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Traveling Queer and Far

By Sally Kohn

Jan 27, 2020

From the March/April 2020 issue

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Illustration by George Wylesol 

For years, writer Sally Kohn didn’t stress about how the world perceived her relationship with her partner, Sarah. But then they started traveling with their kid. Suddenly, every interaction mattered.

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The time to stop hiding came as we sat in the back of a van somewhere along the road between Ranthambore National Park and Udaipur. Not that we’d ever been trying to hide, exactly. But we knew the moment would come.

Packing for our trip to India, I had brought it up. Sarah and I were taking our daughter, Willa, four years old at that point, to Delhi for her godmother’s wedding, after which we were going to explore the country for a few weeks. We wouldn’t advertise that we were two moms traveling with a kid—I wasn’t going to get T-shirts printed or anything—but if we were asked directly? Willa was old enough. If we hedged, or seemed uncomfortable, or worse, lied and said yeah, we were just friends or sisters, she would know. She would understand. She’d get the message that her family was something shameful, something less than. We knew it wasn’t, but we also knew that too much of the world still believed it was.

It’s a thing queer people sometimes do when we travel to less-than-queer-friendly places. Not so much play straight as just blend, letting people’s assumptions wash over us like just another facet of cultural immersion. Here I eat with my hands or wear long sleeves or politely chuckle when a stranger asks if I have a husband as I’m standing, right there, next to my girlfriend. You could call it something between fear and cowardice, but it’s rooted in a genuine respect for other people and what they might feel about such issues. Some battles are not worth picking. This is a vacation, not a crusade.

If a lesbian falls in a forest, but there isn’t another woman there to hear her, does she nonetheless make a prideful squelch?  

I actually don’t remember having to address it before we had Willa. I’ve always felt obviously gay, at least walking around in New York City, and when I was in far-off places like Iowa or Indonesia, I knew I was gay, and that felt like enough. Plus there’s an existential question here: If you’re traveling alone, without a partner, are you just theoretically gay? If a lesbian falls in a forest, but there isn’t another woman there to hear her, does she nonetheless make a prideful squelch?  

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When Sarah and I started traveling together, there were times we could have been considered only theoretically gay, too. Even that time on a deserted beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico, just a few months after we started dating, when Sarah persuaded me to sunbathe topless for the first time—to an observer, we could’ve been friends. Thankfully, there was no one else around. Then again, it would have been nice if someone other than Sarah had been there to remind me to reapply sunscreen. But let’s face it, most of the time, Sarah and I were too obsessed with each other to pay attention to what anyone else was noticing.

A kid changes everything. Eventually. When Willa was a little over a year old, we took her to Tulum in Mexico. When we checked in and asked for a king-size bed, I have some vague memory about the receptionist asking if we were sisters and me mumbling some unspecific response. It didn’t matter. Whatever would get me to my beach chair and margarita faster. What I remember much more specifically was realizing that a beach vacation suddenly isn’t a vacation when you are chasing a toddler around trying to keep her from eating sand and/or drowning. I also remember the moment I realized the quaint rustling sound in the roof of our casita at night was actually scurrying rodents. When I was demanding a refund at 2 in the morning I’m not sure if the hotel manager thought I was an angry lesbian or an angry straight woman or an angry, homely sister to my much hotter, femme-ier sister, and honestly, I’m not sure either of us cared. Angry moms transcend all categories of gender and sexuality. As do margaritas, which are an excellent coping mechanism after discovering the roof of your hotel is crawling with rodents.

India was different. Now that Willa was older, it wasn’t about us. It was about her—her sense of belonging and equality, in the world and in her own skin. Part of traveling is what you learn about the rest of the world, but part of it is what you learn about yourself. What would we be teaching Willa?

Which brings us to the February morning when the man driving us across Rajasthan—Gopal, who asked us to call him Gopalji—asked if Sarah and I were sisters. (That’s always weird, by the way. We look nothing alike. Though I guess when you’re with someone for an eternity, you might both take on some similar characteristics. But still.)

No, I said, shaking my head. We’re partners. Which is what we usually say, though that also feels weird, like we run a business together. Maybe a struggling law firm. Understandably, Gopalji seemed confused.

Wives, I tried. Though we’re not, because I still think marriage is a patriarchal institution, so saying we were wives, in its way, was a lie. Would Willa notice? That I wasn’t actively demeaning gay families but that I was implicitly elevating married ones?

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I shook my head again, like it was an Etch A Sketch, to make a new attempt. Two moms, I said. Both moms. Which was accurate and clear and made sense to Gopalji, who tilted his head, then seemed to shrug in his mind and move on. Perhaps he added this newly discovered difference between us to the tapestry of differences that already included nationality and race and religion and class, but perhaps being honest, making myself vulnerable, made us more connected, too.

Later in the ride, the dirt roads pockmarked with potholes took my usual car sickness to monumental new levels, so I moved to the front seat. To all appearances, I could have been Gopal’s partner or wife. Maybe we were now a new family, a subset of the human family in which we all belong, making our way through a beautiful and complicated and messy world, the injustices against queer families blowing through our hair along with the injustices against poor Indian men who drive tourists around their country, all of us bumping up and down.

Gopalji drove us to a boat dock in Udaipur for our venture to the Taj Lake Palace hotel, which is exactly what it sounds like, a floating palace in the middle of Lake Pichola that Sarah had kept a picture of since she was a bit older than Willa was now. As we exited the boat that brought us across the lake, then walked up the marble staircase while rose petals descended gently on our heads, tossed by an unseen attendant perched on the roof, we were completely gobsmacked—I think that’s the only word for it—by the grandeur around us. As Sarah and I were picking our jaws up off the floor, Willa wandered away and found what looked like an ancient—and very expensive—stone urn filled with water and more rose petals, standing on a pedestal. She accidentally knocked it over. Water and petals and pieces of urn flew everywhere, Sarah and I screamed, Willa cried, and I remember thinking that this—this?—was the impression of gay families we were making. We hadn’t told anyone at the hotel that we were a gay family in advance, and suddenly we were making a big splash. Literally.

As one gracious hotel staff person started mopping up, another bent down to comfort Willa and handed her a stuffed animal, a toy peacock. Suddenly I felt like a bad parent not because my kid had broken a priceless heirloom but because I’d yelled at her for it. Is that the bigger lesson? That all of us are broken, all of us are a mess?

You can’t necessarily make life less messy, but you can make it a tiny bit less confusing. Now, when we travel, I’m more explicit up front. Before we set foot wherever we’re going, I make sure the hotel or restaurant or tour guide knows we’re two moms and our kid. Of course, before that happens, they usually ask my husband’s name during our email exchange. I find it funny. That’s not their fault, that’s just the world we all live in. And my family has the privilege of helping change it.

>>Next: Important Travel Tips for LGBTQ Families

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