A Rockefeller Fellow in the Humanities at CLAGS, Jasbir Puar has spent her year exploring the burgeoning gay and lesbian tourist industry, bringing together the largely sociological and political economy literatures of tourism with queer theory. Next year she will be joining the faculty at Rutgers to head their new Gender and Sexuality Program.
The impetus behind this project stems from an incident in February 1998 when several “gay” cruises originating from Europe and the U.S. were refused docking privileges in various parts of the Caribbean, invoking responses from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. officials, both insisting on the egregious violation of human rights. The on-going dilemma over the docking of gay cruise ships led me to ask questions about the constructions of community created through and against such encounters and the production of a global gay identity that is contested by postcolonial situations. Ironically, the U.S. and British states advocate protection for the cruise ships in the Caribbean while granting no such absolute rights when those very cruisegoers return home.
These are the broader problematics that inform the scope of my new research on gay and lesbian tourism. The work I have done to date on this project has focused on the production end of this emerging sector through the collection of advertising literature and promotional videos, attending international gay and lesbian expos, and interviewing tour operators.
The first organized gay tours were started by Hanns Ebensten, commonly hailed as the “grandfather” of gay travel, in the 1950’s. Today, over 300 travel providers run gay and lesbian trips. According to these operators, the early 90s was the “Golden Age” of gay and lesbian tourism, in large part due to the “gay marketing moment,” a time when coming out meant coming out in terms of purchasing power, as gay consumers. Currently, an estimated 5-25 million gays and lesbians spend more than 10-17 billion dollars on travel products every year. Despite the fact that most cruise companies have experienced downturns since the early 90s, revenues for Olivia Cruises for Women have surged from $1.5 million in 1990 to nearly $6 million in 1996, with cruises nearly always filled to capacity. Similarly, RSVP cruises for men, since the early 90s, has reported consecutive annual increases.1,200 gay and gay-friendly travel agents/agencies affiliated with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) estimated billing $1 billion in airline tickets and $35 million in accommodations in 1995. Out & About, the most popular monthly gay and lesbian travel newsletter, has 10,000 subscribers; Our World, the major gay and lesbian travel magazine, started in 1989 and has 50,000 subscribers.
A crucial framework informing the emergence of this niche of travel now termed “gay and lesbian tourism” is in the distinction between being a gay traveler and traveling as gay, though clearly such demarcations are rarely held completely stable. Desires to disrupt heterosexuality through visible and mobile homosexuality entail that visibility politics underpin certain forms of gay and lesbian tourism. As David Alport, co-editor of Out and About, has stated, “What we encourage, and what our mandate has always been, is about traveling openly as gay.” However the promise of “out” travel signaled by “out” consumption has been clearly distilled since the rapid growth of the early 90’s. The two trends which seem to be most vexing the “out and about” mandate on gay and lesbian mobility and travel are the usage of the internet and the push towards educational, high-end international travel. Due to the relative protection of one’s identity on the internet, access is afforded to information without needing to “out” oneself, while on the other hand worldwide community networks of wider and wider reaches enables even the casual gay traveler to hook into gay and lesbian communities elsewhere. The second trend, the push towards higher- end, educational, global travel is one that attempts to distinguish itself from the implicit sex tourism of the gay cruises and circuit parties, and offers “the discerning gay traveler” an opportunity to learn about “gay culture” overseas. As the brochure for Family Abroad states: “Don’t think that all gay trips are centered around your sexual orientation. Our vacations allow you to celebrate your sexual orientation, but they also allow you the freedom to forget about it entirely.” In this configuration of being out so out that one can be in, “the discerning gay traveler” may well be a cosmopolitan variant of the “out” gay tourist.
At the annual Gay and Lesbian World Travel Expo, held in both New York and San Francisco, on offer included entire cruises for gay and lesbian parents and their children, an International Gay Spirit Retreat to Crete, a tour for gays and lesbians of African descent to South Africa that bills itself as the only cultural program following the footsteps of former president Nelson Mandela, and a “pornography cruise” for gay men called Pilage and Plunder. Family Abroad, voted best gay and lesbian operator by Out and About for its “solid gay-family travel values,” sponsors trips which utilize not only gay-owned and gay friendly hotels, restaurants, and bars, but also arranges meetings with gay and lesbian activists and organizations in whatever destination they travel to, including Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Brazil, Eygpt, Tunisia, Turkey, and Russia. The growth of educational tours which utilize activist networks hints at the currency of “queer solidarity” underpinning much gay and lesbian travel to come.
While South Africa and Fiji are the latest “hot” destinations for gay and lesbian tourists, touted as the only two countries in the world where gays and lesbians are protected by constitutional anti-discrimination laws, the national tourist offices present at the expos were those of Germany, Britain, France, and Puerto Rico, as well as the tourism bureaus of Quebec, Montreal, Palm Springs, Berlin, all with literature specifically addessing gay and lesbian travelers. This represents a significant shift in directionality: in the early 90’s gay and lesbian travelers initially marketed themselves to certain venues; now more venues are starting to market themselves to gay and lesbian consumers. A second shift is from corporate interests in this market to national interests, i.e. from airlines and hotels courting these consumers, to the actual national tourist boards doing so. The images of queer nationals presented by national tourist boards provide some ideas about how gay and lesbian “inclusion” into the state is being imagined, while also, in the face of legislative and social inequality, suggests national queer identities which have the most currency overseas while they still function as liabilities at home.
Jasbir Kaur Puar
CLAGS Rockefeller Fellow