Just another tourist, but still, not everywhere

By James Reed
Globe Staff / October 10, 2010

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The look on the innkeeper’s face went from happy to sad in about three minutes. His open-mouthed smile receded into stony silence. Thrilled to see me again after a decade, Juan Carlos was perplexed by the man at my side as we checked into his bed-and-breakfast, the one overgrown with pretty pink flowers with a gurgling fountain in the open courtyard.

“One room? For both of you?’’ he asked in Spanish, even repeating himself more slowly as if my language skills were a bit rusty. “Don’t you at least want two beds?’’

We did not. And that simple fact suddenly changed everything Juan Carlos thought he knew about me when I had lived in Xalapa, the quaint capital of Veracruz state in southern Mexico. I was 19 then, a footloose college exchange student who had the bloodshot eyes from all-night partying to prove it.

I had a boyfriend that year, but it was a long-distance relationship with him holding down the fort back in Missouri. He was never in the picture, so it was easy and polite to assume I just hadn’t met the right señorita yet. Besides, I wasn’t keen on revealing too much about myself at that age. When I returned 10 years later on vacation with my partner, whom I introduced as such to Juan Carlos, I was finally comfortable with my sexuality — only to discover a lot of other people weren’t.

I think hard about that moment every time I start to believe gay travel — the notion that I need special advice because I view the world differently from my straight counterparts — is old-fashioned. It was essential when I came out as a young man eager to find people like me — in bars, restaurants, hotels, films, you name it.

It’s essential now, too, but in a wholly unique way. The older I get, the more I realize that the gay travel tips I sought back then no longer hold the same appeal. Now in my early 30s, I’ve discovered that when I travel I basically desire the same things as most everyone else. If I go to a restaurant in Barcelona, I’ll have what you’re having: good tapas and killer sangria. In Paris, I’ll see you at the Louvre and then atop the Eiffel Tower.

There’s a sense of empowerment, of freedom, in thinking the world shares that rather utopian view. As much as I think I’m perceived like everyone else, it’s not true, at least not everywhere. If I needed to be reminded, in recent weeks I could read about gay teens who were bullied, sometimes to death.

Right around the time I returned to Mexico — and came back disappointed — I read a travel story that struck a chord with me. In a magazine piece called “When Will You Be Here Again?’’ Boston-based author Michael Lowenthal eloquently summed up my attitude. Recounting a trip to a small, conservative town in Scotland, Lowenthal wrote: “Given my sexuality, perhaps I should have worried about traveling to such a place, but in fact I found myself, when the boat’s horn blasted, thrilled to be going where gayness would be unspeakable. Not that I believe it should be, nor would I choose to live in such a place, but as much as I want every corner of the earth to be welcoming, sometimes I crave a break from sexual orientation.’’

Amen. That’s exactly how I feel, which probably explains why I’ve never gravitated toward the conventional forms of gay travel tourism. Going to a tropical gay resort advertised in the back of a magazine by two shirtless men whose abs I could use to wash my clothes? No thanks. Circuit parties in Miami are obviously out, and I imagine if I were a lesbian, the option of a ladies-only cruise to the Bahamas would leave me cold. Any destination full of the same people united almost exclusively by one thing strikes me as too, well, homogenized.

I suspect a younger generation feels the same way about gay travel: We don’t need to be treated differently because we’re not that different anymore. As attitudes have evolved, so has our relationship with our sexual identity. It’s no longer our dominant personality trait. Yes, we’re gay — and so what?

I have a hard time envisioning an 18-year-old gay man picking up the Damron guide, a seminal gay travel resource originated in 1964 by a businessman who compiled a list of gay bars across the country. That’s not a slight to Damron or the various other outlets (from guidebooks to blogs) that have adapted to the times. I do wonder, though, how important it is for gay travelers to frequent only gay-owned establishments and bars. It’s one thing to support your community; it’s another to do so because you feel alienated by mainstream culture.

Maybe it’s just me. My nightlife habits tend to skew 50/50 between gay and straight bars, and I can’t remember the last time I tried a restaurant solely because the chef was gay. I have a gay friend who’s a doctor, but that doesn’t mean he’s giving me my yearly check-ups. Ditto, the gay carpenter who didn’t just renovate our new house. (Bonus: We hired a great painter who just happens to be gay.)

It’s become very clear that my interests and travel needs are different than when I first came out. I wanted romantic hook-ups then. These days I crave connection, the kind you can get from meeting a stranger in a coffeeshop in Prague and talking freely about who you are, from your line of work to your family to whom you’re raising your own family with now.

I’ve grown to accept that, while the list is dwindling, there are still places where I’ll get asked a familiar question at the hotel’s reception desk. Except now I don’t hesitate to respond: Yes, we’ll take one room . . . with one bed.

James Reed can be reached at