By Ellyn Ruthstrom
While traveling alone recently in Australia and New Zealand I realized a couple of things. One was that traveling as a middle-aged woman I no longer have to worry about getting harassed by men in the annoying way that was so common when I was in my 20s and 30s. The younger men pretty much ignored me and I had some really nice interactions with men my age and older.
Secondly, I found that while traveling as a lone woman the hetero norms were easily placed upon me. There was an assumption that if I was married I wouldn’t be traveling on my own so I didn’t get asked if I was married, but I was often asked if I had children. As a non-parent I was often caught off guard by that question, as it’s not something I tend to ask strangers. The reaction to my being child free seemed culturally dependent. The Europeans and Australian/New Zealanders didn’t pursue it further, but the Asian women were often intrigued by why I didn’t have children and I had many interesting conversations about that.
So, it often felt that I was assumed to be a straight woman who was in between relationships with men. As a longtime bi activist I wear my sexuality on my sleeve and I’m often talking about my sexual orientation and my activist work early on in getting to know someone. While I was traveling I actually enjoyed taking a break from this part of my identity and dropping into the more traditional conversations between travelers. Where are you going, where have you been, how long have you been traveling, what have you seen? It wasn’t that it didn’t come up at all, but I reserved my own disclosures for when I was making genuine connections with people.
For the most part, I was staying in hostels in both countries and sharing rooms with between three and seven other women each night. Typically, I’d only interact with someone for a day or two before one of us was leaving for our next adventure. I’m currently single so there was no immediate need to identify a love interest. Only if I spent more time with someone did I feel the need or desire to share my relationship history or my identity with them.
When I was couch surfing, however, it was different. My profile gives people an inkling that I am queer so when they accepted my request I felt comfortable talking about my entire life with them and that was refreshing. I stayed with three different straight couples—one in Australia and two in New Zealand—and had wonderful experiences with all of them. Couchsurfing.org is extremely queer-friendly and if you want to stay with other LGBT hosts you can find them; however, I didn’t want to limit myself that way.
I did have my own queer agenda for my trip. I began my journey in Sydney so that I could attend their hugely famous LGBT Pride Parade, which they call Mardi Gras. Before I arrived, I connected with a lesbian couple on the couch surfing website and when I was there they took me to an awesome women’s club for a pride party. A half a world away from Boston and I could fit right into the butches and femmes, the baby dykes, sporty dykes and lipstick lesbians (oh my!), all sweating on the dance floor together.
Also while in Sydney I had the opportunity to meet one of BBWN’s early founders, Jean K., who has been living there for over 20 years. We were connected through my own gaydar working and tried to find other seemingly queer people. In the Sydney hostel I connected with an English lesbian who was there on business but was trying to enjoy some pride events as well. I shared a bus ride from Sydney to Canberra with an adorable baby butch from Taiwan who was all excited about her Mardi Gras experience and showed me photos of her travels around Tasmania with a bunch of other women.
While on Kangaroo Island I met a very quiet German woman who set my alarm off and tried to connect with her, but she was content with concentrating on riding her bike from Melbourne to Adelaide (over 500 miles) and didn’t enjoy small talk. I also had a fun evening on a boat in Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand sharing a meal and some good laughs with a lesbian couple from Sydney who invited me to stay with them another time.
Was I closeted as I traveled? I didn’t feel that way, though, like I said, I didn’t constantly disrupt people’s hetero assumptions about me. There is an anonymity accorded travelers as they meet along the road; you don’t have to reveal everything about yourself if you don’t want to. And I found that anonymity a rather unexpected perk to the whole journey.
Ellyn is the President of the Bisexual Resource Center and Bi Women’s Calendar Editor.
Featured image: Ellyn (left), with Jean