A White American’s Search For Belonging Around The World (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Be Myself)

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A White American’s Search For Belonging Around The World (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Be Myself)

Growing up, I embraced the identities of my ancestors and felt a deep connection to the lands they came from with a sense of pride. It was important to know where they came from and to maintain a bridge to this history, to take ownership of their cultures.

Ultimately on a journey of over three decades and seven continents, facing these identities head-on led to a shift in my own understanding of identity.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.

While before it was more important to be American and White, over time what actually gave me a sense of belonging and fulfillment was being queer.

Hello, my name is Ryan and I am queer, White American, and travel is what gives me a reason to wake up in the morning. In the era of Ancestry.com and 23andme, many people–including myself–are seeking connections to their lost ancestors and have been attempting to reconnect with heritage through travel. For many of us, it helps us to establish an identity and reconcile those feelings of belonging. However, what I found at the end of my journey caused me to emerge on the other side, wiser and better adjusted. Hopefully, this can help others out there searching for something they may never find.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

 The Ancestry Of The Average Lost White Person

When describing my ancestry, some may say I am just many flavors of vanilla–which is very true. I am Irish and British from both my parents. Unique to my mom’s side I am part Quebecois, Lithuanian, and Portuguese, while on my Dad’s side I am German. Throughout childhood and even into adulthood, my parents and family members shared stories about who came before me. There were rumors the Lithuanians were Jewish, which were never confirmed (and quickly dismissed) by my Catholic grandfather. My German great-grandmother came from an area that was Denmark a few decades before her birth and she went back to visit right as WWI started (so badass). The Portuguese were mostly fishermen and cooks, while the Irish ancestry was difficult to trace beyond a generation or two. But the biggest stories were those involving the ancestors who came longest ago.

My mom’s Quebecois ancestors were poor farmers from Centre-du-Québec, an agricultural region forming the third corner of a triangle between Montreal and Quebec City. Like many other settlers on this continent, it is through this ancestry I have a rumored ancestor who was Mi’kmaq. For many years, I aimed to figure out how to best honor this First Nation ancestor. Like many other White Americans and Canadians, I was desperate to make a claim that I belong here. That I am different and special and deep down…not White. That I can feel a deep connection with the land. Over time, as I dove deep into the research of issues facing indigenous populations today, it became increasingly clear that this desire was quixotic and selfish. Ultimately, my way of honoring the distant relative is to learn all about the diverse indigenous populations that exist today and support the efforts related to decolonization around the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, my dad’s side makes a big deal out of the fact we can trace our ancestry back to the Mayflower. My ancestor, William Brewster, was an elder of the Plymouth Colony and assisted with governance when the ship landed here. Knowing this information growing up had been a source of pride and Thanksgiving turned into a very special holiday. To this day, it is still my dad’s favorite holiday. But I cannot enjoy this holiday anymore. Others who can trace their history to those 102 settlers now participate in a Mayflower Society to celebrate them. But I take the route of some of the descendants of Nazis and Confederate generals: to fully and strongly condemn the mark in history my ancestor made. My goal is to ensure that they are not celebrated but held accountable for their early place in genocide and subjugation of other populations.

With almost 400 years of colonization in my blood, I feel the deepest sense to be even more proactive about righting the wrongs of the past. And without expecting thanks either.

I never met any of my immigrant ancestors. Although my great grandmother was the most recent immigrant to the United States, she died a little bit before I was born. Without this direct connection, I yearned to see where they came from and go back. And potentially see if I can be reconnected through language, culture, or citizenship. Throughout this time, my own identity as queer was developing as well so this became an increasingly important litmus test for determining how I can relate to the lands.

So from 2005 to 2014, I went on a quest to explore my roots.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan in Lithuania with the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania behind him
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

2005, 2007, 2014 Germany

I took German for 7 years, which helped with feeling connected; however, each time I spoke, they only spoke English to me (clearly it was my accent). Otherwise, a really well-run country with a complex history. I could not receive citizenship as I was too far removed from my great grandmother and great grandfather. Germany has been relatively progressive (just look at Berlin in the 1920s!) so I could see myself feeling comfortable here.

July 2011 Quebec

My ancestors were poor and, I discovered, had no graves. The town was cute, though. I had newly come out this year so I found joy in going to Montreal’s Gay Village. I am still bitter that I am too far removed to receive Canadian citizenship (as this is Americans’ default escape hatch). But then again, the country is far from perfect either (*cough slavery water crisis residential schools genocide “reconciliation” tar sands a cough*).

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing in front of an active volcanic crater
Darvaza, Turkmenistan

March 2014, 2015 United Kingdom

So I was born in the United Kingdom on an American base to American parents. Since I was born after 1981, I could not attain citizenship according to the laws. However, my first actual interaction and memory with this part of my ancestry was the one year I lived in central London (Zone 1!). I earned my MBA here and took in all I could from the British Museum, Thames walks, restaurants, National Gallery, etc. Now it really goes without saying the British really set the bar high for exploitation and taking over the world. However, London is one of the most multicultural cities I have ever seen and it was refreshing to see people from so many places while there. This was also where I marched in my first Pride Parade, which has been one of the most validating experiences of my life (plus I saw Ian McKellen speak here- omg Gandalf/Magneto you sassy MF). It was also during this year I went back to my birthplace with my parents and got my first (and only) tattoo. It was of the Thames River. No citizenship through ancestry because they left hundreds of years ago.

July 2014 Lithuania

I was proud to see the development here given the history with the Soviet Union, Nazis, Napoleon, and everyone else coming through to invade. A few people on the street looked like my aunts and uncles. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most homophobic and transphobic nations in the EU, where even talking about being LGBTQ2+ is illegal to discuss in public. Beatings occur and many flee for their lives and safety. Despite this, I still investigated citizenship, but my ancestor left the country too early.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing in front of the Dravaza crater in Turkmenistan
Gates of Hell in Darvaza, Turkmenistan

September 2014 Ireland

I did not know where in the country my ancestor came from, so I chose Dublin for its metropolitan feel and to get a good general sense of the history. As with Lithuania, I am too far removed to receive citizenship. Since I went, marriage equality passed and they elected a gay leader, so of the ancestral lands, this is one I would really love to live in.

October 2014 Portugal

I intend to eventually make it to the island in the Azores where my great grandfather’s family was from (Pico) but settled on seeing Lisbon. I speak Portuguese (took a full year in university and lived in Salvador, Brazil for a few months) and unlike the Germans, the Portuguese were glad to speak with me in the language (although my words/pronunciations were closer to how they speak in Brazil than Portugal). Seeing monuments to exploration/colonization left me a bit unsettled as the history here goes way back and in a very brutal way. As with the others, still too far removed to receive citizenship. Marriage equality passed here relatively early and it has been progressive so it would have been great to perfect my Portuguese and settle here.

Traveling While Queer; a photo of a banner at Ryan's first pride parade in London, England
First Pride Parade in London

Did The Lost American White Person Find What They Were Looking For?

Ok, so I made it back to all the places where my ancestors came from. I had done what they eventually did: leave that which was familiar and grounded to go and find what existed on the next horizon. Like them, I yearned for more, a better opportunity, a way to claim a bit of something for myself. But the reality is that there is nothing to claim, nor should it be something to be claimed. The reality is that returning to these places made it crystal clear that the origin stories and family histories are exactly that: fantasies to give a false sense of ownership to culture, land, and people.

I never chose to be removed from my ancestral lands and this could leave me frustrated. Or lost. Or wanting to take on the traditions of other people, countries, and cultures. But I decide to not take that path, no matter how much I yearn for it. By staying in the ambiguous, the unsure, the unsettled nature of my origins and situation, it keeps me honest. It keeps me sharp and focused on supporting and celebrating everyone else who can have those strong connections.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing next to rock formations with the city of Vilnius, Lithuania in the background
Lisbon, Portugal

How The Lost White American Filled the Void in Other Ways

By late 2014, with all the questions answered and other identities being put out to pasture, being queer was given its time to shine. I am fortunate to live in a time and place (suburbs of Washington DC) where this has become an identity to be celebrated rather than vilified. At the same time, there is always a slight sense of shame involved with the identity. Society is overwhelmingly geared toward hetero/cisnormativity and to overcome my own internalized homophobia and transphobia is a continual journey. But thankfully time and time again I turn towards acceptance and embracing who I am. And embracing it means I became empowered to represent being queer wherever I go.

Through embracing my queer identity, I research the queer history of all the places I visit to see what is possible wherever I go. I have been able to connect with people around the world of so many backgrounds as we share a common desire to be loved, accepted, and ultimately belong. It has also been an opportunity to help others see they are not alone, that it is very possible to see the world and that people like ourselves are everywhere.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan dressed up in rainbow colored beads with a rainbow heart sticker on his cheek with brightly colored balloons behind him
Pride Parade

Traveling While Queer

The truth is that while I do fully embrace and celebrate my identity, I also have an easier time visiting many places since I am White and presenting in a way that appears within the binary. I also acknowledge that I must be vigilant about not letting this identity be a shield against legitimate criticisms about privilege within the LGBTQ2+ community. Many Gay ™ Travel businesses fall into this trap, using muscular, cisgender gay white males in their ads and targeting those with more funding, in beautiful couples, or aesthetically attractive. Companies and destinations are thirsty for the pink dollar, in a desperate attempt to make more money off us. They tell us where to go, why, and with whom.

Unfortunately, this is at a major cost to those who fall outside of these standards and are left behind. The reality is that Queer People Of Color, in particular, Trans People Of Color, those who need to be seen in the world the most, are often left out of these advertisements and publications. I hope this can change in the future. I try to avoid tours or locations specifically marketed in this way, as I personally consider it important to spread out and see more than these places because it usually is an echo chamber that limits reflection on a place. It also ensures that the same trends occur and nothing changes in locations around the world, as it encourages isolation rather than reflection.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan is facing the camera with the Burj Khalifa Tower in the background.
Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Given my privilege, I am fortunate to also have been able to visit some places that do not provide the protections for the LGBTQ2+ community. Despite warnings from others who are both inside and outside the community, I consider it very important to go to some of these places to understand for myself what they are like and make my own assessment. Places that I have gone to despite the warnings have included Morocco, Turkey, Lithuania, Latvia, Honduras, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE, and Turkmenistan. The reality is that in each of these countries, there are LGBTQ2+ populations and they are finding a way to exist. It is my deepest honor to call people from these countries as friends and confidants and I am truly glad to have them in my lives.

Travel has helped with understanding that being from a country or of a certain religion does not make you homophobic/transphobic/out to kill me. I also have come to realize that it is these populations that are between worlds, those who are LGBTQ2+ and from countries with unfair laws and standards in place, which need our support the most. If they are refugees, let them in. If they come to LGBTQ2+ focused events or destinations, embrace them. Welcome them. They are not unicorns- they exist. I do have hope because millennials, Gen-Z, and many others around the world who grew up with the internet and access to information are increasingly understanding that the ways of their countries and cultures are outdated and that it is important to embrace people who are LGBTQ2+.

Traveling While Queer; A picture of the landscape of a canyon in the Balkan Province of Turkmenistan that shows rolling brown landscape and a red, stratified rock formation
Canyon in Balkan Province, Turkmenistan

On several occasions, I have also been an example for cisgender straight people to see that queer people are “normal” (whatever that means) and worthy of friendship. I think of one friend from Afghanistan to whom I fielded questions about the community. Although apologetic for having his views and questions, I was more than glad to answer them because that dialogue is important. On my end, it was also important to be friends with him despite all the brainwashing from other Americans, LGBTQ2+ individuals, and others who would stereotype him as dangerous to my wellbeing.

My queer identity realistically also isolates me from many of my ancestors. Looking back on William Brewster, a Puritan who wanted to reform the Catholic Church and was focused on purity and procreation only in marriage, it is very clear that my existence in and of itself would have made him turn in his grave. He is a precursor to efforts being seen today in the United States and elsewhere where evangelicals want to ensure that LGBTQ2+ populations are erased, given second class citizenship, and ultimately forced to disappear. I also reflect on the reality that my ancestors had been directly connected to the development of colonization, which used religion/manifest destiny/”civilization” to attempt to erase the queer histories of indigenous populations in the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Asia. We face the impact of this to this day, with many laws on the books inherited from the British penal codes, missionary and evangelical efforts, and so on. Despite it all, many identities have continued to exist and others that almost disappeared and now coming back, stronger than ever. And we will not go away nor should we. A new queer person is born each minute.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing at the top floor of a building with large windows overlooking a city
Ryan standing in an observatory

How to Support Queer People

Supporting queer people comes in many forms. First and foremost, please if anything else, get to know us individually and not just because of our identities. Given our low percentage of the population, we do need allies but for the love of all that is good, we will not be your teachable lesson. We do not come in one shape, size, color, or identity. Some may be gay and cisgender, while others may be pansexual and non-binary. And still, others do not have a set sexual orientation or gender identity. In all cases, we are worthy of respect and support and deserve to have friends who take the time to understand our identities. Once you do get to know us as people and not a Gay Best Friend ™, Token Trans Friend, Bi Buddy, or Lovely Lesbian, it is very likely we will depend on you to let others know that we are pretty cool people deserving of respect and support.

We expect many to make mistakes while learning about us and even within our LGBTQ2+ community we make mistakes amongst ourselves. Expecting us to be perfect is emotionally exhausting and unrealistic. We as queer people should also extend that same courtesy to those trying to learn who make genuine mistakes. We need allies to listen to us and speak up in spaces where we are not present, where your voices have gravitas.

A panoramic photo of the rolling green landscape of Chaclo Canyon with rock formations in the background and brown sandstone ruins in the foreground
Ancient City of Nisa, Turkmenistan

When traveling, we also may need a welcoming place to stay. Or to be kept safe if we are in places that will not protect us. Which is unfortunately almost anywhere, even in cities as seemingly progressive as Washington DC, London, New York City, and San Francisco.

Never assume our pronouns and do your best to have a discussion with anyone you meet about their preferred pronouns so that this becomes normalized and common courtesy. Keep terminology gender neutral–say partner rather than boyfriend/girlfriend, the parent gave birth versus the mother gave birth, etc. Allow kids to explore their gender and support them if they want to wear clothes or play with toys not related to the gender assigned to them. Support efforts to create more gender-neutral restrooms, to have birth certificates and identification documents with options outside the binary, and understand that health issues such as cervical cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and menopause are not limited to one gender. Learning about our community is a constant process of discovery, so following LGBTQ2+ media and accounts may aid in your learning.

I have discovered over time to feel empowered by my queer identity. So I dedicate this article to everyone around the world who is LGBTQ2+, as we must work in solidarity to make sure we are all safe, loved, and ultimately find ways to be ourselves without judgment.

Traveling While Queer; Ryan standing in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Ryan Smith (He/Him/His) is based in the Washington DC Metro Area in Northern Virginia. He has a B.A. from the University of Virginia in Global Development Studies and an MBA in International Business from St. Mary’s University Twickenham. He runs the Facebook page Ryryglobal and actively supports efforts to uplift and connect LGBTQ2+ people around the world, as well as movements that critically evaluate voluntourism, tourism, and development funding.

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