Historically, one of the more painful features of traveling while gay has been crossing borders. After all, my partner of thirty years and I are just "unrelated adults" when it comes to dealing with immigration and customs authorities. Sometimes, signs at borders advise us that "individuals" and "families" must present themselves separately. This seems to be easing. On a recent trip, we had no trouble approaching authorities together in either Chile or Argentina and were stunned to be told at U.S. Customs: "Same address? -- you only need one form."
This was new to us, and sensible, and the kind of thing that feels huge if you've never had it. I don't know if this is a policy change or just an individual agent's adaptation, but I expect it is policy. Bravo.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: A Priceless Gift