Sex columnist Dan Savage explains the issues of traveling as a gay person — and why he often doesn't
The clerk at the hotel in Kamloops, British Columbia, doesn't quite know what to make of us. Two guys traveling with a 10-month-old baby, in the middle of nowhere, requesting a room with a king-size bed and a crib. She looks me up and down, then the boyfriend, then the baby. There is a long pause, and I feel sure we have another situation on our hands.
When our son, D.J., was just a few weeks old, a desk clerk at the Seattle airport threatened to call the police instead of checking us in. She thought we might be kidnappers—she told us as much!—and demanded proof the baby was ours before she'd issue boarding passes. We had no proof: Who carries proof that their kids are their kids? After 10 minutes, we were able to convince her we weren't kidnappers ("We're a gay couple, we adopted this baby, we're going to see Grandma in Spokane…"), and were allowed to board.
Since that harrowing experience, we've carried a copy of D.J.'s birth certificate whenever we travel. Issued after the adoption was finalized, it lists me as "Parent #1" and Terry, my boyfriend, as "Parent #2." We don't leave home without it—and we don't fly on that airline anymore.
Now, standing at a reception desk in Kamloops, I'm afraid we might have to whip out the birth certificate. Finally, the clerk speaks: "Smoking or nonsmoking?" Whew.
Neither Terry nor I look much like parents. We look like—well, we look like gay men: I'm 35, well-preserved, and polite; he's 28, not yet in need of preservation, and has complicated hair. We're an odd sight in some parts of the world, two men and a baby. Especially in places that don't draw many tourists, gay or straight. Like Kamloops.
We're not the kind of consumers the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association likes to boast about. "The Gay and Lesbian Market is very desirable to the Travel Industry!" gushes the IGLTA's Web site. According to the IGLTA, gay travel yields $17 billion annually, and it's growing like kudzu. "The gay market appears to control a large portion of travel industry dollars!" Put that way, it sounds like a conspiracy, and someone should alert Reverend Falwell.
What makes gays and lesbians so alluring to the travel industry is that many of us are in DINK (dual income, no kids) relationships. DINK's have "high discretionary dollars and tremendous travel mobility!" Sadly, with my boyfriend staying home to look after the baby, and the three of us living off my paycheck, we're no longer DINK's. We're OINK's: one income, new kid.
The phrase gay travel conjures up images of cruise ships floating from one tourist port to another, or group tours that enable their clients to see the world without risking any encounters with heterosexuals. RSVP Productions has been chartering cruise ships mainly for gay men for 14 years. Most everyone in the RSVP brochure is young, white, and in great shape (the few tiny pictures of biological females and old, fat, or non-white men are clearly there to insulate RSVP from charges of sexism, ageism, looksism, and racism). Flipping through it, I get the feeling I don't do nearly enough sit-ups to be allowed on board.
"Experience the extraordinary freedom and camaraderie of a gay and lesbian vacation with RSVP," says the brochure. Freedom is nice, but I'd sooner be locked in a burning building than trapped on an RSVP cruise. Not because I don't like other gay men—some of my best friends are gay, really—but there's something about packs of gay men, most in Speedos, many of them drunk, that makes me uncomfortable. If I want to hang out with drunk gay men in embarrassing outfits, I can head to one of the 20 gay bars within a mile of my house.
Some gay people, however, don't live in gay neighborhoods, and I can see why they'd want to hop on a boat full of homos or visit San Francisco. The freedom and tolerance I take for granted in gay-friendly Seattle would make an ideal vacation from the oppression of, say, Wyoming.
That's exactly right, says Judy Dlugacz, president of Olivia Cruises & Resorts—the self-proclaimed "premier provider of vacations for lesbians" for 10 years. "A lot of the women who take Olivia cruises are from the Midwest, and many live in rural areas," says Dlugacz. "So it's the only time they get to experience this kind of total freedom"—the freedom to be openly gay—"and meet people just like themselves."
My boyfriend and I, it seems, do very little gay traveling. Why should we?When we want to meet people like ourselves, we simply leave the house. When we go on vacation, we want to be somewhere that's not like home and meet different kinds of people.
We take two trips a year, one to some place we haven't been, and the second to the Canadian Rockies in November. We spend a week at a time-share condo in Fairmont, Alberta, that Terry's parents bought in the early seventies, then a few nights in Banff, eating buffalo and soaking in hot springs. We wind westward through the mountains, stopping in Kamloops for a day or two on our way to Vancouver. We've spent our last three Thanksgivings at the Hotel Vancouver, eating terrific room-service sushi in a suite overlooking the art museum.
Our guidebook warns that there's "no particular need to spend any time" in Kamloops, and that it's "not a place to spend a happy day wandering." Having logged more time in Kamloops—six nights total—than the guidebook authors probably have, I can say to hell with the experts with some authority: Kamloops is lovely. It sits on the Thompson River, hemmed in by barren dung-brown hills. Aware that it is not (and never will be) pretty, Kamloops is completely unselfconscious. There are great junk stores and goofy duckpin bowling alleys, and the restaurants aren't crowded. And with guidebooks making the place sound about as appealing as Gary, Indiana, during a race riot, we have it all to ourselves (even if we don't feel free to completely be ourselves—that is, openly gay).
In 1998, the Cayman Islands refused to allow a gay-chartered cruise ship to dock, making news all over the world and earning the islands a reputation for bigotry. The Caymans were absolutely in the wrong, and while I wouldn't set foot on a gay cruise, I support the right of gay ships to cruise wherever they care to. But having spent time in places like Kamloops helps me understand where the Caymans are coming from. You just can't put San Francisco on a boat and float it over to an island and not expect to spook the locals.
As for our other trips, well, we're planning a couple of big ones in the next two years: we'll be crossing the Atlantic on a cargo ship, and we're going to Iran. We'll have to temporarily trade in some of the freedoms we enjoy at home—we're willing to be circumspect about our relationship and sexual identity—in order to experience a working ship and an Islamic theocracy.
So we'll be leaving our nobody knows my boyfriend is gay! T-shirts and Day-Glo Speedos at home. And we'll be leaving D.J. behind, too. Traveling with a baby means having to be out wherever you go—how else can we prove the baby is ours?—so D.J. will be spending a couple of weeks at Grandma's house while his two dads swab decks and meet mullahs. And I have a feeling that, just as in Kamloops, the only other openly gay person I'll meet while I'm in Iran will be my boyfriend.
The Gay Way
"The most common question we get is how to find a good travel agent," says Billy Kolber-Stuart, editor of the Out & About travel newsletter. "People don't feel comfortable coming out to their travel agents." O&A (800/929-2268; www.outandabout.com) has 41 recommendations on its Web site, and the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (800/448-8550; www.iglta.org) also makes referrals. As for tours, Kolber-Stuart says there are three basic types. "First, there are operators doing big trips where you'll be surrounded by gay people" — RSVP Productions (800/328-7787; www.rsvp.net), Atlantis Events (800/628-5268; www.atlantisevents.com), and Olivia Cruises & Resorts (800/631-6277; www.oliviatravel.com) are the best known. "The second tier does trips that are more destination-driven"; typical of these are Above & Beyond Tours (800/397-2681; www.abovebeyondtours.com) and Family Abroad (800/999-5500; www.familyabroad.com). "Then there are companies" — including Coda International Tours (888/677-2632; www.coda-tours.com) — "that do all-gay or partially gay departures to places that aren't specifically of gay interest.' " Another good resource for gay travel news, with reliable advice and lively chat rooms, is www.planetout.com.