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Over a shared plate of benechin, a spicy rice and meat dish that is the tasty staple of Senegal, the humble 27-year-old head of the Senegalese gay movement sat across from me, skipping along in his African French so fast that I, with my high school French, could barely keep up. He was overjoyed to be chatting openly and freely with a foreign gay man in the urbane city center of Dakar. He lives with his family, which does not know he has had a steady boyfriend for six years.
If they found out, they'd kick him out. His cell phone rings, and he giggles and happily chatters away like any young gay man in any city in the world. A soft Muslim call to prayer echoes behind him from a minaret far away.
In a country where rural areas may not have running water and malaria still poses a health threat to the local population, a gay liberation movement seems like a Western luxury most cannot afford. But the struggle for gay identity is an issue everywhere in the world, as my Senegalese friend proves. As same-sex marriage gains a tenuous foothold in the United States and tourism boards worldwide openly court gay and lesbian visitors, it's easy for travelers to fall into a jaded "postgay" languor. You'd be hard-pressed to find any major hotel nowadays that will say it's not gay-friendly, and even locales that are off the beaten path are launching campaigns to attract gay business.
At last count nearly 60 destinations had some sort of gay travel marketing program, among them surprises like Bloomington, Ind., remaking itself as the "gay sports capital," other Midwestern spots like Milwaukee and Minneapolis, and businesses in the Kentucky cities of Lexington and Louisville. Even places with somewhat conservative Asian cultures like Hong Kong and Hawaii are on the verge of actively wooing gay travelers.
But what about Italy, the subject of our cover story? In a country where you must have a membership card to visit most gay bars--which can be as hidden as Prohibition-era speakeasies--and the pope issues decrees against homosexuality on national TV, it's clear that Italy will not be doing much in the way of gay tourist outreach anytime soon. The same goes for neighboring Greece. Yet both of these destinations rate high on gay travelers' lists, and have so for decades.
Senegal, on the other hand, has legalized prostitution and
a level of religious openness not found in Italy or Greece. But when I told
gay friends I was heading to West Africa--where I was greeted with smiles at
every turn, where I felt safe and welcome, where all men are lovingly affectionate
toward one another--they told me, "Don't get killed!" One great thing about
traveling: It is an education in itself. We find surprising places where we
are comfortable, regardless of assumptions about their level of gay-friendliness.
We then slowly begin to own our world. Be it in Indiana or West Africa, we find