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Essays   ISSUE 01 | ESSAY   Jun 29, 2017

Backpacking: Where Are All the Gays?

text by Tim Forster
photo by Farbud Akhtarry

Backpacking should be a gay-friendly activity: it’s dominated by young Westerners, drifter types who fancy themselves as “open-minded” and “enlightened.” Yet in my travels, I’ve never quite found it so.

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint about homophobic attitudes while traveling: one could write an encyclopedia of safety-oriented gay travel advice, with whole sections devoted to topics like “How not to get whipped in Malaysia.” Rather, it’s a query: how can you have a gay old time backpacking?

In hostels, the gays seem rather few and far between. The youth hostels I’ve stayed in can be arranged along a sliding scale of “no gays but everyone is nice enough” to “cesspit of hetero- oriented fun within which I am an abnormal curi- osity,” depending on location and crowd.

Despite a preponderance of straight backpackers, Southeast Asia was surprisingly tolerable. Culture shock is a great equalizer for helping you relate to your co-tourists: the insanity of travel in Vietnam provides vastly better talking points (e.g. strategies for crossing the motor- cycle-overloaded streets) than stock-standard get-to-know-you’s which invariably end in ex- plaining that no, I don’t have a girlfriend and no, I don’t want to get with your one gay friend.

There’s also the glib satisfaction to be garnered from the fact that unlike my newfound lad posse, I was not susceptible to having local women “seductively” sit on me at tourist traps in cities like Nha Trang. Add that to the we’re-all-in-this-together mentality of avoiding food poisoning and traffic accidents, and gayness doesn’t seem like such an issue while backpacking Southeast Asia.

According to the stereotypes, Europe should be better for homo backpacking. Locals are more accepting, there’s pretty things, and it’s widely assumed that we really like pretty things, as opposed to the motorbikes and moonshine of Southeast Asia. Yet in my experience, the perception of Europe as Gay Wonderland did not extend to its hostels. The skepticism about finding guys you can make out with starts the moment you step into reception and see poorly-designed flyers touting the establishment’s status as curator of “totally chill sexy fun party nights.” These are inevitably illustrated with images of monogamous heterosexual courtship.

This approach to partying is nothing malicious – it’s a numbers game. If two dudes rubbing crotches had the same broad appeal, I’m sure you’d see it advertized. Yet European hostels’ utilitarian approaches to entertaining the masses made me feel a little left out. A hostel pub crawl is unlikely to stop by a queer venue: they’ll stick to the safest (read: dullest) options that will offend the fewest people: Irish pubs. If it’s DIY entertainment you’re after, you’ll still run into demographic troubles. Unless you’re persuasive, lucky, or both, convincing fifteen straight dorm roommates to go to a gay bar or drag show is a tall order – usually, the majority will win out.

One night in Granada, my entire hostel wanted to hit the town in a large pack. The group seemed the only option for a dose of human interaction. It led to an Erasmus party at the sort of place where single men feel the need to wear oversized suits so as to clearly convey their gender identity, while women get free liquor poured down their throats. We made the most of the free-drinks-for-patrons- with-breasts policy, which made the stream of expired Rihanna hits tolerable.

Then, it started. Everyone I was with started making out. This left me standing in a corner unable to afford the CEO-priced drinks and stuck watching my fellow travelers sample each others’ taste buds while listening to a DJ who refused to play Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” as consolation. Not wanting to risk the structural integrity of my face by hitting on aggressively masculine patrons, my night was over.

The problem here isn’t that I need to surround myself with a protective layering of gays. It’s that the aggressive heterosexuality of many I met at hostels was off-putting, and that playing “Never Have I Ever” with straight dudes who say “I’ve never taken it up the ass” and snicker when you drink gets old.

So, what are the options? Spending an evening in the lounge on Grindr is one, yet if it’s clothes-on socializing you’re looking for, it’s tricky. You’re already using what many consider a touchscreen meat market. Add to that your limited-time-only status in your destination city and most faceless torsos will conclude that the only thing you’re after is quick sex with no strings attached.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work so well for me: while traveling I tend to be thirsty for the sort of human interaction that hook-ups don’t necessarily supply.

Yet, it is possible to style yourself on Grindr so as to avoid the sleaziness of leering, shirtless avatars and others asking “what r u looking 4?” In these cases, you might just encounter the people both interesting and homo that your hostels lack. Grindr once helped me shoehorn myself into the gay Polish community of Edinburgh, complete with a guided tour by a baby faced economics student sans sexpectations. In Vancouver, it connected me with a lanky blonde who grew up with an extraordinarily conservative Catholic father and was almost expelled from school for coming out. It seemed the dad failed at passing down Catholic morality to his son, since he invited me to “frolic” on a nude beach.

Sadly, spinning such Grindr encounters often requires patience and being in the right wifi zone at the right time. Yet, there is one other means for escaping heteronormative hostel hell: CouchSurfing. A global network for organizing homestays, it’s like backpacking but with filters.

Just type anything along the lines of “gay” or “sexual deviant” into the keywords field and bam, you’ve got gays in every port. I didn’t actively seek to cushion myself in gay cotton wool, but it turns out that many CouchSurfing homos have a thing for helping out “one of their own.” Though arriving at a stranger’s house to bunk down on their couch is drastically more intimidating than hostelling, it’s a lesson in diversity.

Over three weeks of the trip, I would stay with a navy engineer with a penchant for la- ser body hair removal, a Columbian-Canadian couple, an activist who was vehemently against gay marriage in Washington state, an MSN journalist, and a tattooed Portland barista.

I also ended up sleeping with one and having a two-day fling with another. The gay side of CouchSurfing has a reputation for being a tool for pre-arranged hook-ups – to the chagrin of many in the higher echelons of the CouchSurfing hierarchy. Indeed, it’s not a dating service: I didn’t stay on any couch with higher expectations. It just happened that CouchSurfing allowed me to filter my company to a set of intriguing and engaging people who opened the doors to a broader range of experiences while totally avoiding subjection to your bunkmate’s squeaky and sloppy hetero courtship.

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