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

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