Gay Travel Writing in the Middle East

Frequent NLGJA convention speaker Michael Luongo has begun a six-week book tour of the Middle East promoting his book Gay Travels in the Middle East. Here’s his first report, from Huffintgton Post, on his visit to the Beirut Book Fair.

Soon others came to congratulate me for the Arabic version of the book. One was an Egyptian book seller who had heard of the controversy of the initial problems with some of the language of the translation. A dissident who had been arrested three times by Mubarek’s government, he asked me to come to speak in his bookstore in Cairo, where I plan to pass through in January. Others who came were fellow writers, others publishers who had long wanted to carry such a book and others ordinary people who had come to the book fair. One of these was a gay high school teacher, delighted to see such a book in Arabic. He told me some of his students, seeking advice on sexuality, would ask him for things to read and there was little he could recommend. Now he would have a resource.


Havana Rights

I will admit up front that I will be among the first in line to visit Cuba once the U.S. government eases travel restrictions to the island.  Ever since I saw the movie–and, okay, read the book–Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, I’ve wanted to visit the country that most Americans are forbidden from visiting.

So I was especially curious about Michael Rowe’s piece in the Advocate on Mariela Castro Espín, who has become the leading voice of LGBT rights in Cuba.  It’s a terrific interview and Rowe clearly got great access to government officials and voices.

It strikes an onlooker as poignant that all this celebration happens within sight of the 16th-century El Morro fortress, perched high on a rocky promontory near the entrance of the Bay of Havana, where openly gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas was jailed for two years in the 1970s for “ideological deviation” — a post-revolutionary code for open homosexuality — and for unlawfully publishing his books abroad. As the light fades completely from the sky, El Morro itself seems to recede into the darkness like a bad memory, leaving only the revelry of the Malecón.

While authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have extolled the worldly sophistication of Havana nightlife, homosexuality was only decriminalized in Cuba in 1979, following decades of harsh judicial treatment. The very real dangers associated with public displays of same-sex affection increase exponentially the further one travels from the urban core of Havana, but Cuban attitudes towards its LGBT minority have evolved, much in part to an unexpected and powerful ally.

Mariela Castro Espín is a slender, pale, and elegant mother of three children. Married to an Italian photographer, she is straight, even though some Havana gossips have suggested otherwise. She also happens to be the 47-year-old daughter of President Raúl Castro, who last year officially succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as president of Cuba. As director of the government-run National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Castro Espín has used her guile — and her dynastic clout — to push for gay rights in a country where hard-labor, “reeducation” camps were once vaunted as an antidote to homosexuality. “Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a ‘man,’” she says. “It’s part of the masculine role. Boys are taught to have violent reactions so they can show their masculinity. Boys are destroyed in this country this way.”

The story is well written and President Raul Castro’s daughter appears to be a strong, passionate advocate. But I used the word “appears” for a reason. Any time you cover a government official in a country like Cuba, it seems there needs to be a certain sense of suspicion about their motivations and “spin.”

So I kept waiting and waiting for voices of people who disagree with the government, who trumpet the concerns over political oppression in the country, or who can provide some perspective on Espín’s comments. It just wasn’t there. After leading the story with a discussion of El Morro and Arenas, there’s no discussion of political prisoners or political oppression since only government voices are quoted.

Is anyone suspicious of the pro-gay rhetoric coming from the regime? What does Amnesty International or Freedom House or the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission have to say about Cuba? How about gay voices inside the Cuban-exile community in South Florida? If Cuba is a gay rights success story, how about someone from outside the government who can confirm that.

When a gay travel story becomes breaking news


Mobile and beyond: Surprising Alabama


In the Bay Area Reporter‘s July 16 edition ran a travel story about Mobile, Alabama, its gay scene and its friendly surrounding towns by Ed Walsh.

Mobile: New Orleans light, in a good way

Many of the more than 30,000 tourists who trek up to Monroeville each year start out in Mobile. The city has a population of 200,000, or double that if you include the suburbs. That is more than enough to support a lively gay scene. New Orleans is a little more than a two-hour drive away. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, thousands of evacuees permanently relocated in Mobile.

Seated on Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile very much resembles New Orleans. In fact, Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States, not New Orleans. It began there in 1703, 15 years before New Orleans was founded. The city celebrates Mardi Gras with a series of celebrations, including 34 Mardi Gras parades in the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. The most sought-after of all the Mardi Gras balls is the one put on by a gay organization, the Order of Osiris ( The event has been growing in popularity since it began in 1980. It is usually held around the beginning of the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations. The city’s gay pride celebration is in April and it is marked by a series of activities and events spread out for three days and highlighted by a parade. This year, it featured a concert by Jennifer Holliday.

The day the story ran it was picked up as “Breaking News” on the Web sites of the local newspapers: Mobile’s  The Press-Register and The Birmingham News.

The Birmingham paper wrote: “Mobile and south Alabama communities such as Fairhope and Monroeville earn a thumbs up travel review from San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter, Mobile’s Press-Register reports.”

While The Press-Register noted that Walsh “touts Mobile’s great restaurants and reports that tourism has remained strong despite the recession. He refers to the Battle House Hotel as the “gay-friendly” crown jewel of a downtown renaissance. A fan of the Battle House spa, he writes that it “is just what every gay man or woman needs.”

The linking to the travel story caused a flurry of comments on the Birmingham paper’s Web site. The count was up to 80 as of this week, with readers pretty split on whether their area being touted as a safe destination for LGBT travelers was good or bad.

One person simply wrote: “Instead of the bay city, it will soon be the GAY city!! LOL” while others extolled the fiscal boom such marketing could bring to town: “Oh, those gays really have it going on.If only we could tap into their pockets, we could pull-out of this deficit.”

Those in the negative camp interjected with fairly typical homophobic reactions: “Let the 98% of the population know where they will be so we can not be there. Gays are a sad group of people missing out on life as it was meant to be.”

Other readers questioned why the papers had labeled the posts breaking news or questioned if it was “newsworthy” at all.

I say kudos for the Alabama mainstream papers for linking to a gay paper’s coverage of their hometowns. It is no different than when the San Francisco Chronicle touts my home city’s #1 placement on some travel guide’s list or magazine’s survey.