Gay Backpackers: Out of the Closet or In?

I started writing this post on gay backpacking last year before we began our trip around the world. However, I decided it would be best to post it after our year abroad to share our actual experiences.

Being gay backpackers, Auston and I had talked a little bit before we started traveling about what our plan would be as to whether or not we'd come out to people we meet while traveling. The general consensus was that we'd just have to feel out every situation. So from the beginning, we told everyone that we were friends from college which is how we actually met anyway. We also didn’t wear our wedding rings while abroad just to avoid any unexpected questions.

When we stayed with our host family on our first stop in Mexico City, we didn't come out. The obvious problem is that many people have strong opinions on being gay and we didn’t know where she would stand. Since we had to stay with her for two weeks, we didn’t want to risk creating a difficult environment between us. Looking back, I feel like she would have supported us. Still, I don't know that I can say I regret not coming out. Our home stay was a positive experience that could have been otherwise.

By the time we were two months into our trip, we had stayed at a number of hostels but had not come out to a single person. Depending on the conversation, some people must have caught on (I’d be surprised if they didn’t) while others may have not. This whole scenario didn’t bother me much as we hadn’t stayed at any one hostel for a particularly long period of time. We were constantly traveling and weren’t getting to know people very well anyway.

But when we stayed in a hostel in Antigua after leaving Mexico, we met great people there. They were so friendly, out going, and willingly shared their life stories and adventures with us. It was the first time we realized what the hostel community could provide – how easily you can make friends abroad if just put yourself out there.  I could't help but feel that by not telling our story – our complete story – we only prevented ourselves from really getting to know people and sharing those incredible experiences.

On the other hand, if you've ever backpacked, you can really see that it's a straight person's world (a single, straight person’s world to be exact). We hadn’t been traveling long, but in those first two months of our trip and we didn’t meet anyone from the LGBT community let alone another couple (gay or straight). Overall, it really did't matter. The whole experience was about getting to know anyone and everyone from all different backgrounds. But it made me wonder whether it was common for couples or individuals from the queer community to travel in this particular way. It seemed not to be the case.

However, this was only the beginning of the trip and we had only gone to Central America. In the months to follow we learned that we were so wrong about backpackers. Single straight people may dominate, but there are plenty of couples backpacking together and plenty of travelers from the LGB community (I leave off the T because we never came across a transgender backpacker which would be a whole other post in itself). What really prevented us from realizing this in the beginning was ourselves. We were so cautious with who we told and so unwilling to leave each other’s sides that we weren’t exactly an easy duo to approach.

The more we stepped out of our “couple bubble” to meet the travelers around us, the more comfortable and trusting we grew. We felt less and less necessity to be wary of coming out to people, especially travelers. You have to notice that travelers tend to be of a certain mindset (generally speaking). They’re typically very open minded. It’s a ‘come as you are’ and ‘let’s learn from each other' kind of crowd. The more you open up to it, the more you stand to gain from it. In the end, we just became less willing to hold back.

Of course we were always cautious and respectful with the cultures we came across while backpacking. We weren’t out to make big statements or to change deeply rooted ideologies. However, we always enjoyed sharing our life just as much as we were anxious to learn about the cultures of others. So the question is, as a gay backpacker, a gay traveler, should you be out of the closet?

Definitely YES!

…and sort of no.

Basically you have to take it on a case by case level. You decide what you’re comfortable with while being respectful of the way other people live. Sometimes you’re just there to learn and interact with a new culture. Sometimes you're there to share and improve. Either way, one of the things I learned most while traveling is that people are kind. People are loving. People are helpful. People are grateful  Some different beliefs may divide you, but there is so much about just being a human being that connects you. There are of course exceptions to that, but if you hide parts of yourself then no one will really know you or learn from you. So be you! Whoever that is.

And remember that if you’re an LGBT traveler feeling lost in the straight crowd, there are definitely other queer backpackers out there. Just a little fewer and farther between. Besides, traveling isn’t just about finding like-minded people. It’s about challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Meet new people. Not always easy, but ALWAYS worth it!

Now let's play a little game called “Guess When TwoBadTourists Were & Were Not Out & Proud!”

1. When we celebrated Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

gay travel brazil

2. When we volunteered at a children's orphanage in Ghana, a country where same-sex relationships are illegal and can be punishable with 5-25 years of imprisonment…

gay travel africa

3. When we went to a Lady Gaga concert in Sofia, Bulgaria

gay travel bulgaria

4. When we were in Mykonos, a gay haven in the Greek isles…

gay travel mykonos

5. When we were in Addis Abba, Ethiopia where same-sex relationships are also illegal and punishable with 1-10 years of imprisonment…

gay travel ethiopia

6. Or when we met this obviously anti-gay monkey in Rishikesh, India

gay travel india

Here are some other sites/blog posts that more or less explore the topic:

How do you handle being LGBT abroad? What are your experiences being out of or in the closet? Or if you know of other good websites and blog posts that discuss this topic about gay travel, please feel free to share them with us in the comments section below!

35 Comments on “Gay Backpackers: Out of the Closet or In?”

  1. Great post and thanks for the mention, boys! Your statement of humankind hit the nail right on the head: we may be different, but at the end of the day, we’re all people. Be true to all of who you are, including the part that might want to go skydiving, walk in the woods or bar-hop. It’s interesting that much of your coming out interactions you discuss deal with other tourists. For us, when we meet fellow travelers, we expect them to see our relationship as normal, because it is. Only with locals, and only sometimes (where our safety is at risk), do we retreat back to the closet. We believe that if LGBT individuals hesitate when coming out, it almost gives permission to their audience to disapprove. The act of normalizing our relationships is something we all must strive to practice! Of course, that’s only after the step of legalizing in countries… :)

    1. Well said. And thanks for the thoughtful comment! You’re exactly right, we have to normalize our relationships – at home and abroad. It can feel like an exhausting effort at times. But I have to say it’s a lot easier having Auston by my side. Lucky for that! It’s worth every second. Plus I really believe that people aren’t naturally inclined to hate. They’re inclined to love. And we can appeal to that on any level possible. I think our hesitation with other travelers was because it was an entirely new community to us. We had never traveled in this manner before. And we were definitely not used to meeting new people almost daily. It was an adjustment at first, but it was something we improved on immensely by the end of our rtw trip.

  2. Sam says:

    Very interesting article.

    Personally, I would have to say that I would not want to stay in a homestay if there’s a possibility that my hosts were not accepting of my sexuality, so I would definitely be out in that case.

    I kind of object to the idea that “you decide what you’re comfortable with while being respectful of the way other people live”. Is that to say that we must respect people’s bigotry? For example, are we going to say that we should “respect” a hypothetical group of Neo Nazis’ racism? No.

    A couple of years ago, I had an old friend (whose mother is Malaysian and father is Irish) tell me that she couldn’t come to my partner’s and my anniversary party because she thought being gay was wrong. Unsurprisingly, I was very upset and now we’re no longer friends. I spent a lot of time thinking about that, and it made me think that if I’d told her that I couldn’t come to her parent’s wedding anniversary because I thought interracial marriage was wrong (which I don’t, just to be clear), would that be a socially acceptable thing to say? Not at all. Yet people can still get away with being homophobic.

    At the same time, I of course understand what you’re saying. If you’re going to a place like Ghana (incidentally, I used to have a boyfriend from Ghana; he had a lot of internalised homophobia), you’re not going to flaunt your sexuality. The risk is too high.

    Wow. That was a bit of a rant! Thanks for making me think!

    1. Rant away Sam! Sometimes it feels good and it’s just what you need.

      Of course I’m not saying we should respect bigotry (as I’m sure you know). But I suppose for me, sometimes I don’t want to make huge pro-gay statements if I’m in a certain country for a short time. I feel like that could become a distraction for me if I focus on gaining people’s acceptance instead of learning about a new culture. At the same time, you could say I’m robbing them of the opportunity to become more open minded as well. To that I would say, oh well. Sometimes I’m just selfish like that and not always up for a pro-gay battle.

      I also understand that most people don’t come up with hateful beliefs on their own. They’re taught. They’re taught for generations and generations. It’s rooted in culture and a way of life. That doesn’t mean we should condone it or even accept it. Of course we should challenge it. But I think that we should remember why people have these bigoted ideas. From that, hopefully we can find some respect. It’s a two-way street. We respect others. They respect us.

  3. Craig says:

    I think you guys have struck the balance right. I think in most of our interactions with other travellers on the road we have ‘dripped out’ rather than come out. As we interact with them exchanging stories it is apparent that we have been together for over 20 years and share a life together. They can then just connect the dots.

    Like you we are more careful in some countries with our hosts and guest house owners, but again we don’t make up complex stories to hide ourselves and most probably they work it out too.

    One nice moment was one when one of the local waiters at a small Island in Malaysia connected the dots and came out to us, and we discussed how difficult it was for him being gay in a Muslim country.

    In out time on the road we have not yet had any negative experiences. Lets hope it keeps that way.

  4. Wow Craig – what an experience to discuss with a local what it’s like being gay in a Muslim country. We’ve not had any negative experiences abroad either. I do think it’s important for us to continue to be out as much as possible, whenever possible. But I also try not to get too caught up in worrying about it. I always prefer when things happen organically.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. Great post guys!

    I’m always out, traveling or not. I find that it is so much easier to be myself. It also acts as way to see who likes you or not. Then you don’t have to do anything because those people who like you as you are will just naturally gravitate towards you.

    I haven’t been to a lot of countries where gayness is illegal (just traveled through Brunei and KK and I was still out but it was a bit scary) so couldn’t say much about that experience. Like you said, I guess you’ll just have to feel every situation.

    1. Thanks for sharing DJ! I totally agree, it’s way easier to be out than in. I’m far too honest a person anyway. Which makes it all the worse when there are situations that I decide not to be out. Thankfully our next destination is Madrid where we won’t even bother bringing a closet to hide in!

  6. Great post David.

    In some countries even if you are straight (like me) you need to be careful of traditions and customs (like no PDA in muslim countries). But I believe one should never hide who they are and its sad to think that you DO have to hide some times. I know the world is growing and equality is becoming more tolerated every day but it still saddens me that this is an issue.

    I hope you guys enjoy your travels! I love your story and I am really enjoying your blog :-))

    1. Nicole, thank you so much for your comment! You are so very right! Sometimes couples have to sensor themselves regardless if they’re gay or straight due to certain conservative customs.

      And believe me, the hardships women face abroad comparatively to men is not lost on us. We quickly realized the specific challenges woman face when in certain countries (lack of rights or blatant disrespect). It’s actually one of the things Auston and I thought was a perk to being a male gay couple. We don’t have to deal with those issues when traveling – though we have our own.

  7. Talon says:

    I’m working on a similar article. Interestingly, I’ve never really been concerned about fellow travelers. It was always the locals I was unsure of. We lived on an island in the Honduran Caribbean for 8 months, and we were there for 7 months before I told someone I’m gay. And then it was only because I knew I was leaving in a month, and he’s Swiss and lived all over the world. I never mentioned it to a true local even though I know their culture is “live and let live” on the island, and there were two rather flaming homos who were locals. It can be a tough choice, esp for those of us who grew up in a time and place where being openly gay could end up VERY bad for you.

    1. Talon, I look forward to your article!

      Wow, seven months without coming out – that’s insane. I don’t envy that situation. But as you say, it can be a tough choice and one we have to make on a continuous basis. With traveling, I feel like we are presented with far more situations in which we need to repeatedly come out. Constantly in new places and meeting new people. It can get exhausting! Luckily, Auston and I have had nothing but positive experiences. Hope it stays that way…

      1. Talon says:

        I think growing up during a time where gays experienced high amounts of violence affected my decision to be in the closet for so long there.

  8. I’m with Talon on this one. I’ve never been concerned about other travelers but locals are a whole different story. Nowhere did I find myself more concerned about that than the Middle East.

    While I did come across two locals in Egypt who seemed to be gay-curious or something (I wrote about one of those experiences for the GlobeTrotter Girls), generally, I’d stick to attemtping to find gay CouchSurfing hosts as an outlet to what the local scene was like.

    As far as other travelers go, I don’t think my situation is all that much different than it is in my every day life. Its not like I walk around with a big old sign over my head! If it comes up in conversation, so be it. If it doesn’t, then whatever.

    I’m sure traveling as a couple though made things a bit harder. Kudos to you for finding ways to be yourselves!

    1. Aaron, agreed. Of course it’s a different story with locals vs other travelers. I suppose travelers have stuck out in my mind more because overall we interacted more with travelers than locals. Mostly through staying at hostels where we met tons of people. Being out to locals abroad clearly depends on which country you’re in. And since we’re often drawn to big cities, being out wasn’t a problem.

      We often CouchSurfed to meet locals too. And usually with gay hosts. So in that case coming out was a nonissue again. They obviously knew and helped navigate us through life in their particular country. But when we were in parts of Africa and Central America, we just avoided it. We also worked with volunteer organizations there and didn’t want it to be an issue. But we didn’t struggle with wether or not to be out, we just didn’t do it there.

  9. It seems like everyone agrees that striking a balance and picking and choosing where to be out is the way to go. I wonder if there aren’t more gay backpackers out there… maybe the others are staying in the closet?

    1. Scott, I’ve wondered if the gay community just isn’t as drawn to backpacking. Perhaps flashpacking is a more common option? I guess part of the reason I wanted to write this post is to encourage the gay community to backpack. Or if they’re already backpacking, then to be out (to locals and travelers alike) when doing so. But I believe they’re out there.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I know how it feels like to be a transgender backpacker. Although it isnt really hard when you’re backpacking in thailand as a transgender. Lol. But still, you are on point about the backpacking world being a straight world. Other backpackers would usually come on to me not knowing i am TS. it’s very difficult when traveling cos i never know how they would react if they find ou. Most of the time i just go on with my trip being a regular girl. Your post inspires me to write about transgender backpacking from my point of view. But i have to travel more. Thank you so much! :) hugs from the Philippines.

    1. We’re very glad to hear from you, Anonymous. I’m sure you’re right about Thailand being one of the easier destinations for a transgender backpacker. But certainly not the same in many other areas of the world. We would love to hear your story more. Hope you will write about your experiences. It’s never too early to start putting words to paper, no matter how well traveled you are or not. Thanks for sharing and enjoy your travels! Hugs from Spain. :)

  11. Claus G says:

    Great post!
    I always decide whether to come out or not while traveling depending on the situation.

    If I meet someone (or a group of people) I think I’ll be getting to know well and spending a significant amount if time with, I’ll usually bring it up somehow, whereas if it’s a one off, I often avoid the hassle unless the topic comes up directly.

    I also find that most of the time, I will chose to spend evenings sussing out gay bars and meeting locals, rather than at hostels meeting other travelers… but again that depends on the destination (and whether or not I am traveling alone or with others, and moreover, WHO I am traveling with!).

    It does depend also by destination, as obviously it’s best to be respectful of other cultures / keep safe (especially when traveling alone), so it’s really tough to say yes it no, as it really depends on a lot of situational factors!

    I do find animals tend to be the least judging though, so who knows what is up that monkey’s butt (pun ;)).

    1. Thanks Claus! I think we more or less have the same approach as you do when traveling. Like you point out, whether or not to be out just depends on so many factors. However, I prefer that being out is always my first choice as I’m sure you agree.

      I do get kind of tired of meeting other travelers at hostels and will choose to go to a gay bar instead when possible. However, gay bars can get kind of old too and you really can meet great people in hostels. So I think it’s a balance of both plus the many other ways of meeting people while traveling.

      Animals may be the least judging, but I think monkeys are clearly the most judgmental of animals. I mean, just look at that face the monkey is making in the picture. Its clearly saying “stay away from me, homosexual.”

  12. Tom says:

    Very interesting read! I’ve been backpacking round the world for almost one year now & as a gay man I really struggled with this at the beginning. You might think that ‘coming out’ is a one time thing, but really we have to do it all our lives, & especially so on the road when moving around & meeting so many new people. It used to stress me out as I generally feel more comfortable around people when I can be myself, but I hate having to constantly disclose just for the sake of it…so I haven’t. Eventually I’ve become more comfortable with being myself around strangers & so now it’s just something I don’t really think about. If it comes up in conversation that’s great, & if not then that’s fine too, & that works for me.
    I definitely agree it’s a single straight person’s road when travelling, I’ve found it hard to meet ‘like-minded’ folk as you put it, but again that doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there are more gay travellers than meets the eye. Keep blogging guys & safe travels! =)

    1. It can definitely get exhausting having to constantly come out Tom. That’s for sure. But I agree, I dont think it has to be done just for the sake of it. If it’s relevant then sure. If not, then sometimes I just cant be bothered to do so.

  13. Sadly, there are many prejudiced people in this world, I have heard horror stories of couchsurfing hosts turning away the guests once they found out about their sexual preferences :(

    1. Auston Matta says:

      It’s true Raphael. That’s one reason that we are always 100% upfront with our couchsurfing hosts and guests. Don’t ever want there to be any surprises.

  14. Marysia says:

    Staying true to yourself is always important, most important for your mental well being but as some of others mentioned before, I guess sometimes it is better to avoid possible conflicts or super uncomfortable situations. I can only imagine how many of such situations LGBT face during travels.

    1. Yes Marysia, it’s very important to stay true to yourself! It’s all about finding the right balance I suppose when you’re traveling as an LGBT individual in questionable situations. And that balance is different for everyone.

  15. We travelled for a year as a couple, we were only really vocally “out” in Peru and Australia, everywhere else it never came up as a topic of conversation. That said everywhere we went we asked for a double bed – so 5 countries in South America, through NZ and Australia, 11 countries in Asia and our stopover back in Europe on the way back to the UK. It got us some funny looks in Bolivia but nowhere else did anyone even bat an eyelid.. Apart from New Zealand! In one hotel there the manager got incredibly flustered, told us we couldn’t share a bed and insisted on bringing us a rollaway (which we didn’t use and left it so it obviously hadn’t been used), everywhere else was fine.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Wow, your experience in New Zealand is really surprising. You wouldn’t think you’d have issues there.

  16. Great post! I think that staying true to yourself is certainly important. But if the risk is too high, then why would we need to exhibit our sexuality everywhere, right?

    And if you’re a lesbian couple like us, from a country like Luxembourg (known as one of the richest country in the world, although still to be discussed…), both (half-) Academics, with one of us being of Asian origin, and both kind of small (well, we’re less than 5,5 feet tall…), then you might prefer to stay in the closet (again – depending on the destination).

    We’ve recently been to Southeast Asia, and before leaving we discussed about whether or not to come out as a lesbian couple during our trip. It was not a backpacking, but a cultural trip. And throughout the whole trip we had several private guides and drivers. Some of them stayed with us for a few days. So we thought it might be better to stay in the closet. Besides, we can now state that one of our guides was definitely anti-gay. He was so shocked and disturbed to find two ladies instead of a hetero-couple, as he “welcomed” us at the airport. He probably knew that we’re a couple, because we previously called to ask for a double room instead of a twin.

    That being said, we didn’t try to hide gestures or words we usually do or use. We’re together for over 12 years now, so certain things can’t be avoided. I might have touched my partner’s shoulders, or hands, or waist several times without even noticing. Or call her sweetheart, or baby… So I guess those who paid a bit attention, did know that we’re a couple.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      For sure, you definitely have to judge the situation. Even during our month we spent in Ghana, we did come out to several people while there but they were all other western people volunteering in the region. I’m sure a few of the more educated and well traveled locals we encountered probably suspected but it was never discussed. But in a country like Ghana, the thought of a same sex relationship probably doesn’t even cross someone’s mind.

  17. Aiden Heng says:

    this is nice! open up yourself is important
    share the experience with people and make friends
    i like to make friends

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