While we can’t travel at the moment, let’s look back on the stories of lesbian and bi wanderers
BY CARRIE LYELL, IMAGE VIA ADOBE STOCK PHOTOS
It’s Sunday evening and, like a good lesbian, I’m watching Gentleman Jack. Anne Lister has packed her thermometer and she’s off on a jolly. “Do women… do that?” asks a friend of Ann Walker as she tells them of her plans. Which gets me thinking. How did women – specifically queer women – travel way back when?
We know about Anne’s travels through her diaries. Defying conventions of the 19th century, she ticked France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia off the bucket list and even went mountaineering in the Pyrenees. But what of other queer women from days gone by? It feels shameful how little I know about how lesbians and bi women and their jaunts.
In a 2016 DIVA article by Hillary McCollum, writer Emma Donoghue says: “Our ignorance of our own history – and other people’s ignorance of the fact that we have any history – has damaging effects. It stunts our confidence by making eroticism between women seem like a recent fashion – a cultural phase, a meme or titillating pose.”
It’s an interesting point. Because there is very little in the way of historic record, we don’t know much about how lesbians travelled; much less where or why. And it’s through history, we learn how to live now. So it’s no wonder that even today, women wanderers are all but invisible in tourism spaces and even LGBT-specific travel events, while there is no end of research into gay men’s travel habits.
But if the proliferation of professional pleasure seekers on Instagram is anything to go by, we do travel. From the debaucherous pool parties of Dinah Shore to sapphic pilgrimages to the Greek Island of Lesbos, we travel hard. For sun, sea and sangria, sure. But also for community. We travel to expand our horizons. We travel for intellectual curiosity; to find ourselves and to understand our identities in a global context. Just like Anne Lister did. Just like the women of the 1970s and 80s, who created women-only spaces for us to socialise.
Reading about one, on the island of Sejero in Denmark, I’d give anything for a time machine just so I could experience those halcyon days when 200 lesbians frollicked naked in the sun.
Much has changed since Anne Lister and her thermometer went on the road. Most of us don’t need to be accompanied by a male chaperone on our holibobs, for a start. But it wasn’t easy to travel as a woman then and it isn’t always easy now. There are still many places in the world that are no-go zones for masculine-presenting women loving women like me. And others where we need to modify and mask our behaviour. Two friends shared a terrifying encounter with hotel staff in Gambia recently who didn’t like the way they were behaving while, recounting a trip to Malaysia with a then-girlfriend in a piece for Refinery29, Jossie Evans notes: “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.”
But while travelling might not always be easy, the benefits are immense. I’ve been lucky enough to trot a small piece of the globe for the travel pages of DIVA and experience lez/bi life across the world and it’s been incredible. Some of my most nourishing, most life-enriching memories have been forged away from home and it’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to record those experiences in print. And we need more of it. So keep going; recounting your travel stories. Whether it’s a selfie by the pool or a beautifully detailed journal, keep a record of your adventures. You never know who might be reading in (hundreds) of years to come.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!
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