Sometimes I like to think of travel as a form of queer activism. Admittedly, I mostly travel for selfish reasons. I want adventure. I want to be spoiled at a nice hotel. I want to eat exciting food and explore beautiful vistas. But at the same time, I like to think that when I travel I’m also doing something good for others. Specifically, when I travel to places that aren’t historically LGBTQ accepting, I try to leave a little bit of my gayness behind. For instance, if you’ve been to the Caribbean island Anguilla recently and noticed it was a smidge gayer than in the past, that’s my doing. You’re welcome.
I came of age politically in the United States during the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the official military policy, ushered in by President Bill Clinton, that said queer people could be in the military as long as no one knew they were queer. In practice, that oppressive construct reinforced the radicalism of queer visibility—that being openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender was a world-changing act of not only self-expression but also transformation of the culture and institutions around you.
So where does the small island of Anguilla come into this? Well, Anguilla is one of the few islands in the Caribbean where gay sex isn’t a crime; Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory and, along with islands such as Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, was ordered by the British government to decriminalize gay sex in 2000. And yet because of that history, because it wasn’t a choice the island made affirmatively on its own but was foisted upon it, inextricably intertwined with a legacy of other colonial impositions, Anguilla’s relationship to queerness isn’t exactly out and proud.
It could be, as one queer travel website points out, that Anguilla’s gay scene is muted because, with only 15,000 residents, there simply aren’t enough people on the island to have much of a scene of any kind. But the way one local talked to me about gayness in Anguilla—as something some people do and other people know about but none of them discuss—reminded me of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Not quite acceptance, but not outright hostility either. More like closeted homophobia.
This, of course, had the effect of making me want to be extra gay all over Anguilla. No one asked, but I told. Both because it’s hard for me not to be visibly gay, as a butch mom traveling with my partner and daughter, but also because Anguilla feels friendly, it’s legally permitted, and perhaps most important, I have the extra security of privilege.
I can prance around holding my partner’s hand in the safety of the Four Seasons resort because we can afford to stay there—and the property, like some other luxury spots on the island, is a member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. That kind of proactive welcome mat is an important comfort. It’s also worth noting that we’re white, which comes with its own privileges on the Caribbean islands. But also, on vacation or as a foreigner anywhere, wealth is often the identity that counts the most. I noticed this with the loud straight men smoking cigars by the beach and recklessly tossing a tennis ball around a crowded swimming pool. As long as their credit cards cleared, no one gave them a hard time either. Gayness in Anguilla might whisper but money shouts.
One afternoon, my teenage daughter and I went to Sandy Island, an appropriately named tiny slip of sand floating off Anguilla’s coast with an eponymous beach-shack restaurant and a private beach available to those who shell out for lunch. Anguilla has a unique looking and tasting spiny lobster, which Sandy Island served grilled with a curry butter on the side. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, made all the better by having my feet in the sand. Me in my trucker hat and men’s swimming costume, my teenage daughter calling me mom while wearing a piece of thread she calls a bikini. A queer family for all to see.
We were welcome to temporarily access this delicious slice of paradise—but, I thought to myself, access isn’t necessarily the same thing as inclusion. Buying a seat at the table isn’t the same thing as being given a seat at the table. And an outsider gaining temporary access isn’t the same thing as an equitable, inclusive society for everyone in a community.
There’s a question that always nags at me in these moments, whether I’m bobbing in the ocean or eating my fifth spiny lobster. Is walking down the beach holding my partner’s hand, looking extremely gay in my swim trunks—is this a radical act of queer visibility? Or is it neo-imperialism? I’ve been schooled by practitioners of ethical tourism to respect local culture and practices. But of course I don’t respect explicit anti-gay laws or even a tacit “Don’t Act, Don’t Tell” culture. Does that in some way make me a would-be colonizer, trying to impose my norms and values? Or in a world where there are absolute rights and wrongs, are luxury Western queer travelers paying it forward by showing up and being our full, big gay selves—maybe helping the world become more equitable in some way?
Is walking down the beach holding my partner’s hand, looking extremely gay in my swim trunks—is this a radical act of queer visibility?
Two relevant things happened during my last day in Anguilla. First, I talked with a hotel manager who told me about expat friends of his, one of whom has a job at another hotel but his husband can’t get immigration papers because Anguilla doesn’t recognize their marriage. And then later that night, as I sat by the Four Seasons’ expansive open-air bar overlooking the sunset, I saw a same-sex couple who, perhaps because they were younger and more flexible, were even more intertwined than my partner and I. What I saw was one couple enjoying the relative freedom of Anguilla in a luxury hotel versus a man who lived and worked on the island being stifled by it.
Is Anguilla perfect? No. Are gay luxury travelers perfect? No. Everyone has room for improvement. Ethical tensions are like spiny lobster—better served with a stiff rum punch.
As I walked along the Barnes Bay beach one afternoon, there were more sea shells dotting the ground than the days before, the product of some unusually rough ocean waters. I didn’t take any. They were lovely, but they belong to the beach and the ocean. Like so much of the local culture and community, meant to be enjoyed and respected. But I did leave those hints of my gayness, unasked for but still spoken in words and otherwise, imprints of the just, inclusive, and open world I believe we all deserve. Maybe making it easier, someday, somehow, for other queers to come out of their shells. If that’s imperialist luxury queer travel, I can live with that—especially if I’m helping others become more free.
Sally Kohn Sally Kohn is a television commentator, writer, and executive presence coach working with top executives and political leaders.