With my nearest and dearest beside me, sipping long-haul flight freebie wine and battling with an in-flight entertainment system, I made the decision: The Big Gay Trip.
I was en route to Vietnam at the time, for what turned out to be the most incredible three-week trip with a haphazard group of people who became the friends I’ll grow old with. The idea was prompted by a feature in the in-flight magazine, some corporately branded, sleek promo piece on Pride events in European cities. With no voice of reason around, only like-minded queers full of youthful energy, the decision was made. My Big Gay Trip would be a few years in the planning, but it was going to happen. The spark of queer enterprise was there. It was time to go at it alone and travel solo – in a gay way.
University had seen me embroiled in an impressively incestuous pool of romantic attachments, all of which had helped me explore, discover, sometimes hate, often rejoice, and ultimately treasure my sexuality. Finally happy on the whole with who I was and who I wanted to undress, it was time to take this newfound pride out into the big wide world.
And so, in 2017, I mapped out a route from China through southeast Asia, into Japan and finishing it all off in South Korea. With naivety and bagfuls of arrogance, I only read up on the situation for the LGBTQ+ community in each country after booking my flights. Malaysia was the only place where homosexual acts are illegal – the result of a British colonial-era law and punishable in some areas under sharia law. Everywhere else, though homosexuality wasn’t necessarily illegal, there was no protection by law from discrimination, but no amount of reading was going to tell me what social attitudes and cultural norms were going to feel like 'on the ground'.
Overall then, my initial objective: explore queer spaces. The ulterior motive: find out if lesbian nightlife is as tragic everywhere else as it almost always is in my UK-based experiences.
I worried about pitching up as a complete nobody to established queer spaces. Living in hostels for six months, I anticipated the familiar nervousness being in a same-sex dorm would bring – reigniting that terrified paranoia of secondary school PE changing rooms. Would women think I was looking? Was I looking? Why have the insecurities of a closeted 14-year-old suddenly resurfaced?
Aside from all that, I was excited. Travelling alone, I realised I was free from the dreaded Google Doc of organised exploration. Navigating responsibilities were no longer the duty of whoever displayed the biggest big dick energy on an unknown street in a far-flung country. It would be a joy to concentrate on only spelling my name correctly for hotel and tour bookings, not the four middle names of travel companions from days gone by.
Before I knew it, I was suddenly very much alone in Hanoi, ready to dive into the deep end of lesbian life Vietnamese-style. Alas, the queers weren’t forthcoming. My initial experience came to typify most of the other countries on my trip. Gay bars? One or two. Women? Zero. Like home, gay bars were a sanctuary for gay men and wholly unwelcoming to myself as a queer woman.
I found one lesbian bar (open!) in Phnom Penh where I was greeted on arrival by the sight of three French guys, and a lot of empty seats. The other bars that weren’t closed might as well have been. Time and again in the search for a lively queer nightlife I found the local gay bar rebranded and often very run-down. A reflection of the local social and cultural situation (gay sex is legal in Cambodia but same-sex marriage is not, and LGBTQ people are not expressly protected from discrimination) – or just a part of the continued demise of queer spaces?
It was hard to hunt down lesbian bars, few and far between, and find them inevitably closed down. The average lifespan of a lesbian bar – both home and away – appears to struggle to reach beyond a few months.
I did find some gems. In that same disappointing bar in Phnom Penh I found Q Magazine – a wonderful celebration of LGBTQ voices from around Cambodia. I devoured the queer content à la teenage me getting my mitts on an episode of The L Word.
The real highlight was yet to come. Japan, perhaps unsurprisingly, had it all: futuristic toilets, supreme levels of cleanliness, and actual lesbian bars with actual queer socialising. In Tokyo, bathed in the neon glow of the flashing 'Goldfinger' sign, I found Gold Bar – one of a number of lesbian bars in the city. I took refuge from the rain with a beer and women who also wanted to undress women. I flirted and had the sudden realisation it had been months since I’d had a casually flirtatious conversation with another woman.
What about other tourists, didn’t you flirt with them? Are you just shit at flirting? Yes, I hear your questions, you oddly invested reader. Travelling alone as a queer woman I crept back towards the closet a little. I was meeting new people on an almost hourly basis but felt cripplingly alone. I made new acquaintances from all over the place, every country, culture, lifestyle, and felt it no longer safe to assume the majority of people would be an ally – or even not homophobic.
Others on the insistently "I’m not that middle class, I actually worked really hard to raise the money for this trip" travelling circuit felt, in all honesty, very straight. There were spaces and experiences that seemed so overwhelmingly hetero that I shied away from them. A drunken afterparty at a bowling alley in Laos just had one too many guys in canvas shorts and flat peaks for me to feel comfortable going along as the only queer woman. At another point there was the chance to rocket down a river in a rubber ring, surrounded by other Brits, sipping on Red Stripe. Looking at photos from friends who had gone, it felt like a budget Love Island and an experience tailored to a thoroughly hetero audience.
The most conflicting point of the trip was meeting my then-girlfriend in Malaysia. Having a travelling companion for a few weeks felt safe and familiar and comforting. Meeting in Malaysia somewhat undid that. A British colonial-era law makes homosexual acts illegal there, punishable under federal law and in some areas sharia law. Both the legal and social situation set a precedent for how we interacted as a couple. We hardly touched in public, quashing any queerness until the safety of a private room.
Going back to travelling solo was, in many ways, easier. 'Managing' the expression of my sexuality – a sad reality that persists at home, too – was simpler when it was just me in untested waters, among unknown people.
On my Big Gay Trip I found some wonderfully colourful spaces but a lot more closed, short-lived bars and venues. I encountered unsafe situations and had the usual scams, but was never targeted specifically for my sexuality. In that sense I was, and continue to be, very lucky. Part of that was my own careful consideration of how openly queer I was to both locals and fellow travellers. Another is the overwhelming privilege I have as a white, fairly femme lesbian who can adjust how my sexuality is perceived depending on my own judgement of a situation.
Sipping long-haul flight freebie wine on the way home, I wish I could say I reflected on all that but I didn’t – and started planning my next trip.