Open or not the gay travellers dilemma

January 14, 2016

On January 8, 2016 we left Pasto Colombia for Otavalo Ecuador.  We arrived at the bus station at 8.30  and were directed by shouts to an Ipiales bound coach. The bus was an overnighter that had left  Cali @ 11pm the night before. Good news -there was AC and a bathroom, bad news – we were separated and I got the seat next to the bathroom door. Next to me was a black man talking on his cell. The countryside was dry highlands with some dips into deep valleys. I started chatting up my neighbour.  My usual approach is to offer food and then attempt to speak Spanish.

His name was Giovanni and he was from a town called Suarez in Cauca department. He spoke with a heavy accent and I understood one out of every 5 words as opposed to my usual average of 1 out of 3 words. After I had slurped up the inside of the passion fruit like an Oyster he informed me that I was not supposed to eat the pits- es peligroso.
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So the ice was broken, he told me his business was recycling and he had a contact on the Ecuadorian side that supplied aluminum and copper that Giovanni could then sell in Cali. Es illegal he told me. I asked how the metals got across the border and Giovanni rubbed his fingers together .. plata? I asked, Si claro, Turns out that the person Eliot was sitting next too was also doing the same thing.  These people take a 10 hour overnight bus ride, go across the border, give money to someone and then meet them on the other side to pick up the materials. Talk about crazy hours. Yet he was not complaining he was very positive about his work.

Giovanni asked me if I had a novio (girlfriend). I said no, I told him I could not speak spanish or dance so I had no chance in Colombia. He laughed but I think he sensed a little bit of a white lie (no pun intended).

I should have said, no girlfriend but see the guy with the red hair, thats mine. But I did not. That is my default in uncertain circumstances.Hiding comes natural to members of minorities that can pass and fear discrimination. My maternal grandfather z’l came from Bessarabia to avoid the Russian army draft. He had blue eyes and had virtually no accent. He made a living selling wholesale dry goods to stores in farming towns in Southern Ontario. They called him Art (short for Arthur but his name was Alter). He was observant and  when he was on the road he would hide his yarmulke under a fedora and only eat dairy in restaurants. His cloaking tactics were borne out of experience in Europe and possibly in Canada.  He told me that when he was on the road  if he saw a man wearing a hat in a restaurant he would  approach cautiously to see if this was a “landsman” he would check what the guy was eating. If he saw bacon, he kept walking to the bathroom, if not he would  mutter a word in yiddish and contact would be made. Once that happened he had an instant friend that he could trust (unless he was from the wrong village in the old country).

As a gay guy in the 90’s  I adopted the techniques I learnt from my grandfather but to different ends as  I was not looking for a minyan. The key being to reveal who you are selectively to fellow travellers. After all  at 5’6 145 lbs I am no Arnold Schwartznegger, I rely on wit, personality, and giving away food to survive.

But we are in the year 2015, and I am still cloaking. Why bother? first of all who am I fooling,  even Helen Keller could tell I am Jewish and Giovanni likely figured out I was gay when I walked on the bus with Eliot. If they know already what does this cloaking say about me- either that I am ashamed of what I am or dishonest. If the person is prejudiced already I will have only confirmed the prejudice.   Eliot is a lot more confident than me and a lot less of a cloaker. However in Colombia he too has gone a bit underground. In Buga his mom introduced me as a friend to the people we met in the streets including the monk we saw in the church ( understandable) and we left our wedding rings in a safety deposit box in Canada. When you are travelling you are already a bit of a bird on a wire, you are away from home and everything you own in your possession. So caution is needed.

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In previous trips we usually wait to build some rapport with first before telling people we are married. In since instances people are surprised (usually men are clueless, women pick up on it quicker) and to date no bad reactions. Instead it is usually very positive and in a way it takes away the mystery and fear that some people may have in relation to gays, especially in countries where the local gays remain underground. We are like ambassadors.
Writing this blog I realized that I have a choice to cloak as a way of dealing with potential prejudice.   Visible  minorities, or very religious people do not have this choice. They have to face a world that they know may pre-judge them head on. For them they just have to hold their head up high and be themselves. No one asks Giovanni if he is black. I should take note of their experience and just be myself.
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1 comment

  1. Comment by ben

    ben Reply February 27, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Very well said and written Lorne ! 🙂

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