Coming out through travel: learning to love myself one trip at a time

Jun 13, 2022

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I understood I loved to travel before I understood how to love myself.

Growing up surrounded by snow-white cotton fields in West Texas, I always felt that I was different than most of the people around me.

From a very early age, I found solace flipping through the glossy pages of travel magazines that ended up in my house, dreaming about far-off places, people and languages I previously hadn’t known about.

Seeing beyond my own world and into the vast differences and beauty of what else was out there slowly allowed me to start seeing into myself. It planted seeds of confidence that eventually grew into the person I am today — a complex garden of emotions, experiences and memories made around the world.

Left: boy in front of Egyptian statue; right: man in front of skyscraper
(Photos by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

Through my love of travel, I found myself — and eventually learned to love myself. Now, I’m an almost 30-year-old gay man who loves to people watch at hotel bars in Spain and Italy, pretend to know how to play craps at the Mirage and is still as obsessed with Japanese heated toilet seats as I was on my first big international trip to Tokyo more than 15 years ago.

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There are places, many unexpected, that helped me cultivate that love both before I came out and after. Other places helped me figure out the realities that come with traveling as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community — for better and for worse.

As a die-hard country music lover moving to Nashville for college, I was expecting to spend time at honky-tonks with steel guitars and thick-heeled boots. For a while that was true. But as I fell in love with Nashville, I also fell in love with its queer community and my place in it. Eventually, I found Play, a gay bar where everyone was welcome (and still is), leading to me spending many Thursday nights enjoying drag shows with impeccable Reba impersonators.

Drag queen on stage in black dress with sash
(Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

It wasn’t the Nashville I was looking for, but thank God it was the Nashville I found. Ultimately, it taught me a valuable lesson about looking deeper — anywhere I find myself — for the haunts and homes of my community. After all, a city like Nashville is not only home to iconic sites like the Grand Ole Opry, where I was a backstage tour guide my last few years of college, but also where you’ll typically find important LGBTQIA+ destinations such as The Lipstick Lounge, one of only 21 lesbian bars remaining in the U.S. and one of my favorite places to end a night in the buzzy Five Points neighborhood.

You might be shocked to know that many Southern states offer thriving, vibrant and fast-growing LGBTQIA+ communities. Oklahoma City “has become a hub for LGBTQIA+ travelers,” my OKC-based friend and fellow travel journalist Matt Kirouac wrote for Condé Nast Traveler. Despite the state’s polarizing politics, its capital city has a swath of queer-owned and -centered bars, stores, coffee shops and restaurants providing safe and welcoming places for everyone. It’s a place I can’t wait to visit.

Looking for one of the other 20 lesbian bars? You’ll find one in Oklahoma City, plus others in Tulsa and other cities that might surprise you, like Mobile, Alabama; Bloomington, Indiana; and Richmond, Virginia. Some of these places might not seem welcoming to the LGBTQIA+ community at first glance, but they’re filled with folks who are passionate about their cities and working to make them better for everyone.

Related: 3 ways to support the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride month

Equally as important in my story are the big cities that have helped shape me, the global epicenters of the larger LGBTQIA+ community and places I hope every closeted person gets the chance to experience someday like I eventually did.

In London, as a tourist, I’ve spent some of the most wonderful nights of my life dancing in iconic clubs like G-A-Y and Heaven and even better nights outside chatting with strangers about the local scene, their lives in London and, more often than not, the small towns they left behind — just like me.

pink bar with hanging flower, goose lamp
Happyfun Hideaway in New York City. (Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

In New York, where I live, it’s easy to think first of Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village, but cross the East River to Bushwick and you’ll find a completely different vibe. At Happyfun Hideaway, a “queer tiki disco dive bar” and one of my favorite bars in the world, I learned just how diverse — and truly wonderful — the people in my new world and community could be.

Brooklyn, as a whole, is often forgotten in the tourist landscape of NYC, but it’s hyper-diverse and full of people from all walks of life and schools of thought, as well as safe, inclusive places that are relaxed and chill but also as over the top as they come.

New York is also where I fell in love and learned to travel with a partner. It’s easy to disguise parts of yourself while traveling solo. Once you’re big-eyed for someone who loves to travel as much as you do, though, it gets a little more complicated.

Left: two men in sunglasses; Right: two men in cockpit of plane
(Photos by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

Our first big test — and first international trip — was on a quick Royal Caribbean cruise to the line’s private island, Coco Cay, and the Bahamas. Generally, I wasn’t nervous and ultimately found the ship to be a pretty welcoming place for us. Although we didn’t notice too many other gay couples, we never felt uneasy about it. In fact, we felt more than comfortable dancing together at one of the ship’s parties and even made friends with a lot of folks along the way.

Cruise ships can also be an unexpected safe place for LGBTQIA+ travelers, as many different cruise lines and travel operators organize special cruises for the community to celebrate events like Pride. Some even pack their itineraries with performances by superstar drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I personally haven’t been on one of those but would love to experience the freedom that comes with a cruise like that. Vacaya, a company that puts on all LGBTQIA+ cruises, has many types of journeys planned, including one that goes all the way to Antarctica.

But sometimes, there are places that are not as welcoming, prompting questions around whether we, as a gay couple, should even visit in the first place. Some are an obvious no, but others we’ve ventured to knowing that our relationship would not only be unwelcome but potentially criminal, such as the United Arab Emirates.

There, we had to take extra precautions to avoid displaying any sort of affection, and the fear of a casual slip-up, innocent grazing of the hand or simply appearing “too gay” (whatever that means) was always floating around in the back of our minds. In the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, it was advised we book two separate rooms. In Dubai, double beds, we were told, would be acceptable for two males traveling together.

left: couple at Petra; Right: two men on camels
(Photos by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

Ultimately, we had no issues and had the time of our lives riding camels in the desert and basking in the shadow of the world’s tallest building. But I did leave wondering what life must be like for the LGBTQIA+ people there, out or closeted, and what the ethical implications are of visiting a place that wouldn’t accept me for who I really am. It’s a dilemma I still struggle with.

In Jordan, we had the time of our lives, renting a car and driving to Petra and the Dead Sea. Amman, for the most part, felt safe and welcoming, but again, as two easily straight-passing white men, we had the privilege of easily blending in with the rest of the tourists. I would go back in a heartbeat. Many of my queer friends have also had wonderful trips to Jordan, but admittedly were more aware of how they presented themselves and their relationships while out and about.

Recently, we celebrated Valentine’s Day at an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic and had a beautiful dinner on the beach. Beforehand, I was slightly nervous about the dinner and the sheer publicness of it after I saw how rowdy the pool was getting during the day — knowing that too much alcohol often opens the doors to questions about our relationship a sober person might not ask.

Not shockingly, we were the only gay couple out of the dozen or so tables enjoying rose and live music, and we had the time of our lives. We even took couples’ photos in silly poses the photographer requested, not any different from the other couples there.

beach with party set up
(Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

The more I travel with my boyfriend, the more comfortable I feel in our relationship because a deep part of who I am is built on a foundation of travel. Now, that’s something we share. Just like travel helped me learn to love myself, it’s helped me learn to love somebody else, too.

While I hope we can always pose together for kitschy pictures during our travels, we’re also always planning trips with the understanding that life for LGBTQIA+ people is different everywhere. As travelers, we have to continue seeking out those people to understand their experiences. However, we also have to do it in a way that ultimately feels safe for ourselves, too.

For me, it’s a privilege to see the world and love who I love — it’s shaped who I am, and I wish that for all of you. Whether you’re a member of the LGBTQIA+ community or an ally, I challenge you to support queer-owned businesses wherever you travel. Look for the scene in the most unexpected places. Visit the legends like The Stonewall Inn. Be smart, be safe and maybe it’ll help you learn to love yourself — and this world we all share — even more.

Featured photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy

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