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TROUBLE IN PARADISE.

ANTIGAY SENTIMENT ABROAD CAN TURN THE PERFECT VACATION INTO A NIGHTMARE FOR UNWARY TRAVELERS

There's something about travel that seems particularly appealing to gay men and lesbians. Perhaps they seek deliverance from conservative confines, or maybe its a sense of intrigue and adventure, a wanderlust (or just plain lust) for people and places that s driving record numbers of gay tourists to far-flung destinations around the globe. But as more gays ravel farther afield, the welcome mat is not always being laid out for them.

In the past few years a series of highly publicized, rather ugly incidents involving organized gay tours and hostile natives has been reported in Central America and the Caribbean, most notably the Cayman Islands, which mined away a boatload of gay men in December 1997. There have also been problem spots in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and other parts of the Americas, including, of course, right here at home.

The cases were fairly isolated, and they all involved large numbers of gay or lesbian tourists visiting countries where religious conservatives adamantly opposed to homosexuality live. But no matter how few and far between they are, antigay assaults on tourists raise concerns for any gay traveler, potentially tainting a trip to paradise. The incidents also raise important questions about the safety of gay travelers, their responsibility to comport themselves within the bounds of what is considered "proper" behavior in host countries, and the duty of governments to create a welcoming--and safe--atmosphere for all people wishing to visit and spend considerable amounts of money in their lands.

"These were isolated events in a sense, but they do reflect the fact that a lot of people around the world, even here, aren't comfortable with the idea of visibly gay-identified people," says Billy Kolber-Stuart, editor of "Out & About," a travel newsletter for gays and lesbians. "Gay tourists can be welcome almost anywhere in the world and can experience homophobia anywhere in the world. So the thing is to find out how to travel to where they want to go with the greatest safety possible." Still, Kolber-Stuart admits, "there are very few places where gay travelers need to be concerned about being harmed."

For the most part, experts say, traveling is as safe and rewarding for gay people as it is for heterosexuals. Gay men or lesbians who travel alone, in pairs, or in very small groups are unlikely to call attention to themselves and with a few precautions can usually avoid any serious antigay problems.

"I spoke to my clients extensively, and there was not much out of the ordinary for people traveling alone or in small groups," says Allen Walden, owner of Gay Travel Plus, a Columbia, Md., travel agency. "They report the same kinds of problems you might find in most places in the United States, with a few exceptions, like Iran or perhaps Morocco."

Moreover, says Rich Campbell, president of Atlantis Events Inc., a popular gay tour operator based in California, the presence of gay and lesbian tourists helps change minds in the countries they visit. "The net result of what we do ends up being positive," says Campbell. "There's something really educational about seeing 1,200 gay men or lesbians arrive at your shores. They expect to see a freak show, and what they get is polite, nice, happy vacationers, and they say, `Gee, what's all the fuss about?'"

Perhaps inevitably, however, the increased visibility of gay tourists has also caused some backlashes. In Puerto Vallarta, a popular resort city on the Mexican Pacific, "the gay scene is now much more aboveground," says Jonathan Klein, vice president of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and owner of the Now, Voyager travel agency in San Francisco. "A lot of straight locals have found out, and there's been some antigay stuff going on. People campaigning for local office have made it an issue, and some hotels won't rent a room with one bed to same-sex couples."

Jamaica has also emerged as a trouble spot for gay travelers. "A lot of gay travelers try to avoid places like Jamaica because they have heard about harassment there," says Walden. "I have some clients return from that country and report they felt uncomfortable and sometimes even in danger."

A rising climate of intolerance, coupled with the country's refusal to grant human rights protections to gays and lesbians despite international pressure, led the IGLTA to officially condemn Jamaica "for failing to ensure the safety, welfare, and comfort of gays and lesbians living on and visiting the island."

"The nation appears to be a leader in the region's emerging homophobia that has already shown its ugly face' in the area, said an IGLTA article in the group's spring 1999 newsletter. "If Jamaica is unwilling or unprepared to welcome gay and lesbian tourists to their shores, then IGLTA is prepared to warn all our member companies and associations that our tourist dollars are no longer welcome in that country."

For the most part, gay tourists avoid unwelcome attention simply because they travel in small groups. "People see 20 men and assume it's a doctors convention," says Klein. But larger number start to tip the balance. With their sizeable gay populations, cruise ships may present the biggest targets of all. A ship with 900 shirtless mai tai-swilling gay men is unlikely to be mistaken for a convention of cardiologists. "When you're talking about a cruise ship, it definitely changes the equation," says Kolber-Stuart.

Indeed, the most disturbing stories of antigay behavior involve large organized tours, including cruise ships sailing to countries renowned as travel paradises. In the most notorious example, in December 1997 the government of the Cayman Islands, a British territory in the West Indies, refused entry to Norwegian Cruise Lines' MS Leeward, which was chartered by Atlantis.

"Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behavior expected of visitor to the Cayman Islands," wrote Thomas Jefferson, the Caymanian minister of tourism, commerce, and transport, to Norwegian Cruise Lines. "We regret any inconvenience this matter may cause your customers. Best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a prosperous 1998."

The snub brought unwanted international headlines and a call for a boycott by gay rights activists around the world. Some conservative groups, though, such as the American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss. (not exactly a gay resort itself), offered support to the islands "for their courageous stand." The Cayman Islands eventually tried to soften its stance by issuing a general apology for having "offended" anyone. In fact, however, the government stood by its policy of blocking the Leeward's docking.

The Leeward, meanwhile, had sailed on to another former English colony: Belize, in Central America But the voyage was seemingly cursed. Passengers who disembarked in Belize City for a daylong excursion encountered a hostile, nearly violent crowd, according to Eric Linton, an editor for The [Newark, N.J.] Star-Ledger who was on the cruise.

"We were told by Atlantis that unlike the Cayman Islands, the Belizean government was making a point of welcoming us, "Linton recalls. "But there was a very angry mob waiting for the passenger at the dock The passengers were pretty shaken up."

"[By] allowing visitor of such category of people [to visit the country], the wrong signals will be sent to our citizens that money takes precedence over the preservation of moral integrity of our children," Norman Wallacy, president of the Association of Evangelical Churches in Belize told one news service at the time of the protests. He said a previous gay cruise "left an unpleasant taste in the mouths of many Belizeans."

Lesbians have had their own run-in with bigotry on cruises. In April 1998 the cruise ship SeaBreeze, chartered by Olivia Travel of Oakland, Calif., and carrying some 800 lesbian passengers, was met at the docks in Nassau, the Bahamas, by an angry mob of several hundred Christian conservatives. "We are against any group, not just homosexuals, who are against our Christian principles," Vaughn Miller, an organizer of a group called Save the Bahamas, told The [New Orleans] Times-Picayune. When some women tried to brave the crowds, they were met with taunts of "Go back," and several were chased back on board. Some picketers carried signs reading, "We don't want sissies!"

Many of the conservative, English-speaking islands of the Caribbean continue to be problematic for gay travelers--ironically, given the aggressive outreach to gay tourists being done by their former colonizer, Great Britain. And the antigay behavior is unlikely to end any time soon. In January 1998 the British government demanded that its five Caribbean dependent territories legalize gay sex, saying certain local laws in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos islands place the United Kingdom at risk of violating its international human rights agreements. The demand has fueled tensions between Britain and the territories.

"We are a simple Christian society," Anguilla head minister Hubert Hughes responded to the demand. "We will not, definitely, compromise our principles when it comes to Christianity."

Of course, problems occur in other parts of the world too. Last October a tour group of roughly 300 gay men and lesbians was trapped at a resort on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica when an angry mob of locals prevented them from leaving, until the U.S. embassy and the Costa Rican president himself intervened. The government later apologized to Atlantis Events, the tours organizer.

Problems have also been reported in Islamic countries, travel agents say. "Whenever you go to an Islamic or fundamentalist place, the tour operators are well aware of how homosexuality is viewed there," Walden says. Because of past problems, tour operators often give gay travelers guidelines, such as never to hold hands in public. But, Walden says, there is a paradox at work. "Places like Egypt are very antigay, but there are strict religious laws against premarital and nonmarried sex, and therefore you find a bunch of horny men imprisoned by society," Walden says. "So for release they'll have sex with other men, but they may also commit violence against them."

Other tourists have reported attacks in Morocco. Among the victims was slain University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was raped repeatedly by a group of locals while walking to his hotel late one night during a visit with a school group.

So what's a gay tourist to do? Klein notes that "there are very few places in the world where nobody's going to care at all. Even in tolerant places like the Netherlands or Scandinavia, if you're extremely flamboyant, some people will take offense."

Mark Taylor, director of marketing for Our World, a gay travel magazine, says travelers must choose their destinations carefully. "You should decide in advance whether you want to hold hands or go to cruise areas and have sex," he says. "The freedoms we experience as Americans are not the same freedoms all over the world, and that's just a fact of life."

But stopping problems before they happen may be fairly simple. "I don't want to sound defeatist," Walden says, "but you have to ask yourself, Are you going there to observe or to press home your point to people who might not appreciate it?"

Ultimately the traveler has to question whether the potential for a disaster outweighs the probability for fun and relaxation To Kolber-Stuart, the answer is obvious: "Travel involves risk no matter what and where. But a gay person has more risk of hurricane in the Caribbean or hepatitis A in the Pacific Rim than being targeted for attack."

Kirby is a regular contributor to The New York Times.

Cause for concern

Several sources, including the International Lesbian and Gay Association, have compiled nation-by-nation surveys of conditions for gays and lesbians around the world. The surveys haven't always turned up evidence of harassment against gay tourists, and U.S. citizens may not face the same repressive tactics that gay residents do. Still, there were incidents in many destinations, both popular and adventurous, that should give gay travelers pause before visiting. Some of the problems were government-sponsored, others the result of antigay feeling among local citizens. Here's a listing of destinations where the welcome mat may not always be out, with a brief explanation of the problems gays have faced there.

* ARGENTINA: police harassment and detention, raids on gay bars, arbitrary arrests.

* BRAZlL: three gay murders a day, police harassment, torture, assault.

* CHINA: police raids on gay clubs, arrests, torture.

* GERMANY: street attacks, neo-Nazi persecution, police harassment in Munich.

* ITALY: police harassment, arrests, police raids and antigay attacks in cruising areas of Rome, fascist anti-gay gang activity in Rome and Verona.

* ROMANIA: police surveillance, blackmail and beatings, a public attack on a theatrical performance of Angels in America.

* RUSSIA: police raids and detentions, beatings, false arrests, executions in Chechnya.

* SINGAPORE: oppression by government and society, including antigay legislation.

* SOUTH AFRICA: beach violence.

* TAIWAN: police raids on bars and saunas, attacks in cruising areas.

* TANZANIA: a British national deported for being gay.

* YUGOSLAVIA: beatings and harassment of gays, especially after NATO attacks began last March.

* ZIMBABWE: extortion, beatings, arrests and prosecutions.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:dangers gay travelers face in overseas places that are anti-gay
Author:KIRBY, DAVID
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jul 20, 1999
Words:2200
Previous Article:Whoa, Daddy!
Next Article:OPEN-DOOR POLICY.
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