We stood at a street corner in Munich trying to locate a restaurant that our tour guide recommended. It was two days before Oktoberfest and both tourists and business people flooded by.

“Why is everyone staring at us?” My partner adjusted her headband before she crossed her arms.

“We’re different.”

“We’re not!”

I shrugged. “Get used to it now. Otherwise, it’ll be a long year.”

“We literally look the same as everyone else.”

“They can smell the gay.” 

She was right. I could anticipate each head cranking 180 degrees as they passed. I couldn’t place what made the Germans stare. Usually, I can guess the reason, like a loud conversation between us or a not-so-sneaky butt grab, but this time we looked like every other confused tourist, which, in the capital of Bavaria, wasn’t rare. Perhaps my flannel jacket outed me in Deutschland more than it did in my homeland of lumberjacks. Whatever the reason, this wasn’t the first time I had been ogled in public and I’m certainly not a catwalk Angel.

challenges of traveling lgbtq
Photo by Luis Fernando Felipe Alves.

Several months earlier, my partner Hannah and I decided to take a year-long trip around Europe and beyond. Before embarking, I discussed concerns with her about how our affection couldn’t be the same abroad. Her reaction saddened me.

“I hate this! Why should it matter?” Her unwavering confidence and unapologetic gayness are both refreshing and frightening. I’ve experienced intense prejudice in my daily life, so I tend to proceed everywhere with caution. It’s annoying for both of us to withhold affection, but our travel style essentially remains at “special friends” status.

We are careful to avoid contradictions that could out ourselves to people we don’t necessarily want to know—pretending to be what’s assumed because it’s safer and less exhausting. Before we go anywhere, the first online search is about the queer-friendliness of a place. We adore our community and are proud to be part of it. Sharing others’ uniqueness and embracing ourselves abroad is what we look forward to in every city. Exploring gay districts and learning about movements in each community drives us to be better advocates and inspires me to be more tenacious. 

In reality, we can’t travel equitably to hetero couples. Homosexuality is criminalized in 70 countries where several still serve the death penalty. I want to experience these rich, beautiful cultures and histories, but I can’t comfortably visit a place where we could be detained for a not-so-sneaky butt grab. I’m aware that the previous situation is unlikely, but even in “safe” countries, public affection causes enough grief that we normally wait until we have wiggled deep into the gay districts or have found an empty room.

challenges of lgbtq travel
Photo by Luis Fernand Felipe Alves.

While traveling, I’ve been verbally harassed, hissed at, followed, and, most notably, grabbed and licked on the shoulder in a public park after I told the man I wasn’t interested in a romantic date because I am a lesbian. LGBTQ+ travel exposure is important, but sexualized prejudice is a grotesque way to ruin good memories, especially when it can be avoided by a simple embellishment of our relationship’s nature.

Often, I feel unsafe or uncomfortable discussing my sexuality with strangers. When people ask “hard” questions, I immediately raise my guard and make a plan. Someone casually drinking with you at the bar might be the same person who licks you in public and says he can “turn you” while you run away screaming profanities. People are unpredictable and, if not offended, inappropriately upfront.

“So, who’s the man?”

“Have you ever been with a good guy, though?”

“How do you ladies, you know?”

You get the theme. That all being said, the social travel challenges are much smaller when compared to the stark advantages of lesbian adventures. 

  1. We can swap clothes. Our limit for clothing is a week’s worth, regardless of trip length. Between us, that’s two weeks of outfits. Boom.
  2. We are budget travelers and swear by the backpack. We don’t need two tubes of toothpaste, shampoo bars times two, multiple hairbrushes, etc. Using the same products is a definite perk of “special friend” traveling. Strategic packing saves not only weight but room for trinkets. 
  3. We cycle everywhere at the same pace, can use the same bikes, and have yet to experience issues riding in the dark (besides a faulty light or two).
  4. We are small enough to snuggle in a single bed (situation permitting).
  5. My partner is very cute and bubbly. She asks for, and often receives, free things that I am allowed to use/eat. 
  6. We both get “ladies” discounts, so no one feels left out. We also can use the same bathroom anywhere we go without a second look which is safer and less lonely!

challenges for lgtbq travelI cherish every moment with my partner in general, but being oceans away from home gives me a wildly different perspective. We navigate through challenges together and become stronger as a couple and as people. Whether it’s hopping in the wrong end of a train or getting lost and carrying our bikes up two hundred steps, we learn, grow, and change in each city, leaving better grounded than when we arrived. Everyone’s journey is unique with its own sharp turns, detours, and bumps, but I wouldn’t ask for a more “comfortable” travel avenue: the perfect moments we make together will be what we reminisce about more than anything else. I’m privileged to share my time with Hannah in this way at all and couldn’t possibly ask for more.

We crept into our hostel room at five am, a night of good beer and sloppy dancing behind us. 

“Babe, quiet!” I tapped Hannah’s lips.

“They weren’t quiet last night.” She threw her arms in the air. 

The dorm room buzzed with dreams. I pointed to my bottom bunk. Hannah nodded, took my hand, and ushered us behind the curtain shield. Lacking room, we tangled and pressed ourselves into the single bed. The perk of being two smaller ladies: squishability. We whispered about tomorrow’s exciting plans, giggled about a couple of drunk Aussies who fell in a fountain, sulked over paying too much for a tram ride, and debated about who looks cuter in our photos of the day. The turning heads and blunt stares faded from the day’s recap with each of Hannah’s snorts. They remained a distant warning, but not a matter that needed to be heeded to.

What has your experience been traveling as LGBTQ? Let us know in the comments.

Header photo by Philipp Bachhuber.