The above picture was snapped while I was riding at the top of a three-tier float in Chicago's annual Pride parade with music blasting, confetti flying, and sequins blazing. A few members of my volleyball team had been asked to participant in the parade by the Athletic Alliance of Chicago, an LGBTQ non-profit that organizes leagues for a variety of sports throughout the year. We agreed and decided that each of the six of us would ride the float in full drag while wearing a single color of the pride flag while also representing one of the sports offered by the association. Have you ever worn full make-up and a wig in 90 degree heat with heavy humidity? I have, and it's not comfortable. Or pretty.
Despite what the picture might suggest, this was actually the very first Pride event I had attended in five or six years. I'm not one for big crowds or high heat, so I typically celebrate Pride by living my life as an out and proud gay man 364 days a year and quietly enjoying air conditioning and solitude on the one day everyone else is enjoying the festivities. When the opportunity presented itself I figured I would do it for the experience and to check one more thing off my bucket list - "march in a parade". I quickly ended up regretting my decision as the stress of finding an outfit and preparing for an event with over a million spectators quickly got to me and I started wishing I had said no.
And then Orlando happened.
Suddenly the opportunity to riding on a float in a parade that stands for love, peace, and equality seemed more like a blessing than a burden. Sadly most of the world never even had time to fully digest what happened at Pulse nightclub before it was forced to move on to the myriad number of tragedies that have fallen upon the world since - Nice, Munich, Istanbul, Baghdad, Dhaka. It's heartbreaking that the list goes on and on and on.
But for the LGBTQ community, the implications and emotions stirred up by the Orlando shooting have not yet been swept away. It was personal for many of us, and it caused an entire community to reflect upon their identity and their safety in a world that more times than not does not wish them well. If you doubt this assertion, just ask yourself if you genuinely think an opposite-sex couple walking down the street in Anytown, USA ever stops to worry that someone will make a snide comment about their loving gesture. Or cover their children's eyes and move them to "safety". Or throw a rock. Or bottle. Or worse.
It could be argued that the world is not a safe place for anyone. As we watch events unfold on CNN and the evening news, I'm sure we all consider our mortality when we realize the danger we face doing something as simple as shopping for groceries or grabbing a Big Mac. While the constant stream of terrorist attacks and mass shootings may be at the front of our minds, statistically the chance of us falling victim to one of these attacks is microscopic. The sad reality is that for people of color, religious minorities, immigrant communities, and those on the LGBTQ spectrum, the risks associated with just being yourself are much more likely than ISIS to impact or endanger your life.
Many of us may have been doing a good job of forgetting the risks we face very day, but Orlando brought the reality home in a stark, gut-wrenching way. And make no mistake about it - gay travelers take those risks with them when they hit the road. Whether it's a trip to New Orleans or a trek through the steppes of Kazakhstan, being a member of the LGBTQ community adds a multitude of layers to the experience that impact the how, where, when, and why of travel.
While I've always openly identified as gay while writing here at ORD to Anywhere, I really haven't spoken much about my experiences traveling the world as a gay man and how that has impacted my experiences and perception of the world at large. I've never made a conscious decision to avoid the topic, it's just that I never felt there was a good opportunity to bring it into the fold.
That's going to change going forward though. There are definitely bigger and badder travel blogs that have been providing information for LGBTQ travelers for ages, but I want to add size to that signal for anyone out there who wants to explore the world and is looking for information, reassurance, or a reality check.
So with that in mind, I want to make a stronger commitment to sharing stories about traveling in a world that can be incredibly beautiful and yet incredibly ugly to me and people like me. I want to note that my thoughts and experiences are just that - mine. You may have different thoughts and experiences. Fantastic! Share them. The more information there is out there the better.
The first story I want to share is from a visit to Marrakesh I made a few months ago. I haven't written about it on the blog just yet, but my friends and family know that I didn't exactly love my visit. I never really elaborated to most people about why I had such a bad experience, I simply expressed that I was frustrated and moved on from it. While this isn't the only thing that put me off while in Morocco, it does explain a huge part of the bad taste that I ended up having at the end of my five days in the medina.
So without further ado.....
It was only mid-February, but being from Chicago meant the 75° weather that greeted me as I stepped through the door was positively balmy in my mind. As I made my way up the narrow alleyway that hid my riad from the more chaotic road into the medina, I greeted a woman in a black chador with a child shyly hidden behind the flowing black fabric of her garb with a quiet "Sabah al-kheyr" and a smile. While most of her figure was cloaked behind the cloth, her face was still visible and her cheeks widened as a smile appeared. "Bonjour" she replied as they moved past me. The sound of her robes brushing up against the stones that paved one of hundreds of alleyway that make up the labyrinth inside Marrkesh's medina was barely audible over the rattle of iron pots and the Islamic call to prayer.
The conservative dress that paraded past me every morning stood in contrast to my more casual Western clothing. While conventional wisdom might say that you should do your best to not stand out too starkly when traveling abroad, Morocco is one of those places where that's not really possible in many places. Even in a more modern and cosmopolitan city like Marrakesh, most of the people in the medina were garbed in traditional clothing. As culturally competent as I try to be, I wasn't going to convincingly pull off wearing what most Moroccan men on the street seemed to have on - djellabas, a loose-fitted robe with a hood that sits at a peak when pulled up.
Even those who were dressed non-traditionally were wearing bulky sweaters, thick hoodies, and long pants to insulate themselves from the "cold" that struck me as excellent swimming weather, so I wouldn't be able to match that look either. Knowing full well I wouldn't blend in anyway, I spent my time in Marrakesh in my traditional travel outfit - a tank top, long sleeve button down shirt, and jeans. I didn't blend in but I still did my best to stay within local mores regarding covering your body, arms, and legs.
The smell of fresh baked bread and the braying of donkeys signaled that I had reached the end of my quiet alleyway and was about to enter the scrum that constitutes walking through a Moroccan medina. Much like its marketplace brethren across the globe in places like Mumbai and Manila, the medina of Marrakesh is a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells. Motorbikes weave through shoulder to shoulder pedestrian traffic. Donkeys pull wooden carts laden with brightly colored vegetables as children chase each other to and fro. A butcher, an electrician, and a dentist call clients into their stores, all three storefronts packed into the same 20 foot stretch of road. Diesel meets cardamon meets sauteed onion in a lethargic cloud of fragrance that floats effortlessly above the endless din of commerce. It's full of life and energy, and it was better than any coffee could hope to be in waking me up each morning.
I picked my way through the parade of people as I slowly trekked southward to Bahia Palace, which would be my first stop of the day. While most people were too busy with their daily lives to take note of me as I walked by, occasionally a young man or a group of young men would approach me and ask the same question that almost anyone who approaches you in the medina will ask - "Are you lost?" As I noted above, the medina is quite maze-like. A patchwork of winding alleys and dead end streets that often confuses visitors, it's the ideal place for many local young men to make money by offering to guide tourists to wherever they need to go for a fee. It's a good option should you find yourself truly unsure of where you are if you set the price beforehand, but as with most things in life be wary of people offering help unsolicited. As you might guess, regardless of whether you're on the right path or not you will always be told you're going the wrong way by whomever is seeking to help you.
I happen to have an excellent sense of direction and my iPhone's GPS had worked perfectly even in the convoluted mess that is the medina since I arrived, so I would always politely decline the offer for help. While they can be persistent, they eventually leave you be and allow you to continue on your merry way.
As I turned a corner just off the main square (called Jemaa el-Fnaa) inside the medina, three young men appeared out of the corner of my eye and started to approach me. Having gotten quite used to the offers to help me find my way, I prepared to use my limited French to tell them that I didn't need any help only to be surprised when all that came from the lead man's lips was "Hey, you!" I turned my head toward him but continued walking and nodded to acknowledge his greeting. I thought that perhaps he was simply saying hello to me. His steps picked up as he tried to keep up with me and his two friends mirrored his actions. Again, he called out to me, "Hey, you!"
My skin began to tingle as something inside of me told me that this wasn't a friendly encounter. There was something about the aggressive way he was trying to keep up with my pace that raised an alarm somewhere in the back of my mind and I chose to ignore his second call and continue walking toward Jemaa el-Fnaa. I turned my head completely forward in the hopes that avoiding even the potential for eye contact would be the thing that convinced him to give up his pursuit and leave me alone.
And then it came. "Hey, you faggot!"
It felt like a brick to the back of my head. I could actually feel a white, searing heat spread from the base of my neck and flush through my face. I was so shocked by the words that I stopped in my tracks, which gave them just enough time to catch up and stand next to me. The three of them stood there in silence waiting for me to reply. Cold, empty glares. I felt sweat falling down the curve of my back.
I didn't quite know how to response but I knew I needed to start maneuvering soon, so I mustered up a rather weak "What?" in reply.
"You gay?" the man said again, the empty stare giving no indication as to the purpose of the questioning. It was always the same man who would speak, his arms folded across his chest while the other two would stand on either side of him with light smirks on their faces.
"Faggot." Again, I winced.
My mind was racing with thoughts. Did these men intend to hurt me? Why did they approach me out of nowhere to ask me about my sexuality? While I certainly didn't blend in with the local population I was far from the only foreign visitor making my way through the medina that morning, and I was dressed no different than any of them. I felt myself transfixed on my clothing because it was all I could grasp at that made sense. While I can certainly add a bit of sass and swish to my mannerisms when I'm around friends and family, I tend to think that for the most part I don't present body language that would be categorized as stereotypically gay in most corners of the world. Why me? What was it about me that caused three random men on the street to follow me and ask me if I was gay? To call me a faggot?
It's a very scary feeling to be approached by strangers in a foreign country and be called a slur, particularly in a country like Morocco that has an atrocious record on LGBTQ rights. As the chart below shows, just about every modern measure of LGBTQ legal protection is absent. In the last decade there have been court cases where the simple accusation of having had sex with someone of the same sex has caused the court to issue prison sentences without any evidence to support the claim. So not only is it a place where being LGBTQ is illegal, you don't even have the benefit of a legal system that requires someone prove you've broken the law before they punish you. Hearsay will do.
With these thoughts raging through my mind and the tension threatening to boil over between us, I decided to simply ignore the question and started walking away. I wanted to run because as a gay man every fiber in my being was screaming out in self-preservation but I knew I needed to remain calm and not let terror creep into my decision-making process. I couldn't see them as I focused directly ahead but a sixth sense told me that they were again following me as I made my way through the crowded pathways of the medina. I had chosen flight but my mind was starting to debate whether fight was the better answer. Perhaps not physically, but to turn around and confront them. To ask them why they were bothering me, why was my sexuality of interest to them? I felt the brush of someone's hand on my shoulder as the man in charge reached out to stop me from escaping. I picked up the pace of my feet and willed my feet to put as much distance between us as possible.
Being on my own I was able to maneuver through the crowds more easily than a group of three, so after a minute I was able to separately myself from my pursuers to the point where it was clear that they wouldn't be able to keep up with my speed and mobility. Acknowledging this, the three of them stopped in their tracks as I looked over my shoulder and sent one last parting shot across the bow - "Gay! Gay!"
I turned around and focused on disappearing into the crowd, relieved to be rid of them but quite shaken by the entire encounter. It was only five minutes at most but it felt like a lifetime of stress had be placed upon my shoulders. I crossed the chaos of Jemaa el-Fnaa and finally darted down a side street and sat down in the back of a small cafe. A man came by to drop off a menu but before he could hand it over I mumbled a request for it-tay - mint tea. With a nod, he walked off to make it.
I dropped my head into my hands and finally let all the fear bubble to the surface. The fear of being arrested. The fear off being attacked. The fear of public shame. The fear of being singled out and othered. But it wasn't just fear that came out. There was also anger. The anger of being made to fear. The anger that comes from knowing that heterosexuals get to walk around and not have strangers approach them and question them on their sexuality at the risk of jail or violence. The anger of knowing that I can leave Morocco but thousands of men and women live with the fear that had me trembling at that very moment every single day of their lives. The anger that comes from knowing that despite being in Morocco that if this had happened at a shopping mall back home in Chicago that I would have felt the exact same way.
Despite adventures in over 40 countries across the globe, many of which are quite anti-gay, this was the only time where I felt genuinely unsafe. I suppose this is the bright side to the situation - while it was jarring it's been exceedingly rare. On the other hand, the fact remains that LGBTQ travelers like myself sadly have to carry a two-fold burden with them when on the road - the fear of what may happen when faced with bigots on the road and the knowledge that when they get home that the danger doesn't disappear. LGBTQ people (much like many other minorities) create safe spaces like gay bars, gay neighborhoods, gay business, and gay pride events because the reality of our everyday lives is that the world we live in exists only in varying degrees of "safer."
There is no safe. It simply does not exist. We are never safe. Only a degree of "safer".
My tea arrived and I let the warm liquid and sugary burn of mint wash over my tongue as I watched people go about their shopping and exploration. The energy and liveliness of the medina started to soak back into my psyche as I slowly let my fear and anger erode away, one wave of tea at a time. I tried to tell myself I wouldn't let this ruin my impression of Morocco but I wasn't confident I could keep that promise. There are many feelings that can be swept aside, but the fear that LGBTQ people feel when they perceive danger can often leave a permanent mark.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few dinars and left them on the table as I picked up my backpack and headed back out into the street. I had come to Morocco to explore a new place and experience a new culture, leaving the worries of my life back in Chicago behind for a few days. Turns out no matter where you are in the world there are somethings you cannot leave behind because they are intrinsically tied to the human experience of LGBTQ communities. For a gay traveler, fear and anger is part and parcel to travel and every day life back home. You cannot leave behind what is a part of you.
As I crossed a street I thought back to the woman I passed on my way out of the riad that morning. She had walked past me just as those three men had, and yet instead of questioning my sexuality she simply smiled and said "Bonjour." She didn't see whatever it was the men saw that caused them to chase me down and aggressively harangue me in the middle of a busy street. Or, she saw it and didn't care. I focused on that fact as I continued along my path for the day. There will always be good and bad people in the world. Focus on the good people, focus on the good things. Despite the fear that I feel as a member of the LGBTQ community traveling in a world that often times dismisses our humanity, my wanderlust is unaffected and unsated.
Because for every tourist trap there's a Taj Mahal. For every dodgy meal there's juicy soup dumplings. And for every homophobe calling you a faggot in the medina, there's a woman in the alley with a big smile and a "Bonjour" on her lips.