When a homophobic killer armed with an assault rifle perpetrated one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history in an Orlando gay bar this month, the reassuring idea that such places are sanctuaries was upended for many of us.
Gay bars are supposed to be refuges from intolerance; judgment-free zones that are, for many people, the only public places you can be truly, essentially, you. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people often travel with the thought in mind that almost anywhere we go, we’ll be able to find a neighborhood, a club circuit or a beach town where acceptance is a given.
If recent events are any indication, LGBT-friendly and “safe” are not exactly synonymous. When it comes to safe places for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender traveler to visit, danger won’t always be as obvious as it is in Syria and Iraq, where people murder homosexuals by throwing them off buildings.
The same day the Orlando massacre took place, a man was arrested on his way to the Los Angeles Pride festival with several assault rifles and the makings of an explosive device in his car; though his motives were not clear, we can assume he is not a pacifist. In the ensuing days, officials in Oakland, Atlanta, Houston and New York looked into people who made copycat threats.
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As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people make summer travel plans, or even plans to attend pride celebrations in our own cities, how important is safety when deciding where to go in a post-Orlando world? And how do we balance the need for visibility as a means of social change with the need for fellowship within the community that accepts us?
I talked to people who form a loose-knit LGBT travel collective, and explored how a sense of nervousness and, as there has been since the beginning of the gay rights movement, a powerful feeling of defiance, may shape where we go.
“I’ve encountered two schools of thought,” said Kelsy Chauvin, a writer and editor who focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. At a recent Out magazine party, she said, most people said they would not change their travel plans, but the next morning she heard from someone intending to avoid the New York Gay Pride Parade out of concern for her safety.
And that’s New York, one of the most diverse and welcoming cities in the world. Marching there certainly seems less frightening than in Istanbul, where the government has banned the annual pride march in response to threats from homophobic groups.
Though Orlando may not immediately spring to mind as a gay-friendly destination the way Key West, Fla., or Provincetown, Mass., might, it really is welcoming and progressive, and its proximity to Disney World, where these travelers go every year to celebrate “gay days” in late spring, makes it a popular stop on the tourism map. Gay tourists often look to a bar as a beacon in an unfamiliar city, and indeed a few travelers were among the victims in Orlando.
But the unfortunate truth is that this feeling that our havens are not actually snug enclosures insulated from a potentially dangerous world is hardly new.
“Orlando wasn’t the first time a gay bar has been targeted, and sadly, it probably won’t be the last,” Davey Wavey, a gay globe-trotter and popular Facebook and YouTube personality, wrote in an email a few days after the tragedy. “We like to think of these places as safe bubbles in a world that doesn’t always accept us, but Orlando is a reminder about how fragile that safety really is.”
Even before the Orlando shooting, the decision about what to do this summer was more charged than usual, because of a presidential campaign and state laws in North Carolina and Mississippi exposing a divide on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights issues. The number of places where you could morally defend spending your tourist dollars had already shrunk.
“Orlando has reminded us that even though there are LGBT-dedicated or LGBT-friendly spaces, and pioneering pockets of tolerance, these places are not necessarily safe – especially if the community around them, and the legislation of the state, contribute to fostering anti-LGBT sentiments,” Merryn Johns, the editor-in-chief of Curve magazine, a popular lesbian publication, wrote in a recent email. “Florida is certainly one of those states, and there are others, especially in the South.”
North Carolina is considered so gay-unfriendly that the British Foreign Office issued a travel advisory in April warning its citizens to be aware that a bill had been passed requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate.
The question of whether to avoid the state is indicative of a perennial issue we face as we choose where to go. The early ethos of the gay rights movement, which gave rise to the chant “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” doesn’t jibe with now avoiding places that restrict lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
“It’s a really tricky question because it’s a double-edged sword: If we don’t go, they win; if we do go, we’re benefiting an economy that doesn’t deserve our dollars, nor does it forward our cause,” said Mariah Hanson, the founder and chief executive of The Dinah, an annual “girl party music festival” held in Palm Springs for the past 27 years.
“I think we need to spend our political dollars wisely, so if not going to a place will force change, I don’t think we should go,” she said.
Plenty seem to agree. Mecklenburg County, N.C., home to Charlotte, the state’s largest city, has lost nearly $300 million as a result of the new law, according to recent reports. Even Asheville, a city known for its relatively large LGBT population and LGBT-friendly atmosphere, felt the impact when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation canceled a planned conference there.
This is vacation, after all, and most of us want to go someplace where we can unwind. Hence the popularity of the Dinah, gay or lesbian resort vacations or cruises such as those on Atlantis, RSVP and Olivia, or other events that cater to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers.
“For me personally if I’m going to be taking a trip, it’s probably going to be to a location that is already going to be welcoming of gay people,” said Eric Silverberg, a founder and the chief executive of the gay dating app Scruff, in a telephone interview.