by Tania Zulkoskey
When you are lesbian and traveling with your partner outside of a Pride Weekend celebration, even if you manage to locate a LGBT friendly venue, whether it be a bed and breakfast or café, chances are, you are on your own taking on whatever homophobic or internalized homophobic situation arises. Making the decision to travel taxes every aspect of your relationship. Romances are born and killed as easily as finding out that the once quirky personality trait now seems like an obsessive compulsive disorder.
Backpacking around the world is a mystical adventure full of awe and wonder only to those who don’t do it. Backpacking around the world with a partner in a lesbian relationship is full of breathless moments, electrifying connection and at times, a real struggle not to hand-in your toaster and return to the Monastery.
Traveling and living abroad challenges, changes and magnifies every part of your relationship. What is unique to same-sex couples though, are the opportunities to not only establish how ‘out’ you are when in strange and unfamiliar territory, but how enriching and validating experiences can be when you meet gay and gay-friendly people in the most historically patriarchal and anti-homo places.
In Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires, there is a mecca of LGBT clubs, okay, maybe similar to Vancouver, but they exist and if you’re a boy, you are in luck, the opportunities double. For women, there is a really good salad at the Pride Café. No, there is more than that, but the clubs are only on the weekends and open after 1am which, for two nearly-weds, was impossible to get to after a full day of sight-seeing. Queer Tango, on the other hand, in public allowed us to see the boys show up in double again, but in private, it comes highly recommended. A teacher who can instruct how to lead and follow and how to switch it up in the middle ranks high on my list of relationship enhancers.
In Córdoba, the Catholic Capital where we lived for 4 months, I immediately began my search for the undercurrent of oppressed and aching queers to liberalize – what else is a newly defined housewife to do? Trying to keep my hair short to use all possible tactics, I explained to the hairdresser with sign language and the sound of a razor how I wanted my hair to look. Soon, I was walking around with an 80’s mini-mullet suitable only for the beginning of the Stanley Cup finals.
There must be dykes somewhere!? But everywhere I turned, long-haired, anorexic womyn in heels and skirts walked the streets. In a city with seven Universities and a gazillion people, I wasn’t about to give up hope yet and went through every possible search engine on the net. Luck found me when I walked into my first Spanish class and met my gay teacher.
The night we went to Zen, a gay-friendly club, was the night we saw behind the masks: their hair was tucked inside of ball caps and the fashion was straight out of the L-word. In my tight black tank-top and cargo shorts, I wondered if the gay-boy thought I was a guy as he hit on me, regardless, with my she-hips it was a complement. My partner, on the other hand, practiced her Spanish and instead of asking why he handed me a beer, she accidentally asked them to kiss, which they did – either way, resulting in some heavy gender-bending flirting.
Learning the language
In Argentina, womyn meet each other at marches for womyn’s rights, there is no LGBT Centre, at least outside of the district of San Telmo in Buenos Aires. The lesbians online are also pretty much only in Buenos Aires, leaving the rest of the country hanging out near the clothes. But in the middle of the country, unbeknownst to foreigners on the tourist circuit, there is an underground lesbian club in a barrio of Córdoba. It is here I learn about “tortas,” (cakes), used as a slur against lesbians. And that “bizarre” translates to “trucker” which is equal to being called a butch. They tell me there is no concept in Spanish that means “gay-friendly” so, in fact, they use the English words. When I ask about reclaiming “tortas” as the word “queer” has been reclaimed, they tell me that it is not an important issue right now, there are other more pressing rights at stake. Aware of my naïvety and feelings of gratefulness for living in Canada, I gave them the website for Womyns Ware.
In Buenos Aires, there is Civil Union for gays, similar but not equal to marriage, but for the rest of the country the acceptance varies from outright religious rejection to wonderful and truly sweet people, straight and gay, who will do anything to celebrate your happiness as a couple. However, the true test begins during times of missed buses, being lost in the city, late for a flight, cancelled tickets, or starving all day and then being unable to communicate in a restaurant with no menu. Add to this, being in an area of high-theft and armed robbery, and you might as well either pack it in, or produce the ring, because together the two of you will survive it or not.
In Brazil, particularly in Rio de Janeiro and Sãn Paulo, the gay scene is lively and inviting, but you might want to hold off walking around with that ring. Theft and mugging is more of a worry than homophobia here. Whether it is open affection on the many beaches or intimately leaning in while talking over dinner, nobody really cares about your business. Where some couples may have more difficulty is deciding whether it feels safe -or not- to be open, to be out, and to be comfortable with public affection. On occasion, you may not equally have the same vibes. When it appears to you that you are surrounded by friendly straight folks and you attempt to hold your partners hand but she pulls away, this is the time to wonder how each others history and experience impacts one another. On the surface, it might not be clear to either of you what message is being sent and what is really happening inside.
Being careful not to judge, nor to become impatient or to feel rejected, it’s important to slooow down how the interaction is perceived – both given and received. Internalized homophobia or not, this isn’t the time to express resentment, and it isn’t the time to accuse your partner of insensitivity and to shut-down. In any situation that involves charged feelings you are at the highest risk of communication breakdown. And, on the other hand, you have the greatest opportunity to understand and build upon foundations of life-enhancing connectedness. Rehearsing in your head what you want to say that will promote the greatest possibility of empathy for your partner will go much further than to accuse your partner of not understanding you. If we do this more often, we will breakdown the walls so inherent in the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and have healthy same-sex relationships.
Traveling in countries that don’t speak your native tongue adds another dimension, especially if only one of you can speak the other language. How is it possible to maintain independence, a healthy “you are you and I am I” balance, and feel equal in your relationship when she does all the talking? By being aware of how this change in power and autonomy impacts your relationship, you can both benefit from identifying unwanted feelings of dependency and feelings of overwhelming responsibility or resentment. Sensitivity to how decisions are made when one person must translate for the other requires a commitment of patience on both parts.
Talking yourself through how to show compassion to your partner will increase the likelihood that she will respond in the same fashion – opening lines of communication and glimmers of connection. Feeling like you want to blame each other because there is no one else around to complain to in English isn’t uncommon. Frustrations can build easily and when you are together 24-7 passionate playfulness isn’t probably the first thing that crosses your mind when you get back to your bedroom. But in these moments, it’s time to remind yourself that relationships are not lost in fleeting times of stress and discouragement. Nor are they necessarily built – let’s be real – but in that second, for that night, remind your self to give the gift of space. Space to be miserable, space to feel fatigue and space to recover from the day.
If you have the opportunity to travel, even to go camping in the rain, do it. Relationships are to be full of movement, discovery and growth. Adventures can take place in your living room, and when you can risk more, they can take place anywhere.
Tania Zulkoskey is a therapist in private practice, located in East Vancouver and the Tri-Cities. As a feminist lesbian social worker, she works with both individuals and families often on relationship and trauma issues. She has just returned from traveling the world for a year with her partner climbing many mountains and exploring all the valleys. www.tzcounselling.ca Tel: 604-771-8647