A Merry Band Of Travelling Queers

When I travelled to Germany and Austria in 2008, I remember distinctly calling my mum from the bedroom of my home stay. I paced back and forth listening to the rattling dial tone, my head ducked against the sloping wooden roof which gave me comfort at night because it reminded me of the one at my nana’s house in Paihia. When mum picked up the phone I burst into immediate and dramatic tears.

I was lonely. I felt like I was travelling on my own because out of all my classmates who came along with me, I couldn’t really tell them who I was. I was worried that they would freak out and not want to share a hotel room with me and I’d be forced to sleep in a room of my own or bunk with my teachers. And when, in a cluster of patchy German and English, my home stay buddy asked me about my boyfriend I lied, making use of the uni-sex name of my girlfriend at the time.

I felt disconnected and unsettled by the lies I had told. I couldn’t share the cool little moments with anyone around me, like how my heart jumped when I saw two women walking down the street in Vienna holding hands, or how it dropped when my teacher gathered us close in the courtyard of Neuschwanstein castle and whispered conspicuously that it’s builder, King Ludwig II, was a crazy homosexual who drowned in a lake and ruined the financial prospects of Bavaria (for the most part, she wasn’t wrong re: King Ludwig. But it was just the way she said it, the way her eyes flicked to me almost apologetically when her voice hitched on the word “homosexual”).

I fell in love with Germany and Austria while I was over there, and I count the trip as one of the most amazing learning periods of my life. But the experience was marred by my feelings of isolation and fear. It was a combination of my age (I was 16 at the time), as well as the fact that none of the girls I went on the trip with were particularly close friends of mine.

My experience is probably not unique, but the prospect of travelling while being young and queer is something that can make for an exciting and rewarding experience if you do your research. I’ve compiled several stories from some of the queer people I know who have or are travelling. They shed light on their discoveries and experiences in the various countries from the perspectives of young, queer New Zealanders.

Toni Duder

Jaimee- Shanghai, China – November/December 2013

Did your gender identity or sexual orientation affect what country you chose to travel to? How so?

I went to China working on an Exhibition for about a month alongside other Artists/Designers so the destination was somewhat chosen for me. In saying that I was incredibly interested in experiencing a different cultural queer dynamic. I was interested in how to negotiate not only a different language and a different space but also a different way of “speaking queer”.

Did you make any queer or trans* friends? If you’re still over seas, do you expect to make some? 

On the nights that we went out my friend and I dragged the people we were working with to every gay bar/club/underground gallery/drinking hole we could find. I took to talking to people about their experiences, the ways in which they identified, the words they would use to represent themselves, how they navigated their own cultural framework. I talked to people who identified all over the spectrum, LGBT, queer, trans* and otherwise. It was very “artist as ethnographer” which is problematic in itself but incredibly interesting. From my limited experiences “Queer” was not a term I heard there, nor was it a term I was able to have translated in my work. I am not sure of the relevance or applicability of that term outside of contemporary western theory/society. This is something I am really interested in researching further into. The term I heard mostly there was Tongzhi, which loosely translates into “comrade” and seems to be used as a generally all-encompassing LGBT identification.

Did you see any queer looking places around? How could you tell/or not tell? 

Shanghai doesn’t seem to have a district or anything like that, the different places that we went to were decentralized and somewhat nondescript. Not that they are hiding, they just don’t seem to need to be in your face about what they are and who they are for.

What was/is the most daunting thing about being queer in a foreign country? 

I was concerned about how to negotiate what was appropriate. It’s difficult to comprehend what is acceptable and what is not when you don’t know the language and you have very little experience of the culture. The text I wrote for the exhibition was considered not appropriate for the final presentation of work nor was my friend able to directly translate a lot of the terminology. This was possibly the biggest difficulty, and also the most informative experience of my time there. I hadn’t actively considered the possibility that my western perspective was not universal, that another culture is going to have a decidedly different way of conceptualizing themselves. I mean, of course I had in theory, but I think its incredibly easy to fall back into this space where we are able to forget.

Did you research groups and places that were queer friendly before you got there? Have you visited them? What were/are they like? What websites or resources were useful to you?

I extensively researched before going there, I found out every bar, every gallery, every cultural center, I read about other foreigners experiences being there. I read articles about Chinese sexuality written from the perspective of Chinese people. I looked into the Queer history and politics of China.

Did you make a specific decision to be ‘out’ where you were? Why/why not? 

I was there as an artist, and as an artist my practice is centered around exploring notions of queerness in society, of queer space and queer aesthetics. Being in that position I didn’t really have an option, nor do I think I would have chosen to if it were.

Do you have any tips for other queer or trans* folk travelling to the same country? 

Be confident, don’t give a shit but also be smart.

 

Sarah – Peru/Argentina – 2009, Denmark/Germany -2014

Where and when you travelled:

Apart from childhood trips to Australia, and spending a few weeks in Greece the year before I came out at high school, I spent time in Peru and Argentina in 2009 and I’m currently living in Europe – Denmark to be exact – with my girlfriend, Hannah. We spent this New Years in Norway and I’m am about to make Berlin my home!

Did your gender identity or sexual orientation affect what country you chose to travel to? How so?

I’ve never been one to let my sexual orientation dictate my travel plans and the adventurer in me would have a bit of a hard time if I did but I am always very conscious of the laws and social/political climates of the places I choose to travel. I guess for me it’s about being aware of the culture I am about to step in to.

Did you make any queer or trans* friends? If you’re still over seas, do you expect to make some?

Does the guy dressed up as Michael Jackson at the gar bar in Aarhus over the weekend count? He had some amazing moves… actually it was more like I just admired his skills on the dance floor from afar (yup I’m cool). Actually in Peru I hiked the Inca Trail with this really awesome lesbian couple from the UK, they were older and kind of took me under their wing a little bit, they came over to New Zealand a few years ago and I caught up with them which was really nice.

Apart from them though I haven’t really made any queer or trans* friends while traveling so far although I expect this will change when I get to Berlin, my girlfriend and I took a mini trip there recently and checked out a few queer and trans* friendly cafes and bars that will soon be my stomping grounds. Excited!

Did you see any queer looking places around? How could you tell/or not tell?

Rainbow flags are the ultimate symbol when traveling, it’s a really great way to know a place is queer friendly, cafes that have a little flag sticker in their window are always a safe space to chill out for a couple of hours and take refuge from the snow (or heat in the case of South America)  I also traverse the internet and queer travel blogs to find the queer hotspots in the city we are exploring, sometimes this is a really great way to connect with people who may have lived in the area and know the hidden gems around.

What was/is the most daunting thing about being queer in a foreign country?

I guess that would be assessing every situation to try and figure out whether or not it will be safe to mention my girlfriend, to talk about work, to be out. Obviously this is something that I do in New Zealand as well but definitely not to the extent that I do overseas because not only am I assessing each individual situation as they come but I need to take into account the cultural differences too.

Did you research groups and places that were queer friendly before you got there? Have you visited them? What were/are they like? What websites or resources were useful to you?

I’ve spent a bit of time researching and finding gems on the internet, but when it comes to queer travel blogs Hannah is definitely the one who’s far more on to it, I’m sure she would say that Travels of Adam is somewhere near the top of her list.

Actually we found this really awesome cafe, Suzie Fu, through the couchsurfing network in Berlin, we went and checked out the open mic night they had on and hung out there for a couple of hours on a freezing cold night. It was really nice to be in a really friendly and inclusive environment which wasn’t your typical rainbow and glitter over the top queer space!

Did you make a specific decision to be ‘out’ where you were? Why/why not?

I’ve always been ‘out’ while traveling and I have been fortunate in the places that I have visited that this hasn’t been a problem. In saying that I spent a few weeks with a very good friend in Argentina who I was out to but who felt uncomfortable with me being out to her friends. It was a really hard situation at times because I wanted to respect her feelings but felt like it was hard to be myself, Argentina has a high Catholic population and she was worried about how many of her more religious friends would react if they knew. I think it’s something that I’ve always thought about as a learning experience and it’s something that I would approach differently if I got to do that over again.

Do you have any tips for other queer or trans* folk travelling to the same country?

Argentina – If you are spending time in Buenos Aires I would definitely recommend checking out the suburb, Palermo. I mostly spent time up in Tucuman where there is a lot less english spoken and some beautiful scenery, I’d say if you get the chance you should head up north and check it out, just be a little bit more cautious in smaller towns and assess each situation as you go. Also try not to get addicted to the pastries – specifically media lunas…

Peru – I would say probably another country to assess every situation as it comes, especially in smaller towns. If you ever get the chance, I would recommend doing the inca trail!

Denmark – If you are in the city of Aarhus and keen to dance then G Bar is the place to go, its much different to bars in NZ, probably most notable is its lack of drag queens and the cheesy European dance tunes which play every few songs. I’d be hanging out to hear Beyonce all night only to hear it playing as I was waiting to use the bathroom –  not ashamed to admit my heart sunk just a little. Another places to avoid pastry addiction – the Danes really know how to make a mouth watering cinnamon swirl.

Germany (Berlin) – Neukolln and Kreuzberg are probably the two districts you will fall in love with. In Neukolln check out Suzie Fu and Silver Future, two of the well known queer spaces. The queer Berlin couchsurfer group have their meetup at Suzie Fu so it may be a great opportunity to meet people. I’m looking forward to the XPOSED Queer Film Festival in May, I hear its meant to be really good. The memorial for the homosexuals persecuted under the Nazi regime and the East Side Gallery (which has a great queer mural on part of the Berlin Wall) are great things to check out also. Notable pastries include the Berliner and the classic croissant.

 

Anna- Seattle, U.S.A. January/July 2014

Did your gender identity or sexual orientation affect what country you chose to travel to? How so?

I always wanted to study in the USA, and was always either going to Seattle or California, so didn’t think much of it. I think had it been elsewhere in the US though, it’s definitely something I would have thought about, or at least been very aware of.

Did you make any queer or trans* friends? If you’re still over seas, do you expect to make some?

I have made a friend from Australia who is gay, and very jealous of New Zealand’s same-sex marriage legislation! When it comes to making friendships though, it’s always incidental – que será, será – who knows what my friendship future will hold.

Did you see any queer looking places around? How could you tell/or not tell?

Seattle is probably the queerest place I have ever seen in my life – almost everywhere that you go there are churches with rainbow welcome signs, shops with window flags, etc. I don’t think any of them are specifically queer – Washington is clearly just a very liberal state that wants to show off how accepting it is (and let everyone know that Macklemore and Mary Lambert are from here too and he wrote a song about the whole shebang).

What was/is the most daunting thing about being queer in a foreign country?

Probably not knowing anyone, not having any friends, and having to gauge every single person that I frequently interact with.

Did you research groups and places that were queer friendly before you got there? Have you visited them? What were/are they like? What websites or resources were useful to you?

I did a bit of research about the University’s Q Centre, but apart from that all I really needed to know was that Seattle and Washington is a safe place generally, and I’ve only heard positive things (except for the general fear that is American gun laws – but that’s a whole other issue).

Did you make a specific decision to be ‘out’ where you were? Why/why not?

I’m still deciding! At the moment I’m still making new friends, and none of us know each other very well at all – including me finding out things about other people – I definitely don’t feel the need to be dishonest about myself here, but nothing has come up yet where anyone has talked about relationships so we’ll see how that pans out.

Do you have any tips for other queer or trans* folk travelling to the same country?

Only something that I think sounds totally eldery and uncool – the Lonely Planet guides always have an LGBT safety section about travel destinations that’s probably very useful!

 

Trak – Frankfurt, Germany – 2011

Did your gender identity or sexual orientation affect what country you chose to travel to? How so?

Yes it definitely did because I was studying German and Japanese, so I had a choice between Germany and Japan. Japanese society, from what I’ve seen of it is quite conservative and quick to fetishise things and have, from my perceptions of things, a very strong notion that westerners are gay but Japanese people aren’t. A lot of Japanese people don’t know what “gay” means. They often associate it with cross-dressing. I didn’t want to have to explain myself to everyone and I felt like in Germany I wouldn’t have to worry about that.

Did you make any queer or trans* friends?

I made a lot of queer friends. My best friend that I made over in Frankfurt – we were super best, best friends – his name is Thomas and he came to the exchange from Copenhagen. He was five years older than me and I called him my “mother”. He sort of showed me the ropes  – took me clothes shopping, out to clubs and he was like a friend as well as a mentor. We met in an intensive German course that we did two or three weeks before the University semester started and on the first day I wore a fluro pink t-shirt and he wore a denium shirt with silver spiked shoulders and so it was quite obvious that we were both gay. I felt that I didn’t need to explain my sexuality to anyone, which was a massive relief. Overseas no one made assumptions about me or had any expectations so I could be whoever I wanted to. People either assumed I was gay and it didn’t phase them, or they assumed I was straight and when they found out I was gay they didn’t care. No one was ever put off by it.

Did you see any queer looking places around? How could you tell/or not tell?

I was naive when I got there and I feel like if I went there now I would notice a “gay district” really quickly. But because I’d never seen anything like that before, I didn’t know what I was looking at and I actually discovered it because if Thomas. I went to clubs with him and I started to realise that all the clubs were in a very similar area and then walking to and from I’d notice gay themed shops and I started to realise that there was actually a street – or a couple of streets- that were “gay streets”, really close to the city centre. It wasn’t huge, but it was definitely there. In New Zealand, there are queer places in straight areas, but never any one street or place like there was in Frankfurt. There are places like K-Road which would be considered a “queer” area, but there are also strip clubs and drug dealers and lots of places that would just be considered fringy or out there. It’s not specifically a queer space like there was in Frankfurt. There you could walk down the street and see people and know they were queer. There was something really normalised and really special about it.

What was/is the most daunting thing about being queer in a foreign country?

 I was really excited to go – I was desperate to go. I was so sick of being in Christchurch which felt so small with everyone making assumptions about me. I got over to Germany and I was really homesick at first – the earthquakes had a lot to do with that. But apart from the homesickness I felt like I fitted in with people very quickly. I was immersed in university culture too, so I had access to support and queer culture. It was really the ideal situation.

Did you research groups and places that were queer friendly before you got there? What websites or resources were useful to you?

 I relied really heavily on Thomas for that instead of researching. I would research now because I know how queer culture works a lot better than I did back then. Over there I used a website that I think was called “Gay Romeo” and that was like an online dating thing. I met up with one or two guys but I was really cautious about using it. It was more just chatting with people than anything else. Now I feel like I would go over and use apps or something like I do here. I’d be a lot more liberal than I was because I’m older and more confident now.

Did you make a specific decision to be ‘out’ where you were? Why/why not?

 My thought process before I went was: “I’m not going to tell anyone that I’m gay, I’m just going to see what people assume.” And that worked really well because I’m not particularly ‘straight-acting’, for want of a far better term. But then in Europe, guys feel a lot less gendered – sexuality wasn’t a big thing. I could get along fine with straight German men a lot easier than I could get along with straight kiwi guys because German guys are a lot more open and communicative. It makes New Zealand straight guys seem really afraid and insecure, which I think is a shame because it’s shown in suicide statistics that New Zealand is actually a really difficult place to be a straight man.

Do you have any tips for other queer or trans* folk travelling to the same country?

If you have the opportunity to do a university exchange, definitely do it. As a queer person, if you travel to gain independence, an exchange gives you a secure support network as a back up. It also gives you an easy way to meet people who are educated and informed and open minded. I feel like there isn’t a more perfect way to travel as a queer person. It was a good balance of being independent but also having access to friends and having lots of people I could ask questions. When you’re queer, doing a university exchange gives you the chance to step outside a place where people make assumptions about you and to have a clean slate. As well as that, it’s temporary so you can be more bold.

Oh and, ‘schwül’ is the German word for gay. But it’s really funny because ‘schwul’ without the umlaut means “humid”.

 

Hannah – Europe & Oceania

Where and when you travelled:

I’ve travelled quite extensively around Oceania and Europe but less so as an ‘out’ traveller, since I’ve really only been out for a few years. Right now I’m living in Denmark and am moving to Germany later this year. Recently I’ve also visited Norway (which I’m going back to for Euro Pride in June – yippee!), the Netherlands, Hawai’i, and Sydney where I had a gay ol’ time at Sydney Mardi Gras 2013.

Did your gender identity or sexual orientation affect what country you chose to travel to? How so?

In one word: No. But the more I think about this question the more complex an answer could be. I have the double-edge sword of passing as straight – so one hand I’m lucky that as a solo travel I have the privilege of not needing to worry about how my sexuality is ‘read’. But on the other hand, I can be quite vocal about my identity and having it assumed often really irks me. So regardless of how my sexuality is perceived, in all circumstances while I travel I’m always aware of what choices I make in relation to this. For example, I’m always assessing safety of accommodation,of holding my partner’s hand in public, of the queer and trans* rights of the country I’m in and how ‘out’ I can be.

Did you make any queer or trans* friends? If you’re still overseas, do you expect to make some? 

I really hope I do! I’m moving to Germany soon and I’d love to meet some cool queers there and build on the amazing sense of community I found (and miss) in New Zealand. However, I haven’t really made any specific queer or trans* friends as such so far…

Did you see any queer looking places around? How could you tell/or not tell? 

Oh I’m always looking out for queer-friendly environments! I love the sense of community and openness I feel when I can just be myself. I often seek these place out online before I go places. For example, in Berlin I was aware of a few bars, and in Hawai’i I knew of a particular LGBT hotel, while in Sydney – well there’s just so much to see. How to know.. hmm, some places you just get a certain feeling – a look, a nod, a dress sense, and of course an ode to a rainbow flag somewhere – I think that’s a universal sign.

Perhaps the most funny example was when my partner and I were in Berlin and we tried to find this ‘gay district’ so we got off at the nearest u-barn stop to where we thought it was. We got all excited because the metro station we arrived at was full of rainbow stripes – we took heaps of ridiculous selfies in anticipation of the queer district we thought we would discover on the outside of the station. Turns out we were just in some dodgy inner-city neighbourhood with just a petrol station and apartments. We were quite disappointed. Goes to show that online research before you actually go find the queer spots is the way to go…

What was/is the most daunting thing about being queer in a foreign country? 

The ongoing process of having to come out, which I’ve talked about here. Also, for me it’s about knowing the history and the rights of the local queer and trans* community. It can feel quite overwhelming and empowering at the same to to consider how life is for the people whose country I’m visiting – having that awareness is important to me.

Did you research groups and places that were queer friendly before you got there? Have you visited them? What were/are they like? What websites or resources were useful to you?

Totally did! I’m a bit of a research nerd because queer culture and communities around the world fascinate me and I just want to know and be friends with all the people! But seriously, I try and always find some background to the places I’m going. Since I run a travel blog about being young, queer and broke, I am always on the look out for other queer and trans* bloggers and info sites too. Here’s a few choice ones:

Globetrotter Girls (Very well traveled lesbian-duo with some awesome tips and summaries)

Out Abroad (Rad new travel site run by some clued up travelers and lady-lovers. They always post great links to travel sites on fb)

Travels of Adam (Hipster travels by an American expat living in Berlin – great gay guides too)

Bounding over steps (thoughtful and insightful travel blog by a lesbian couple – includes great resources for vegans wanting to travel)

The most cake (London culture and focus, with travel section for queers)

My Gay Travels (a collaborative travel resource run by Travels of Adam including links to many other queer and trans* travel blogs)

Young, Queer and Broke (My blog – of course I think you should visit this one 😉 )

I always check the ‘gay guide’ for each city I visit too. I know this sounds lame, but it’s a good place to start to see what a place has on offer, what visibility the queer and trans* community has and hopefully where to find a nice local bar to visit. Checking out the links often leads to fun adventures too.

Did you make a specific decision to be ‘out’ where you were? Why/why not? 

This could be such a long answer! There are so many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to be out and I think it’s up to every individual to assess how comfortable they are to be out while traveling. For me, it’s often a bit conflicting, especially when I think about countries that I want to visit like Russia where safety vs wanting to be an ally for the Russian queer and trans* community plays on my mind when deciding my openness.

This article by a lovely lesbian traveling duo about traveling in and out of the closet really resonates as an answer to this question though.

Do you have any tips for other queer or trans* folk travelling to the same country? 

Find queer groups and networks on couch surfing – they’re a great place to start! When I am looking for potential hosts for couch surfing I always key word by ‘queer-friendly’’ or some other term like that in order to ensure safety and a friendly environment.

 

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