As a first-generation Asian-American queer woman who also happens to be very heavily tattooed (think of it as a tattoo onesie), traveling the world solo for the past year has been interesting.
I’m Deb, a 40-year-old woman from New York who got tired of the hamster wheel life in NYC. After 15 years, I decided to travel full-time in November 2015. The first year I was accompanied with a now-ex-girlfriend, this year I’m by myself. The impetus to travel stems from a deep-seated restlessness, craving for new experiences, curiosity, and desire to see as much of the world as possible with the short time we have on a rapidly changing planet. It was also the right time as a freelancer who can work from anywhere in the world with a decent wifi signal.
Traveling While Queer
While traveling with the ex-girlfriend was a different matter, traveling as an older, solo, queer woman of color is somewhat different. It’s freeing in some ways. For example, I don’t have to worry about whether I can hold hands with a woman in public, which may incite violence or aggression. And while I keep an eye on how queer friendly or unfriendly places may be, it matters less to me as a solo queer who can generally pass as straight. Therefore, I may still go to many places where queers are persecuted, keeping in mind that I may have to lie about having a boyfriend back home. Usually I can run around the personal life question by saying that I work too much, which is also true, and therefore it’s hard to find someone who can keep up with me.
On the off-chance that conversation veers into my personal life, I generally take the approach of letting the person dictate how the conversation might go and responding with gender neutral or very vague answers . In some off cases, I might play along with their assumptions about my personal life. One example is when I was in Berlin and ordered samosas from a Pakistani man, I felt that he was a bit too interested in my personal life. Within 5 minutes he asked me twice where I was from, what I was doing in Berlin, if I lived there, and if I was married or seeing someone. All within 5 minutes. When he asked if I was dating a German man, and because I felt like he might have disapproved of me saying I date women, I ran with his assumptions in a bid to end the conversation as quickly as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, if I know someone comes from London or NYC or San Francisco or Sydney or other cities where I know there is a large queer presence, I feel more comfortable being more upfront about my personal life.
Dating Abroad As a Queer Woman
I actually have rather limited experience dating abroad. I didn’t think about it when I traveled through Nicaragua, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, or Panama. When I was in Helsinki and Tallinn, I was too slammed with work to even think about it as well. At the same time, I knew that some of these countries weren’t so queer friendly or the queer scene was virtually nonexistent. For example, Morocco was definitely not a good place to attempt being out or even for dating. Especially not Marrakech. I felt like it was a relatively hostile and aggressive place to be a woman–guys follow you in the medina, yell at and harass women nonstop–and an older woman even went out of her way to hit me with her broom during my last day in Marrakech (I was wearing jogging clothes but I was covered head to toe). I think it’s because of culture, tradition, and religion and I think it would literally be a bit dangerous to be openly queer there.
It was only until I got to Prague in July of this year that I felt more open to dating AND I got myself up to speed on using Tinder, which I had actually never used. I also knew that Prague and Berlin were queer friendly. Berlin has a huge queer scene. I haven’t been around that many lesbians in a bar since the 1990s in NYC. And being heavily tattooed, no one looks at you funny there. So it was a win-win for me to feel completely comfortable being a person with tattoos and a queer. Taipei is also very queer friendly with a lot of bars and even old-school queer bookstores so you can feel pretty welcome. It also has the largest pride in Asia. I would go back to check it out more one day. I’ve also heard, from a Bolivian lesbian, that Buenos Aires has a pretty sizable scene so one can have fun there. Other than that, I sort of suck at keeping up to date on where to go because I like learning about history or going on treks or mountain climbing or eating food or wandering aimlessly.
With that said, it can be lonely at times. Like if you want to cuddle or even be intimate with someone, but you are traveling extensively in a not-so-gay-friendly area or one where the community is really small. For me, I am generally okay with being lonely and being only a year out of a 4.5 year relationship, I am still in that mode where I want more me time than less, so it’s okay. And I’m too into the freedom to wander and live my life as I want it to want to be tied down or to travel with someone fulltime again.
However, I think the dating experiences I have had have been pretty good, albeit I’ve only gone on a few dates. Perhaps the biggest challenge is with language where my limited Spanish and nonexistent Czech and German can make communication less than ideal unless the other person is fluent in English. But I’ve met some very interesting and fun women, so I can’t really complain. It’s been a lot of fun learning about language and cultural differences and experiencing life from the local perspective rather than a tourist-only perspective. Also, because I’m not really into the queer scene in NYC and I think it’s too cliquish and materialistic, I don’t tend to seek out other queers and most of my friends and acquaintances are straight.
I think dating depends on the personality and expectations from both parties. I am now seeing an artist from Berlin, whom I met on Tinder, and we’re both okay with trying to see how it can work with me being elsewhere in the world for anywhere from 3 to 5 months at a time. I’m okay with trying this because everything about this scenario is completely different than what I’ve experienced in the past. When I turned 40, I told myself that I needed to get out of the bad habits. Such as, trying not to date a similar type of woman that I have in the past where it’s just never worked out because of similar reasons. Maybe I’m hoping that this will be different? And if not, at least it was an interesting foray into international nomad/non-nomad dating?
Intersectionality Of Being Tattooed, Gay, and Asian
Because of the heavy tattooing and the obviously Asian features, I find that the queer identity part falls to the wayside in many regards. Oftentimes I’m faced with the double-entendre question of where am I from, as in not where am I really from, but what is my ethnicity or cultural heritage, or where my parents are from. And then there’s the commentary on my tattoos with many people asking me if I’m Japanese or if I’m a Japanese gangster.
With that said, I think it really depends on what you want to get out of your travels as a queer traveler. How important is it for you to be vocal? Where are you going and how queer friendly is it? What is your tolerance level for potential threats or your ability to blend in more than less, for safety reasons. Otherwise, I have basic guidelines, not true rules, that I use when traveling: err on the side of caution, disclose less than more at the beginning, and if someone is giving you the creeps, there’s a reason for it.
And for people who are interested in being allies: listen, observe, and be aware of unspoken and spoken cues that may suggest someone isn’t heterosexual. It can be as easy as asking if the person has a significant other or a boyfriend/girlfriend instead of assuming that it’s always the opposite sex.
Follow Deb on her travels on Instagram @fearisthelittledeath
To work with Deb, contact her on her business website at www.drexmedicalwriting.com