In the middle of last year, on assignment for a newspaper, I found myself sitting next to a Maasai woman in Samburu National Park, Kenya, watching an elephant on the banks of Ewaso Ngiro. Everlyn was my minder from Nairobi. She was also a refutation of the canard that women in traditional Africa are powerless to help themselves: After escaping an abusive, polygamous marriage in her village, Everlyn secured an enviable government job, put her brother through medical school, and now made a habit of visiting remote communities to spread education about AIDS prevention. I liked her tremendously. We were chatting over gin and tonics, talking about her life, and then suddenly she wrinkled her nose and asked me an unexpected question: “Do you have when a man and a man go together in your home?”
I froze. “In Kenya, it is bad, I think. In Nairobi you see the clubs and lesbians,” she said. “I think it is a new thing, this choice people are making. We never used to have these people in Kenya.” If “these people” had appeared in her old village they would have been beaten, she explained; she also struggled to accept a colleague who had come out as a lesbian. “If my daughter told me she was choosing this I would be …” She puffed out her cheeks and let out a nervous laugh.
I’m hardly the first person to be blind-sided in this fashion. David Smith, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent, put it well when he noted recently that “anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on the continent is likely to encounter a warm, friendly, decent human being who will stop them short with an outburst of homophobic prejudice.” Everlyn was a good person; but how to navigate this sudden hostility, springing unseen from the grass?
I paused for a moment, flustered, watching the elephant poke around next to the river. I knew I needed to respond carefully. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, but my immediate concern was more banal: I saw our remaining time together stretch into a four-day safari of silent loathing. But I couldn’t let her comments slide unchallenged, so I told her there have always been gays, and that she was wrong about it being a choice. “Are you like this?” she asked. I declined to answer. “Are you?” she asked again, in a tone that made it clear she would continue to ask until she received a satisfactory response.
“No,” I said.
This was not my first time lying while traveling. I have felt compelled to dissemble in Oman, Vanuatu, and, unfortunately, Alaska. But how defensible is this sort of behavior? Addressing persecution in Russia during the recent Sochi Olympics, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people.” That’s a stirring clarion call, but as members of a (comparatively) accepting Western democracy, are we obligated to travel transparently, asserting the case for equality by announcing ourselves in every corner of the globe? Or is it sometimes OK to hide in the closet of half-truths and outright lies–or rebuff questions completely if you can’t pass for straight? Perhaps this is a controversial question, but it is one that many LGBTQ people have had to ask themselves when trying to negotiate partners in hotels with suspicious clerks, or while expressing public affection in countries with conservative mores.
The knee-jerk solution sounds simple, at any rate: Just don’t go. Forget Kenya and the Maldives and Lebanon and Barbados and the other 79 countries with anti-homosexuality laws. Travel carefully through the United States, too, withholding tourist dollars from those nine states with laws strikingly similar to Russia’s “gay propaganda” rule. This strategy excuses you from the quandary of dishonesty, though it comes with a different sort of personal cost: 42.3 percent of the world’s cultures and natural wonders.
There’s also the question of how morally righteous this kind of boycotting actually is. “Boycotts are an indiscriminate sanction that punishes hundreds of millions of innocent people,” argued Sergei Guriev in a recent New York Times debate, “When Should Countries Boycott the Olympics?” He has a point. Boycotting is a blunt instrument, attacking everyone as equal offenders; the Outward story of an American drag queen finding love in homophobic Senegal shows how bluntness can preclude valuable life experiences. Besides, boycotting also denies people an opportunity to evolve their views through face-to-face interaction with difference. As an example of this, an Australian cattle rancher once told me I was the first openly gay person he’d ever met; he called me an “alright bloke,” as though I’d confounded some long-held assumption that gays were all sociopaths.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, another tactic against homophobia is brazen defiance, like a woman who goes to Saudi Arabia and lets her hair flow free. This is brave and admirable, but it’s also, in a depressing number of instances, completely insane. Consider this recent radio exchange between Stephen Fry and Simon Lokodo, the former Catholic priest who is now Uganda’s minister for “ethics and integrity”:
Simon Lokodo: … It is not permissible in Uganda, for single sex relationship. Finished. And if you are advocating that, I'm sorry I will treat you as a destructor of Uganda's ideologies.
Stephen Fry: Homosexuality is fantastic, you should try it, it's really good fun.
Lokodo: I will arrest you. I will arrest you.
Fry: I'm not talking about having sex.
Lokodo: I am the law here.
If Fry had said that to Lokodo on the streets of Kampala, the interview outcome would have been very different. Indeed, same-sex relations can get people incarcerated in many countries: India’s Supreme Court recriminalized homosexual acts this past December, for example; and Gambia President Yahya Jammeh recently called gay people “vermin,” vowing to fight them “the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.” (His choice of metaphor is alarmingly close to the one used during the Rwanda genocide, when Tutsis were dehumanized as “cockroaches.”) And physical violence is also on the rise around the world. While activists pour Stolichnaya vodka into the streets of Manhattan as a protest against Putin, they might have second thoughts about doing the same thing in Russia itself, particularly given the widely circulated video of a gay man brutally beaten after being asked, “Do you agree that we should kill you?” Other gay men, in Abuja, Nigeria, have also been attacked with nail-studded clubs in the past few weeks by a mob that claimed to be “cleansing the community.” Yes, it is right and just to chafe against persecution by denouncing it everywhere–but the cost of martyrdom can be terrifying.
Still, between boycott and brazen defiance is a third approach. This is one that allows for ambiguity, with responses bending to suit a specific situation. It is important to recognize that social change comes on a gradient; most people are incapable of radicalizing their beliefs overnight. Consider how long it has taken for the tide to turn on LGBTQ civil rights in America, a turn achieved through relentless effort and strategy over numerous decades; by comparison many other countries are just getting started. So keeping this in mind, if you feel you have to lie when you travel–lie. Because it’s possible to lie for the sake of self-preservation without being cowardly. It is possible, in other words, to deflect questions that lead to conflict while still provoking conversation and debate, telling it like it is back home where people are increasingly equal and free.
As for Everlyn in Kenya, I maintained my ruse for the rest of the week, but perhaps I should have given her more credit. We spoke at length, looking for lions and rhinos from the back of a truck, and she listened to what I had to say, asking “Are you sure?” I told her that I was. And then, on the last day, she surprised me with an ambivalent headshake. “I think in Africa we have a long way to go,” she said. “It is quite unfortunate.”