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Are All Travelers Treated Equally?

By ROBERT DiGIACOMO

© St. Petersburg Times


Arriving in Florence without a hotel reservation one rainy October day, David Appell and Paul Balido figured they would find a room easily. After trudging through the wet and having no luck for several hours, the New York couple finally found a pension with a room available.

The only problem was it had just one bed. And the woman innkeeper wouldn't rent it to them because it was a matrimonio, a room for married couples only. Although they eventually found a room -- with twin beds -- the two, who are now seasoned travelers and travel writers, say the experience reinforced two important lessons:

"Traveling as couples, you have to take into account cultural differences, especially in Catholic or Muslim countries," Appell says.

Adds Balido, "Never go someplace without a reservation."

Like our straight counterparts, gay and lesbian travelers want to escape everyday cares when we vacation.

However, in a world that's not always friendly to folks who are different, we must also balance comfort and safety issues with a thirst for new adventures.

I have traveled through the United States, Asia and in parts of South America with my partner, and we have had few problems with homophobia and have never felt threatened by locals. For the most part, I've found that hotel clerks in big cities throughout the world often have assumed we, as two men, would want two beds, but they didn't even blink if we asked for one.

"Thank God, the climate has changed," says Richard Thompson, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, based in Fort Lauderdale. That professional group counts 1,300 travel agents, tour operators, airlines and other travel suppliers as members.

"Most mainstream purveyors have come to realize this is a very real market," Thompson says.

After surveying his association members, who operate in 34 countries, Thompson estimates that last year, gay and lesbian travelers took 35-million leisure trips, and that 95 percent of such travelers use mainstream agencies and suppliers. Those companies, he says, "have climatized their staffs to the gay and lesbian traveler."

Hotel staffs may be friendly or, at the least, professional, toward gay clients, but it is wise to be aware of your surroundings when you step out the door: It is one thing to put your arm around your boyfriend in big cities such as New York or San Francisco, which have large lesbian and gay populations, or countries such as Italy or Argentina, where men are more likely to be comfortable being physically expressive with each other. But it can be quite another in the Deep South, gay travelers say, where prejudices can still run deep.

I've also found the more comfortable you are with yourself and your same-sex traveling companion, the easier it is to relate to the natives you meet.

"The climate today, I think, is more accepting," says Mary Gay Hutcherson, a Richmond, Va., school social worker who is a lesbian. "People just know more. After you've seen Ellen (DeGeneres) come out, people have the concept as a lesbian being someone who lives down the street. No matter how they feel about it, people are more aware and less shocked."

Still, Hutcherson, like many lesbians and gay men, says she's most at ease when visiting tolerant, welcoming resorts such as Provincetown, Mass. (P-Town, to those in the know), Miami's South Beach and Palm Springs, Calif.

Hutcherson added, "To me, it's not a vacation if I have to be in the closet in any way. If I can't hold hands with my girlfriend, or kiss her when I want to, or dance with her, to me it's not a vacation."

For that reason, places such as P-Town, Key West and Palm Springs have become annual destinations for many gay and lesbian vacationers.

"A lot of gay men end up going to the same places all the time and places everybody knows because of that comfort factor," says Appell, the co-editor with Balido of ACCESS Gay USA, a guidebook to be published by HarperCollins next February. "A lot of times traveling can be unpredictable, and they know what kind of experience they're going to have in gay resorts."

A growing number of travelers are choosing gay and lesbian cruises organized by companies such as RSVP or Olivia, or visiting popular mainstream destinations such as Las Vegas during its annual gay and lesbian "Hearts of the West" event or Walt Disney World on its unofficial "gay days" each June.

"I go mostly to gay events because I don't feel that safe otherwise," says Hutcherson, who was one of a reported 60,000 gay and lesbian visitors who flocked to Disney World this month.

"I like to see lesbian entertainment. I don't want to go on a cruise and listen to some straight guy from the Poconos tell gay jokes or mother-in-law jokes. We have some wonderful (gay) entertainers these days. It gives you an opportunity to see them when you travel. It's pretty terrific."

Even at the recent Disney World event, Hutcherson says, her companion had a few anxious moments after they danced together among gay and straight couples at a nightclub on Pleasure Island; her girlfriend, Hutcherson says, was nervous they might be harassed after leaving the club.

They weren't, but the incident illustrates a major difference between lesbian and gay male travelers: Personal security is a much larger concern for women, says Babs Deitch, a tour operator and consultant who works in both San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale. She says she has done extensive research on the gay and lesbian market and that "for women, safety, safety, safety came out first. Then, cleanliness. Then, they're looking at price (and) for a conveniently located place."

Gay men, Deitch says, are less worried about being mugged and are therefore more likely to take risks. "I think being close to whatever activity they're interested in is important: Some people want nightlife. Some people want to sit on the beach."

And because gay men are more likely to look for nightlife, they may be more at risk of being assaulted, Appell and Balido say. That is especially true in foreign destinations with language or cultural differences.

"If you're curious to see what the nightlife is like, you often end up traveling through the most dangerous neighborhoods at odd hours of the morning," Balido says.

Appell adds: "In very extremely macho societies like Mexico and some parts of Latin America, if you're a woman, it's terrible -- and if you're an effeminate gay man, it can be just as bad."

Of course, forewarned is forearmed, and today's gay and lesbian traveler has a multitude of resources, including books, magazines and World Wide Web sites, to consult before hitting the road.

"Traveling as a gay person requires more advanced planning if you want things to go smoothly," Appell says. "Start with a gay travel agent, who will be updated in terms of knowledge and will have practical suggestions."

After all, says Hutcherson, who came out 15 years ago when she was 39, a goal of travel should be to enjoy your own freedom or at least celebrate the temporary freedom from your regular life.

"We're all just a bit freer" on vacation, she says. "Even people who are closeted at home want to be freer on vacation. They want to meet people with similar interests.

"Once you've experienced that freedom, you can never go back to feeling unentitled. Travel does change you anyway. I think gay travel even more so." Resources for gay travelers

The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association can direct travelers to IGTA members in their area. Call (800) 448-8550, e-mail IGTA@aol.com. The World Wide Web page: http://www.rainbow-mall.com/igta.

Gay and lesbian travel guides include: Ferrari Guides' Gay Travel A to Z, Ferrari Publications, $16; Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, Fodor's Travel Books, $19.50; Gay Europe (Perigee: $14); Gay USA: The Straight-Talking Guide to Gay Travel, First Books, $13.95; Spartacus 97/98: International Gay Guide, Bruno Gmunder Verlag, $32.95; Out & About Gay Travel Guides: USA Cities (includes information on Canadian destinations), Out & About Travel Guides/Hyperion, $14.95; USA Resorts and Warm Weather Vacations: Essential Information for Gay and Lesbian Travelers, Out & About Travel Guides/Hyperion, $14.95. ACCESS Gay USA, HarperCollins, is scheduled for February publication.

Travel magazines and newsletters include Our World, available on newsstands or by subscription, and Out & About, at bookstores, by subscription or on the Web (http://www.outandabout.com).

Helpful Web sites include:

Gay and Lesbian Travel Web (http://www.gaytravel.com).

CyberQueer Lounge Travel (http://www.cyberzine.org/html/ GLAIDS/Travel/ travelpage.html).

Planet Out (www.planetout.com).

Adventuring IGLOO, International Gay and Lesbian Outdoor Organization, (http://www.access.digex.net /~rewhon/advinfo.html).

Lesbian & Gay Hospitality Exchange International (http://infoweb.magi.com /~gold/lghei.html). Robert DiGiacomo, a freelance travel writer, contributes to the Philadelphia Gay News and has contributed to the ACCESS Gay USA Travel Guide, to be published next February.

Originally published June 29, 1997



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