Gay marriage is becoming legal, but the world is splitting into places where gay people are welcomed, and places where they are shunned or persecuted. Actor Sophie Ward looks at the challenges and options for same sex couples
The first time I went on holiday with my wife and children was in 2005, when we booked, with much excitement, a stay on a Caribbean island. We had travelled together before – to see family in the US and on road trips where all we packed was a tent and some firewood – but this was our first proper family holiday. We’d arranged it the old-fashioned way, in person at a travel agent, and everything about the resort seemed ideal for the four of us.
When we reached the hotel, we stood admiring our surroundings while waiting to check in. We handed over our passports and waited.
“But you have booked a double room and a twin room.” The receptionist looked at me with corrugated brow. “That’s for the four of you?”
We all stood in a row at the desk. The youngest was 11. His eyes were level with the mauve bougainvillea draped over the countertop.
“That’s right,” I said.
The receptionist stared at her screen and typed. “We do not have another twin room available.”
I stood a bit closer to my wife and smiled: “We don’t need another room. Our boys are in the twin room.”
The receptionist didn’t look up from her screen. “I’m afraid that will not be possible. Your children will share the double room. You will have the twin.”
It was not a good start to what was otherwise an excellent holiday. We all trooped to our assigned rooms, and then changed around as soon as the porters had left. No one said another word to us about our sleeping arrangements, but we knew that even if the hotel was happy to take our booking, the community and local custom did not accept us as a family, and we felt foolish for having thought it might be otherwise.
Due diligence would have told us that Antigua, for that was the island, does not recognise same-sex relationships and that gay people can face up to 15 years in prison. Perhaps we’d been lulled into a false sense of security by booking through a well-known company, but we would never make the same mistake again.
When planning a holiday, we all have checklists in our head. Beach or mountain, family or romantic, retreat or adventure. Safety might be an issue, especially if you are a woman travelling alone or are heading to the scene of recent war. There are foreign office guidelines on whether a country is safe for tourists, but few of us have to consider whether we will even be welcome in a holiday destination.
Specialist LGBT holiday guides have been around for years. When I bought my first gay travel guide in 1996, it seemed impressive that the authors could find enough gay-tolerant places in the world to fill a whole volume. The book listed the oases, mostly cities, where gay people could hold hands without fear, celebrate anniversaries as sentimentally as straight couples or go to a bar and dance with whomever they liked. Lesbian travel companies such as Olivia or Walking Women offered cruises and walking holidays; gay men were catered for by companies such as Damron, with the promise of a different sort of cruising.
Until as recently as this century, that was as much as we expected. Of course, gay people travelled and lived everywhere, but we were not always out. Now, though, times have changed, and on 29 March the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act becomes law in England and Wales (and by the end of the year in Scotland). Equal marriage is transforming lives from New Zealand to Uruguay.
But the backlash against reform is as powerful for gays and lesbians as it has been for any civil rights movement. Russia has recently criminalised the “promotion” (mention/information/existence?) of homosexuality to people under 18, and Lithuania is considering similar legislation. Nigeria and Uganda have passed laws that make it illegal to even know a gay person without reporting them to the police. The world is sharply dividing into the countries where gay people are welcome (equal marriage is legal in 16 countries, civil unions in at least seven more) and those where we are not (there are 82 countries where being gay is a criminal offence and at least eight where the penalty on conviction is death).
Now specialist providers such as La Grande Maison – a boutique hotel for lesbian (and all) wine lovers in France’s Loire Valley – and The Out NYC – a hotel for gay people in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen – have been joined by a multitude of websites offering the sort of choices all holidaymakers desire. One of these is Further Afield whose owners have personally chosen more than 250 gay-friendly destinations, from houses to hotels, farmhouse wedding venues to treetop honeymoons. You can even bring your dog (or children).
There are plenty of places in the world where gay men are tolerated, many where lesbians are accepted, and a few that have yet to make up their mind. But vote with your passport when it comes to spending your holiday money, go to a country that actually wants you, that has taken the trouble to consider your legal standing and your human rights – and you’ll never have to push the beds together again.
by Sophie Ward