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I recently received an e-mail from the 27-year-old leader of Senegal’s gay organization. He told me he was in grave danger ever since the local press in Senegal had outed him. He was in hiding, trying to escape the country by fleeing into a neighboring nation. He had been attacked twice since I had met with him in Africa in April 2004.
“They began to beat and punch me,” he recounted. “They threw me on the ground, kicking me. My arm was hurt, my face was completely beaten up, and afterward they threatened me, saying that if I didn’t stop defending the gay cause, they would finish by killing me.”
I remember my friend from Senegal (who asked not to be identified) as skinny and frail but with a sparkle in his eye and a passion in his speech that underscored his courage and commitment to making a change in his homeland. God only knows where he is now.
Senegal, as I reported in our Fall 2004 issue, is a relatively liberal Muslim country with a hopping nightlife, women in sexy Western clothing, and legalized prostitution. But Senegalese gays have been barred from organizing or holding meetings, and their requests for gay-targeted anti-AIDS funding have not been answered by their government.
In many countries and cultures around the world homosexual activity may be tolerated and even encouraged to some extent, but “gay identity” is not. As long as one fulfills the obligations to marry, have children, and keep up a heterosexual veneer, quiet homosexual relationships are somewhat accepted. But making a public stance and stating your true orientation is not. Despite the influence of the modern gay movement (or, some say, maybe because of it), attacks on self-identifiedhomosexuals continue unabated in many countries, particularly in the developing world, where economic and political freedoms are not as prevalent as in richer countries.
But what can we, as temporary visitors to such places, do to help? Besides putting pressure on our own governmental representatives to pressure others overseas, sometimes your simple physical and financial presence (or lack thereof) as a gay foreigner in a place can make a difference. The once officially antigay Cayman Islands, for instance, received so much bad press and economic backlash from homophobic policies that the new director of tourism, Pilar Bush, has had to make it her mission to change the islands’ policies and truly welcome gay tourists with open arms.
Obviously, there are countries where even being out as a foreigner carries consequences, and that’s why The Out Traveler takes its ratings of the gay “temperature” of destinations seriously. But I encourage gay and lesbian travelers to go deeper than the local queer bar or B&B, and attempt to make contact with the local gay organizations in the places they visit, especially in countries where your emotional and personal help can make a huge difference. Even places like Nepal,Greenland, Mongolia, and Botswana (all included in this issue’s cover story) have local gay organizations, and making the time to contact them during your trip is not only a great way to meet people and understand the gay life there, but a probable highlight of your entire vacation.
Let us not forget that many gays around the world need our help in their ongoing struggles for survival. At the end of the day, you may have had an incredible scuba dive or an exhilarating rafting experience, but it’s the connections between individuals and peoples that make the act of travel such a fantastic privilege.
Gay organizations for places mentioned in this issue: