Gay Backpacking: A Contradiction in Terms?

Gay men and backpacking often seem to go together like oil and water – that is, not at all.

Aside from a few stalwarts who hike, bike and partake of rugged activities, all too often the travel-oriented “pink dollar” trends toward glitzy hotels, upscale resorts, and travel to major urban centers. For many gay men, “travel” equals “fabulous” – think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Sex & the City. But there’s a lot more to travel than that – and with the world changing and transforming the way it has lately, there’s commensurately a lot more out there for the gay traveler beyond just the “rainbow trail.”

The princess paradox

Why do gay men travel the way they do? While it’s impossible to generalize about any group, the gay male community’s focus on fashion, comfort, and style lends itself to a travel orientation that shies away from roughing it. I’ve found, in my anecdotal experience, that this means many younger gay men are less well-traveled than their straight counterparts (full disclosure: this was true of me too at a younger age). After all, if grunge and discomfort are anathema, who wants to put up with smelly hostel dorms and unwashed backpackers? On my seven-month journey around the world, staying in a wide range of accommodations, I encountered a total of two gay men who were doing it up backpacker-style.

This trend also holds true for domestic trips: although events such as the Burning Man festival, a weeklong arts & music bacchanal in the Nevada desert every summer, draw in a fair number of LGBT folk, a friend of mine, a gay San Francisco twentysomething, summarized the sentiment when I asked if he was going:

“Not unless they open a W Hotel nearby.”

The ghetto effect

Not all of gay men’s reticence to backpack has its roots in the need to live it up in style. It’s important to remember that until quite recently, much of the world was off-limits to the LGBT set – particularly spots where gangs of young people would be letting it rip. I have my own unpleasant memories from a couple of decades ago of passing a band of drunken college boys in a motel hallway with my boyfriend in tow and hearing the epithet “fag” as we entered the elevator. Who wants to risk this sort of harassment in the close-quarter accommodations of hostels and cheap guesthouses? As a result, most often “LGBT-friendly accommodations” is a synonym for “high-rent.” It’s the unintended consequence of insulating oneself from homophobia: insulation from many of the other experiences of life on the road.

A “middle way” solution

Given all that, are there ways for gay travelers – even those interested in retaining their creature comforts – to travel outside the LGBT bubble?

Absolutely! I offer a solution in three parts to our gay brethren – or anyone looking to wander past the predictable:

1. Flashpacking

It’s not as well known in North America, but it’s gotten some traction (and its share of detractors) across the pond in Europe. Basically, “flashpacking” is an umbrella term for those of us who travel with a backpack but do things up a smidge nicer than those rock-bottom-cheap backpackers we’ve come to associate with long-haul travel.

This is possible nowadays for a number of reasons: travel with electronic gizmos is no longer prohibitive, or even all that costly. Instead of lugging a fragile, full-boat laptop overseas, an inexpensive netbook or tablet (such as Apple venerated iPad) can be had for a very few hundred dollars. Digital cameras continue to tumble in price – so much so that the ones being built into mobile phones are almost suitable enough for most trips. And as for the phone itself, an unlocked “world phone” makes it possible to be reachable overseas (should that be desired) in tandem with cheap local SIM cards available in almost every country. Internet telephony services such as Skype add to the mix, as do iPods and other music players perfect for that atmospheric musical accompaniment to a hike above Machu Picchu or across the pyramid-filled sands of the Giza plateau.

As with electronics, so too with that other vital bit of technology – the means of travel themselves. First-class train travel in rail-rich lands such as Japan or Europe is typically not much more expensive than the second-class experience. While flying Business or First Class is most often out of reach, there are ways around that as well: for those with a pile of miles in our accounts (a not-uncommon situation for folks above college-age, particularly gay travelers accustomed to jetting to visit friends, family, and the odd event such as Southern Decadence in New Orleans or Gay Days at Walt Disney World), longer-haul, multi-destination itineraries can be had from the major frequent-flyer alliances (Star Alliance, oneworld, SkyTeam). These are often a much better deal than international round-trips, and offer upgrades to Business or First for a lot fewer miles.

Most important of all, however, to the flashpacker is the choice of accommodation – and here’s where the old canard of “youth hostel or five-star resort” goes right out the window. Between the blistering economic developments taking place in once-impoverished parts of the world – from China to Thailand to parts of Eastern Europe and South America – and the rise of Internet websites such as TripAdvisor and HostelWorld, it’s no longer necessary to feel trapped between low-budget squalor and high-end expense. The world is overflowing with gay-friendly guesthouses, sparkling hostels with private rooms, and small local inns catering to local travelers of foreign lands that are relatively inexpensive, eminently comfortable, and offer a friendly, local feel that can appeal to the most fastidious gay (or straight) world explorers.

2. Looking good, packing light

Just as with accommodations and personal gadgets, so too with the basic implements of world travel: between today’s hybrid “rollaboard backpacks,” lightweight yet good-looking travel apparel, and hyper-efficient organizing packing cubes, it’s possible for those fashion-conscious, gay-male clotheshorses to journey about without feeling style-crimped. Here again, most of the rules about backpacker-style world travel apply, but with a twist: take only what you need for a few days, but make those few days worth of clothes really count. A single stylish pair of designer jeans and lightweight black leather shoes will help turn heads in nightspots from Tokyo to Turin – and won’t weigh much more than what those budget backpacker folks are hauling with them.

3. Taking advantage of a changing world

The reticence of LGBT travelers is not without merit or precedent, but happily the world is (mostly) moving in the right direction. Every continent and region on Earth nowadays can boast a gay-friendly locale – even the homophobic Middle East has Tel Aviv, now a major LGBT center. This is an object lesson for those of us reared to expect gay life in only a handful of places – New York, London, Buenos Aires. But just as in North America, where “tier-two” gay centers such as Seattle, Chicago or Atlanta are nipping at the heels of San Francisco, so too around the world: Cape Town, Singapore, Tokyo (a major metropolis but with a historically small gay scene), or Dublin are excellent examples of places where gay life now flourishes side by side with the traditional mega-centers. Even once-homophobic India has gotten in the act with the repeal of its anti-sodomy laws in 2009.

All in all, then, this is a great time to be a gay backpacker. The options for gay-friendly destinations, comfortable, affordable accommodations, and the ability to travel in style have never been greater. With all that, hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more backpacks with rainbow flag sewn on in the years and decades to come.

Read more about author David Jedeikin here.

Photos by InterContinental Hong Kong, Live.Your.Life, mhaithaca, Zurich Toursimus, nettsu


Leave a Comment

Older comments on Gay Backpacking: A Contradiction in Terms?

07 February 2011

This post kind of makes me angry. Last year I wrote about GLBT travel and how companies market towards them in: No Respect for the Gay and Lesbian Traveler . What this post does is seemingly admit that all GLBT travelers are annoying princesses looking for a club and a cocktail. This is far from the truth.

You CAN NOT paint the GLBT community with a single brush. We come from every walk of life, every background, every ethnicity and from all areas of the world. I really disagree with beginning the article by reinforcing a stereotype and then spending the rest of the article trying to teach people how to deal with this stereotype.

My partner and I love to travel and always have. We don’t travel to shop, go clubbing or get drunk. We travel to experience the world and hopefully learn a little bit more about ourselves in the process. It has never, ever occurred to me to even search out a GLBT-only accommodation, much less stay at one. Why on earth would I? Being gay is but one aspect of who I am, it most certainly does not define my entire personality.

In the aforementioned article I lamented how marketers just feed into harmful stereotypes. Now I see that that problem is much more pervasive than I thought and perhaps we as a community need to work harder at gaining more respect for ourselves.

07 February 2011

If I were to backpack, I would rather backpack as a gay man…at least as it is described in this article. But that hs less to do with my sexual orientation -obviously since I am a heterosexual woman- and more to do with my preferred travel options.

Though I can appreciate a lot of what is said here: encouraging the gay community to step out of their comfort zones, etc., I also think that it remains a bit of a generalization. I know many gay men who would die before getting mud on their latest Prada footwear, and others who can, and love, to make dinner out of whatever nature provides, while out in the woods, with no thread counts in sight. I agree with Landlopers, not every gay man is a high maintenance princess who only travels if the latest gadgets and utmost comfort is available. Some guys, just like some girls, like roughing it, gay or not.

It would be the same as my talking about the hardships of Latinos at a ski resort because of all that cold and snow – which would really be a projection of my own discomforts, rather than a true definition of the entire Latino community and their opinions of skiing.

Maybe we need the perspective of more gay backpackers…or Latino skiers…to encourage those within our communities to not be intimidated or to know that there are others like them, who enjoy the same things, as opposed to assuming what it is we all like and want out of our travels.

07 February 2011

The author, David “You can tell by the way they talk” Jedeikin said, in part, “On my seven-month journey around the world, staying in a wide range of accommodations, I encountered a total of two gay men who were doing it up backpacker-style….”

Really? and you know this how? Do ‘gay’ men wear signs? Announce it? Talk about a stereo-typical homophob.

Denise Pulis
07 February 2011

Yes, then according to your logic, women should backpack much less than they actually do, because they also stereotypically don’t want to ‘get their hands dirty’.

07 February 2011

I wholly agree with landlopers and sbissell3… not every gay guy is part of ‘the scene’, into clubbing, fashion and luxury. I know plenty of gay backpackers from all walks of life, and it shouldn’t be an issue really, as travel is not really a ‘sexual’ topic. It’s only an issue if you want it to be. I’m writing this from the point of view of a lesbian girl, who doesn’t get the article at all.

07 February 2011

Not to beat this to death, but I don’t understand the logic in the post at all. According to the author, all gay men are divas and so they should be flashpackers? How does this make any sense?

Windwalker Duo
07 February 2011

This article eschews the stereotype of gay men and then continues to support it! This is why we can’t get travel companies to look at us gay travelers as anything but primping primadonnas. I know PLENTY of straight people who won’t travel or even camp like I do. If it has anything less than 4 stars, they won’t even consider darkening the entrance. Camping in a tent? No way! If you look at most tour agencies, they always stop at tourist restaurants and plan plenty of time for shopping. And those aren’t the ones specifically aiming at the rainbow crowd.

I also can’t get past the author’s big head. If they don’t travel as the author does, they aren’t doing it right? I have to say I find this attitude so incredibly annoying.

Perhaps the author was too busy looking for rainbow patches on backpacks to realize that many of us gay men don’t travel the same way as the individuals in the photos and the article. You’ll never find a rainbow patch, decal, or flag in my possession. I have no need to advertise my sexual identity, just like I don’t advertise my racial & ethnic background, my religion, etc. But I wouldn’t dare hold it against someone who chooses to do otherwise, just like I wouldn’t dare judge others because they will only stay in a Westin while I’m trying to figure out how I can stay in a grass hut like the locals.

08 February 2011

Thankfully, most of my gay friends don’t travel like RuPaul. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The whole tone of this article gave me the heebie jeebies though. Two big gay thumbs down.

David Jedeikin
08 February 2011

I want to thank you all for this lively discussion and opinions, and wanted to address a couple of the concerns listed here:

As to the question of “how did you know backpackers were (or were not) gay” I went about it in that most old-fashioned of ways: I asked! In talks I give about my book, Wander the Rainbow, I emphasize the merit of traveling solo as it gets you out of your shell and forces you to meet and talk to people. As I state in the article, this is strictly my anecdotal experience based on my travels and my friend/acquaintance circle; I cannot pretend to offer a complete or comprehensive picture of the entire gay community. For those of you who flashback or backpack the roughing-it way already, that’s great… next time you’re out on the road, feel free to introduce yourselves!

As for rainbow flags and wearing identity on one’s sleeve… I’m proud of my gay identity and openly call myself a “gay author”; my aim in this piece was more to elucidate to those caught up in the more typical “scene” that it’s possible to cross over a bit and do it up like our backpacker brethren; this is by no means the best or only way to travel, but I found it to be an appealing “third way” option. This holds true for gays and straights alike.

Steven Peterson
08 February 2011

Many of David’s points apply equally well to straight people. I think the point of “flashpacking” is to tell travelers that they don’t have to rough it in order to travel long-term. I don’t consider myself a “primadonna” gay, but I do think about whether I’ll be able to carry all my technology and chargers with me, and whether I’ll be able to bring nice clothes and still enjoy the nightlife in a city if all I have is a t-shirt and some quick-dry underwear. This doesn’t make me “high-maintenance”. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look presentable while traveling. I know many straight metrosexual-identified men who would value from these tips as well.

David’s article doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes — the people he talks about are real people who *do* exist and aren’t any less valuable than those of you who know how to tie lots of knots and skin a deer and make a fire by rubbing two sticks together. What really irritates me about some of the comments here is that some of you elevate yourselves above people like me and my friends just because you don’t fit any of the stereotypes that you loathe.

I don’t hate you for being okay with roughing it. How about affording me the same respect for wanting to bring some of the comforts of home with me? It doesn’t make me less of a traveler. Thanks David for posting on this topic, and I hope you’ll write more about flashpacking in the future.

Pam Mandel
08 February 2011

I think I understand why some of the commenters are annoyed. This advice is the same kind of advice that a lot of unenlightened folks write for women travelers. It’s vaguely patronizing — as long as you have your Kindle and a pair of fabulous shoes, you can have a great trip! Um, yeah, you CAN. But I wear flats. And I camp. And I like to be outside of my comfort zone. And and and… This piece seems to be directed at a very stereotypical kind of gay man. And when you choose a stereotype as your audience, you get stereotypical results in the writing that aren’t particularly inspiring or insightful.

08 February 2011

I appreciate Pam’s comment about the result of choosing a stereotype for your audience.

When, barely having started reading, I got to: “Why do gay men travel the way they do?” I wanted to click off the site as quickly as possible.

A deep breath later, I read on and – although I appreciate some of what you had to say – the article plays to a (tired) stereotype that is predictable and does not raise the bar on the conversation.

Now, time to plan for our 2 week camping trip (no joke!).

09 February 2011

This is the final straw. Bootsnall, we’re done.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt
09 February 2011

Very disappointing article. I’m surprised Boots’n’All published something that underscores tired stereotypes.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt