“Fags!” came the shout, tossed out of the window of a moving car by someone I couldn’t see. I turned my head, looking for the intended target. It was very dark, the deep shadows cast by houses broken only by circles of streetlight. My partner, Jeannie, and I were walking, hand in hand, back from dinner in New Orleans, toward the French Quarter. We were passing between neighborhoods and there was no one around. Specifically, there were no gay men around.
“OH,” I thought, with a little sizzle of fear. The slur had been directed at us, two women holding hands. We quickly realized that nothing more threatening was coming—the car and its anonymous occupant were long gone—and started to laugh. I mean, if you’re going to be a homophobic jackass, at least try to get your insults right. As the Internet will tell you, there are many ways to offend two lesbians but that particular word probably won’t land the intended punch. But I was also (mildly) surprised because New Orleans is no stranger to the rainbow life.
We encountered nothing but inclusiveness and kindness for the rest of the weekend. One day, while shopping in a vintage clothing store, we struck up a conversation with the woman at the counter who clued us into the queer scene at The Country Club, a pool and bar in the Bywater neighborhood.
I had a lengthy conversation with a local photographer about the best neighborhoods for gay couples and the wild freedom of annual events like Pride and Southern Decadence, something akin to a gay Mardi Gras. For 0.001 seconds, we even entertained the idea of moving to New Orleans and buying a Bywater shotgun home to fix up. We liked the city that much.
But that single moment had triggered what I’ve come to think of as my traveler’s gaydar, which is less Are you gay? and more How OK is it that we’re gay? That night, we both laughed it off, but we also continued our walk with heightened senses, that hyper-awareness that any woman who’s walked alone at night can probably relate to. It shook, for a moment, our feelings of safety and security and acceptance.
The questions of Will I be safe? and How “out” can we be? often shape how I travel and how Jeannie and I talk about travel.
Two years ago, while organizing a winter trip to a warm-weather destination, that consideration took Jamaica off the table but gave Costa Rica passing marks. While mapping out our honeymoon last year, we did some digging into Cuba’s LGBT scene and felt like the country was welcoming enough for us, but that we shouldn’t be outwardly affectionate in public spaces. No holding hands, no hugging, and definitely no kissing in public, which is a funny thing to plan for when traveling to a country known for its love of PDA—and when you’re on your honeymoon, as we would be.
The trade-off felt worth it. We wanted to see this country, so recently opened to Americans. We wanted to travel outside our comfort zones. We wanted to soak up music, and culture, and the still-unplugged nature of Cuba. We had also planned a post-Cuba week in Miami—what better place to slough off travel-induced closetedness than in one of the capitals of coming out?
Cuba—like Italy, and Chile, and Bali, and the many other places I’ve traveled to—was just fine. We passed through Cienfuegos and Havana easily and without incident. In every Airbnb home, our hosts were warm and welcoming. But we didn’t hold hands in public, we didn’t go salsa dancing, and we didn’t see any other gay people, outside of the bars.
Maybe that’s why, nearly a year later, the clearest memory I have of our trip is of the gay bar that we didn’t realize was a gay bar.
We were staying in Vedado, a quiet residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. I’d read that Café Madrigal had good rum and an even better ambiance, and one night, we were craving both as we walked back to our Airbnb. So we stopped by, thinking we would only stay for a drink.
The café fills the second floor of a restored colonial home painted the pink of a conch shell. Inside, splashy pop-culture paintings and film noir posters hang on exposed brick walls; ferns are everywhere, even in the bathroom; and a glossy black piano occupies the center of the room. If Woody Allen ever films a movie in Cuba, I’d put money on him setting a scene there.
We were so enamored with the bohemian beauty of the place, we didn’t really think about the group of men huddled by the bar. There were a few other couples (straight) snacking on tapas and drinking wine, which also threw us off the scent. We sat down on the balcony, which was empty and hedged by green plants. Soon, one of the men broke from the huddle and walked over to take our order. He was gruff and used words sparingly, though it was clear he approved of our order (Havana Club rum, solo or “neat”).
That was it. We played cards and drank and talked, out-lingering the other couples. On our way out, we stopped by the group at the bar and told them how much we loved the place, the rum, the plants. We may have been a little drunk. I think they liked our American effusiveness because they chuckled a little and said thank-you and good night.
The next evening rolled around and Café Madrigal was the only place we wanted to be. We walked up the stairs and saw that the group of men was back at the bar. One guy waved as we headed back to the balcony. Our gruff server was a little less gruff when he took our order—he even suggested we try a different rum, one that he thought we’d like a little better solo. Again, we stayed for hours, listening to music and talking about what we’d seen that day. On our way out, the bar group told us to come back soon.
We took the next evening off to visit the Fabrica D’Arte, a massive art gallery and event space on the fringe of Havana. Come Thursday, however, we once again felt the pull of Café Madrigal. Climbing the stairs that lead to the bar, we felt a little sheepish, as though we should be broadening our horizons, but also like we were heading home. Of all the places we had been in Cuba, this café was where we felt the most comfortable.
That night, our server was a bigger, softer man, one who we had seen sitting at the bar on previous nights. He took our order, brought our drinks, and then left. As we were sipping, he came back and hovered at our table. He was literally wringing his hands. In English, he said, “Um, may I—I don’t want to presume . . .”
He took so long to build up to his next question that I thought he was going to ask us to never return—Jeannie and I had felt so at ease on the balcony that we had resorted to our more normal way of interacting: legs touching at the table, her hand on my back. Maybe he was offended?
“Are you together?” he finally asked.
We knew what he was asking and it was a little bubble of freedom to say yes, we are. “Actually, we are on our honeymoon,” I told him.
He smiled a big smile and told us that he was so glad he had been right and that he was happy we came in again—he was afraid that they hadn’t been friendly enough to us. His name was Rafael and he and Gruff had been together for years and owned this place. It’s a gay hangout, but not exclusively, he explained.
Rafael hurried away and came back with two glasses of Havana Club Maestro—the best rum on the menu—and said they were on the house. “What else have you seen?” he asked as we sipped.
We described our trip: the long bus ride from Cienfuegos to Havana, the jazz club at the top of an abandoned building, our favorite meals. He shared a few of his favorite places in Havana, including Humboldt 52, the city’s first openly gay bar, and an underground lesbian club in Havana that he thought we might like. We told him about what it’s like to live in San Francisco; he talked about the burgeoning gay scene in Havana. When we said good-bye that night, there was real affection on both sides.
We never went to those clubs—our trip was almost over and Miami was waiting. But we also wanted to end on that note: In a place where we weren’t consciously looking for community and acceptance, we found it. While traveling in a country that felt at times, very closed, we found a way to be open. The LGBT scene in Cuba reminded me a tiny bit of what it must have been like to be out in the United States before the Stonewall riots and Harvey Milk and the legalization of gay marriage, when gay bars were often life rafts, one of the few places you could go and truly feel free.
This month, I raise my glass to that freedom. I celebrate that I can live openly in my home city of San Francisco. I celebrate that my partner and I can travel widely and maybe open a few eyes along the way. I celebrate that the worst I’ve encountered while traveling is a moron with a tenuous grip on linguistic nuance. And, as cheesy as it may sound, I celebrate that fear will never prevent me from seeing the world—well, most of it.