We were walking zombies when we arrived near midnight at the Sama Sama Express Hotel inside the Kuala Lampur, Malaysia airport. We were on our way to Vietnam, and we’d been traveling for more than 24 hours on three different planes that literally took us halfway around the world (in economy, no less). Now we had an 11-hour layover here until our next flight, and the only thing on our agenda was a steaming hot shower and sleeping while lying flat.
Thankfully we didn’t have to be coherent to check in at the hotel since we had booked and paid online a month before. And since it was located inside the airport, all we had to do was mosey over about two minutes from our arriving flight to the hotel’s front desk and flash our passports. Easy-peasy.
There were two young women at the front desk. One of them read from her computer, reviewing our reservation aloud: one night, standard room, checkout at noon, breakfast included. Then she abruptly stopped talking, looked at us, back at the computer screen with squinted eyes, then back at us.
“It says king bed,” she announced.
“Yes,” I answered. “Also, we’ll check out before ten since we have to make a flight.”
She looked at the other clerk with alarm. I wondered, were they upset we were leaving earlier than the established checkout time? Whatever—we just wanted to sleep.
Once in our hotel room, Jamey wondered if it was the king bed that had distressed them. After all, we were two males, and Malaysia was a Muslim country. While I usually looked into the LGBT situation in countries before we visited, Malaysia was just a layover and I had skipped the research. So I did a quick online search where we discovered that the front desk clerks’ discomfort was the least of our worries:
- 20 years imprisonment, fines, and caning for same sex sexual activity.
- Vigilante groups round up men accused of being gay and had them arrested.
- Government officials deport any visiting foreign cabinet ministers or diplomats who are gay.
- The People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement lobbies for stricter criminal laws against homosexuality.
Then there was this fun tidbit:
- The Malaysian Film Censorship Board announced it would only allow depiction of homosexual characters in movies as long as the characters “repent” or die.
Apparently in 2017 Malaysia tried to censor Disney’s Beauty and the Beast over some “gay moments.” I totally have to get a copy of that version.
Now, I’ve had some sleepless nights in hotels in the past for a variety of reasons–an air conditioner in Belize that chilled the room to meat locker temperatures, a room in Cairo without AC or a window or a fan or apparently oxygen—but this was a whole new ballgame. Would these clerks turn us in to the People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement? Would we be caned in the airport food court, right in front of Starbucks? Would we be featured in the next season of Locked Up Abroad? We even pulled out the convertible couch and made it look slept in—just in case the vigilante squad showed up.
The next morning we checked out earlier than we had originally planned, did not make eye contact with the clerks, and loudly talked about football stats as we sped through the lobby. We finally stopped sweating when those airplane wheels left that Malaysian runway. See ya’ later, haters!
The whole anti-gay thing has never made sense to us, and the fact that most of this bias is based in religion (you know, that institution that’s supposed to make humans better people?) makes it all the more bizarre. I’ve fought hard over the years to combat this discrimination—marching on Washington, volunteering for human rights organizations, speaking before city councils, writing a monthly article in a local alternative newspaper, picketing and boycotting anti-gay organizations, and writing an email nearly every week to a person or company who debases people because of their sexual orientation. But, c’mon! When I go on vacation, I don’t want to think about an anti-gay vigilante squad ready to bust down our hotel room door. Unless they are going to take us to see that steamy version of Beauty and the Beast…I’d be totally down for that.
In our travels around the world, we’ve mostly avoided these awkward get-put-in-the-slammer-because-of-how-we-were-born situations because, as a rule of thumb, we avoid countries that might maim or kill us. For example, there are ten charming countries that impose the death penalty for being gay (Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen) that will probably not be the spot for our next spring break hullabaloo.
Uganda was almost on that list. Home of the infamous 2013 “Kill the Gays” bill, they originally called for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” Now I have met some very aggravating homosexuals in my lifetime, but to be clear, I never wanted to kill them. The punishment was later downgraded to life in prison (Whew! Thank goodness for small favors!) after most of the world threatened to withdraw all of their financial support from the country. Nope, I have little desire to explore a country where violent and brutal attacks against LGBT people are common and cheered on by political and religious leaders (and often performed by state officials). Nothing ruins a holiday more than a beating overseen by a Ugandan pastor.
Unfortunately, over the years we have slipped up and took trips to places that we really
shouldn’t have. A few years back we tagged along with some friends on a driving trip around Ghana (For the sordid details, see my blog’s Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright). We didn’t research the country since our friends had made all of the plans. However, we had an inkling something was up when we saw that the windows of many Ghanaian cars were adorned with large adhesive letters that said things like, “I am covered in the blood of Jesus.” The drivers must have toweled off because, overall, they looked fine to me.
For the first couple of nights we stayed at a rundown beachside hotel that gave new meaning to “seedy.” It was the kind of place that returned your laundry nicely folded, but still unwashed (yep, really happened). There was no Wi-Fi so we couldn’t research how Ghana felt about LGBT people. At one point I asked the front desk clerk if I could change some money, and as she was giving me my Ghanaian cedi she looked straight at me and said, “So you’re American. I don’t like that Obama. He legalized homosexuality.”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to reply. Maybe she was setting me up? Maybe she was just mean? Or covered in the blood of Jesus? So, I fake-smiled, took my wad of cedi, and racewalked out of there. Once we made it to the first place with Wi-Fi, I discovered these fun facts about Ghana–the country we would be traversing for the next eight days:
- three years imprisonment for “unnatural carnal knowledge” (e.g. code speak for being gay)
- physical and violent homophobic attacks against LGBT people are common, and often encouraged by the media, as well as religious and political leaders
- reports of young gay people being kicked out of their homes are also common
- reports of torture programs designed to “cure” homosexuality
Rest assured I did not hum a single show tune or discuss any episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta for the next week and henceforth did not get the gay tortured out of me.
We inadvertently visited other African countries where the laws don’t favor us, either because we tagged along with others, attended a conference, or just missed the info in our research. I mean, it’s not exactly publicized by their travel and tourism bureaus. “Visit Egypt! See the pyramids! Float down the Nile! And if you’re gay, crush rocks in a hard labor camp for 17 years!” Here are a few of the countries we naively visited:
Egypt: Homosexuality is not specifically outlawed, but “morality laws” are used to punish gay people–up to 17 years in prison with or without hard labor & fines.
Ethiopia: Up to 15 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.
Morocco: Up to 3 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.
Senegal: Up to 5 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.
Tunisia: Up to 3 years imprisonment and fines for male same sex sexual activity.
Sometimes it didn’t even cross my mind that a country would be anti-gay. Take Bhutan, for
example, known worldwide as the first country with a Gross National Happiness index built right into their constitution. Everything the government does is supposedly weighed against this index, which includes a guarantee of psychological well-being. And yet:
Bhutan: Between 1 month and 1 year imprisonment for same-sex sexual acts
Well, listen here King Wangchuck (really his name) of Bhutan. If I’m a gay Bhutanese fellow, I’m not experiencing much of that Gross National Happiness you advertise. This hurts even more because King Wangchuck is young and handsome (seriously, clink on the link–he’s model-like) and is pals with Will and Kate. Surely he watches Will & Grace?
Another big travel blunder we made was when we visited the Maldives, that exotic string of islands in the Indian Ocean. We didn’t even think to check on the LGBT situation before we traveled there, mesmerized as we were by those over-the-sea bungalows we’d seen on screen savers and travel posters.
It was a painfully expensive adventure, but we sucked it up because, hey, those over-the-sea bungalows! And yes, it was dreamlike stepping off our veranda right into the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and having a cabin boy decorate our bed each day with little pictures made of flower petals. Good thing he didn’t create a picture of the Maldives Penal Code which would have shown us this:
Maldives: Up to 8 years imprisonment with possibility of whippings, house arrest, or deportation for same sex sexual acts or…gay marriage!
I discovered this fun fact while lounging on the veranda of our Maldivian over-the-sea bungalow, sipping a tropical drink, and doing a search on my iPad. And let me just say, there weren’t enough piña coladas in the world to make us forget that we could be languishing in a Maldivian prison just because one day back in 2012 we drove to Iowa (one of six U.S. states at the time that allowed same-sex marriage) to get legally hitched after being together for 26 years.
It’s one thing to feel disappointed when your vacay doesn’t turn out exactly as you planned—maybe it rained, or the hotel room had a mildew smell, or the hotel restaurant had stale bread. But imagine being on vacation and filled with dread just for being, well, yourself (while paying a whole hell of a lot of money for that privilege). Next time we want an over-the-water bungalow experience without the fear of a gay whipping, we’ll pass on the Maldives and head to places like Fiji, Cambodia, and the Philippines that won’t throw us in the clinker for being lawfully wedded.
We really began to understand the hateful side of the world when we decided to become international teachers, and began our search for schools. One of our first offers came from a school in Seoul, Korea where we really hit it off with the principal after several Skype interviews. He said we would be perfect for his school, and the last step was for him to get the final okay from the school owner. But a day later he informed us that he didn’t even make it inside the guy’s office—the secretary out front had stopped him dead in his tracks when he explained that we were a gay couple.
“You can’t tell him that!” she exclaimed. “That’s not allowed at our school!”
The principal asked, “What’s not allowed?”
“You know,” she answered. Then she mouthed the word “gay.”
You pretty much know when a school secretary can’t even voice the word “gay,” we weren’t going to be sashaying down the halls of that institution anytime soon.
It only got worse. As we started to look at schools with available positions, many were either in countries where gay people definitely would not be welcomed (hello Saudi Arabia!) or were religious-based schools where they probably mouthed the word “gay.”
To keep track, I ended up making a color coded chart that included every school (Green = gay friendly! Red = We will imprison/torture/kill you!). We discovered that nearly one third of international schools were off-limits to us.
Thankfully, both of the international schools where we ended up teaching were extremely gay-friendly and actually, just friendly in general. Our school in Shanghai even hung a banner across the front of the building announcing their support for LGBT people—it was signed by all administrators and loads of students. Both schools were also located in countries that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal in China since 1997. In Mali, no laws against same-sex sexual activity have ever existed in the country.
Throughout our job searches and vacation searches, I can’t tell you how many times we heard someone say:
“C’mon, it’s safe for gay guys in _________! (insert name of obviously anti-gay country) They might have those laws on the books, but they hardly ever enforce them!”
In other words, “You PROBABLY won’t be stoned or imprisoned, so just enjoy your piña colada!”
Sorry, not worth the risk. There are just too many countries in the world that welcome me for who I am, where I don’t have to worry about the repercussions of bizarrely inhumane religious laws, or antiquated British colonial laws that treat same-sex relations as a punishable offense. If I want to spend a gazillion dollars a night for an over-the-water bungalow, I’ll do it in a country that appreciates and maybe celebrates my keen sense of fashion, knowledge of Bravo shows, and witty repartee.
Sadly, our own home country isn’t a bastion of gay friendliness either. Up until 2003, same sex relations were illegal in the United States (let’s just say I was a repeat offender from way back in the day). You know things are bad when communist China legalizes same sex sexual activity six years before the U.S. And to this day, it is still legal in America to fire an employee for being gay in these 28 states:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
It’s all pretty alarming to me, especially when I just read some research that shows that unequal treatment of LGBT people causes economic harm, leading to lower economic output for individuals, businesses, and even entire countries. On the other side, inclusive policies can actually boost a country’s GDP. Surely that news would spur countries to change, right?
Nope. Just over the last year or so, countries have become even more anti-gay. Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Brunei implemented new laws that increase penalties not just for being gay, but also for simply supporting rights for LGBT people. We’ve still got a lot of work to do in this world.
Which means, it’s definitely time for a piña colada. Or the whole pitcher. Oh, what the hell, just give me the bottle of rum.