Just how “out” should gay travelers be?

The Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul
The Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul Photo: Michael Jensen

We recently received what we both thought was a pretty interesting question from a reader (which we’ve edited slightly):

Please offer some advice. We’re a traditionally masculine gay couple in their mid-60’s — older than you two gents — and we want to follow in your travel footsteps. Let’s say we’re traveling in a predominantly Muslim region in Eastern Europe, or maybe in the Middle East. We’re friendly, polite and respectful travelers, and we strike up a conversation with men in a mosque or some other obvious environment that frowns upon or prohibits homosexuality. A local asks if we’re related. Should we pretend to be brothers or cousins, so as not to offend anyone or endanger ourselves? Or do we proclaim we’re married to one another and turn this simple, harmless inquiry about our relationship into a potentially explosive situation but also maybe a “teachable moment”? One of us wants to fib and keep things simple, light and safe. The other feels very strongly he must speak his truth when asked. And that’s when the fireworks between us begin. One of us will surely want to bulldoze his way through the encounter, and the other believes we will be confronted with being taken into custody and imprisoned — and not in a gay sex fantasy way. As the internet seems to have very few normal, grounded gay couples such as yourselves, please take a moment and share how you would handle this situation.

Dear Reader:

First, thanks for the interesting question! The two of us have had similar conflicts before — in fact, we wrote about one such conflict here.

We’ve also thought a lot about the whole issue of “coming out” while traveling, because it obviously comes up time and again.

Before we get to our answer, we were both curious which of the two people in this relationship is you. We have absolutely no idea from the way you’re framing the issue.

Yeah, we’re being sarcastic.

Truthfully, we both mostly agree with you — the more reticent guy. Then again, you are a faithful subscriber.

But when all is said and done, maybe we come in somewhere between you and your partner — but still closer to you, natch.

One of Istanbul’s many mosques.
One of Istanbul’s many mosques.

First, let us put your mind at ease: even in homophobic countries, we think you’re very unlikely to ever be arrested simply for being gay — or even for announcing you’re gay.

We’ve never heard of Westerners being arrested for any of that, and even Googling it, we couldn’t find any examples — though, of course, there was that gay couple in Thailand who was arrested for mooning their camera in various temples.

Honestly? We think those guys probably deserved to be arrested. What a stupid, disrespectful thing to do.

There’s also this story of a Western man arrested for dating a local man in Morocco.

But this brings up a key point. There are certainly plenty of countries doing tragic and outrageous things to LGBTQ+ people, but they’re usually mostly doing them to their citizens, not tourists. That story made headlines because it involved a Westerner. And the fact that it made headlines means it’s pretty rare.

Most countries on Planet Earth court wealthy tourists, which, relatively speaking, almost all Westerners are. So they — we — usually get very special treatment.

Even when Westerners, say, dress in a way locals might find inappropriate, which, frankly, many tourists do.

This isn’t as bad as dropping trou in a temple, but we think this can be pretty arrogant and presumptuous too. As travelers, we’ve always considered ourselves guests in the countries we visit. And being a good guest means, at the very minimum, respecting the host.

Read the damn room, people.

But that’s not what you’re talking about in your question. You’re talking about whether or not LGBTQ+ people should stay closeted in countries with regressive attitudes about gay people.

And we think that’s a bit complicated.

On one hand, you can do what your partner wants to do and announce to the mosque, “No, we are not brothers! We are a married couple, thank you very much!”

The most likely result? Awkwardness. And confusion. Most probably, the answer would simply be ignored — language barriers are not always a bad thing, because they can often give plausible deniability. Plus, most Muslims will want to diffuse the situation.

Honestly, we’ve been surprised to learn how important hospitality is in Islam. We’ve found that most Muslims are incredibly friendly — and that Muslim countries, in general, tend to be among the most welcoming places on Earth.

And, of course, it goes without saying that there are also many LGBTQ+ Muslims, and even many straight Muslims accepting of queer folks.

But, well, these same countries, and other countries too, are not always so welcoming to the local LGBTQ+ people (or to women) — and there’s always a chance something bad could happen even to a Westerner.

We agree that feeling — and being — safe is very important. And if a dispute does arise with someone, we definitely want the authorities to take our side, which can’t always be assumed in intolerant places.

So when we’re in a country like that, we’re discreet, at least with people we don’t know. We wouldn’t come out to strangers in a mosque. Likewise, when visiting rural Yemen, we don’t insist on a single bed.

If asked directly if we’re brothers — as we often are — we would probably say, “No, just friends.” No one has ever asked us if we’re a couple, because, frankly, we don’t fit the apparent gay stereotypes.

When traditional-minded people think about same-sex interactions, it’s often only in terms of sex acts, not relationships.

Does being “discreet” require us to surrender our dignity or self-respect? That’s not our take, but you and your partner’s mileage may vary. This is something you need to discuss between the two of you. Hopefully, you can reach a compromise where you both feel dignified and safe.

One thing the two of us both agree on: we’re not crazy about the term “teachable moment” in this context.

Again, we see ourselves as guests in the countries we’re visiting. The way we see it, we’re there to learn from them, not the other way around. If anything, we’re in that mosque because we want to learn more about Islam.

There’s also something to be said for tact, humility, and simple common courtesy. Do you take seriously the evangelicals who march into San Francisco’s Castro District and start preaching how gay people need to be “saved”? Does anyone?

This isn’t to say we never come out in homophobic countries. We do — all the time!

We just do it after we’ve gotten to know someone. Once we’ve established some trust, we think there is a “reachable moment” — a chance to reach past whatever divides us and come to a better understanding of one another.

Living in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina for two months last year, we got to know our Airbnb hosts pretty well — a lovely Muslim couple. We often had tea on their balcony, and we talked openly about our lives and nomads and the 30 years we’ve been together.

But did we ever specifically say we’re a couple? Once, toward the end. And by then, it didn’t seem like any big deal at all.

Likewise, in Southern Italy, which is very conservative, Brent got to know a young man who had questions about writing fiction. When Brent finally mentioned his relationship with Michael, it seemed perfectly natural. Later, the guy even came to a presentation we both gave to a local LGBTQ+ group.

Did these folks we met change their minds about LGBTQ+ people? We’re certain they all did — if any of them even had negative ideas to begin with.

How do we know? Because they liked us. We know we made good impressions — they told us so.

As a result, we’d like to think if they ever meet another LGBTQ+ person — if a friend or family member ever comes out to them — they’ll think to themselves, “Huh. Well, I remember that nice American couple who happened to be gay.”

We think this will have much more impact than loudly proclaiming you’re gay to random people in some mosque. Dare we say it? That might even have the opposite effect, giving people a more negative view of LGBTQ+ people.

Anyway, that’s our take. You or your partner might feel differently! That’s okay. If we’ve learned anything in our travels, it’s that it takes all kinds to make a world. We’re all (hopefully) just doing what we think is right.

Thanks again for your question. And safe travels!

Brent and Michael

Michael Jensen and Brent Hartinger are a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Subscribe to their free travel newsletter here.

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