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Sometimes, raising hell in one’s own community just isn’t enough. And so, with a joyful year of writing for Metro Weekly behind me, I am off to change the world. I’ll be spending spring 2004 as women’s studies faculty aboard the S.S. Universe Explorer, teaching for “Semester at Sea” — a program sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, which takes over 500 students and faculty each semester on a global voyage to ten different countries.
Thus I’ll live as an out gay woman on a floating university, and lead my students on carefully planned field trips into the extraordinary lands of Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Vietnam, South Korea, China and Japan. Most of these cultures are ambivalent, at best, about gay rights and gay relationships. Until recently mainland China was in full denial about both AIDS and gay Chinese. South Africa, while adopting remarkable anti-discriminatory language for gay citizens into its post-apartheid Constitution, confronts skyrocketing AIDS rates and disputes the HIV-AIDS connection, resulting in a confused medical policy and drug treatment programs.
Conversely, Cuba’s AIDS treatment programs are by many accounts excellent, but its suppression of gay and lesbian “counterrevolutionary” literature and culture is well known. India’s diverse film industry and strong feminist spokeswomen have produced such pro-lesbian works as the truly incendiary film Fire, and the radical women’s magazine Manushi, but most citizens find their lives defined by oppressive poverty and ethnic or caste strife, rather than sexual identity.
Regardless of my opportunities to meet global counterparts in gay activism, opportunities enhanced by the growing resources of email and websites advertising gay tourism, my travels will be qualified by several phenomena. I am an American woman, a fair-haired Westerner, and thus I’ll represent white privilege and female promiscuity to many folks appalled by both U.S. foreign policy and our exported Hollywood porn. And for the scared but pampered students I’ll chaperone, my own reactions to regional homophobia, or strong feelings about having to leave my girlfriend behind (married faculty couples only!) must play second fiddle to obvious professional obligations. It’s quite a demanding regimen, but fortunately, I’ve been down this road before.
I served as faculty for Semester at Sea ten years ago, so I actually know what to expect. I know I’ll weep, in mainland China, over the extraordinary sight of same-sex friendships expressed with physical tenderness on the street. With unquestionable overpopulation, and a strict birth control policy, China needs to delay and prevent heterosexual relations that might cause pregnancy. And so, in contrast to our American straight-couple mania of public demonstrativeness, in China one sees female pals arm in arm, men holding hands, daily affection sustained in same-sex support networks. On that last trip, my gay students wept at the blissful displays of love that may not have been sexual, but which are so discouraged in obsessively homophobic America.
I know, too, that in debating “current events” aboard the ship there will be times when I’ll feel trapped, hearing smug straight students declare contempt for gay rights while I’m in no position to jump overboard and paddle to friendly Dupont Circle. But for the minority of gay kids enrolled in this travel program, my own willingness to be out will be a godsend, an island of queerdom. Indeed, on that last voyage I held a regular salon for like-minded young women and have remained in touch with many of them — almost all became teachers, by the way, after they finished college.
And there will be the sexual harassment aspect — not fun. As a frequent world traveler, I’ve handled my share of come-ons from aggressive street Romeos who equate “independent” American women with free-for-all ho’s. On the Semester at Sea voyage, I’ll be a woman without a husband amid faculty couples and faculty families with kids. No one will “see” the lovely and loving relationship I have with my girlfriend back home, though her framed photo will be a central object of dÃ©cor in my wee shipboard cabin. Lacking a male companion or baby, I’ll be a target and a curiosity in most cultures. The trick is not to condemn, xenophobically, all regions where a lone woman is a scandal or an object of pity. The trick is to use these months ahead to examine the many personal freedoms and relaxed gender codes I take for granted, daily, in D.C.
I’ll miss the lesbian social calendar of spring in D.C. — women’s basketball season, women’s history month events, the big pro-choice demonstration scheduled for April 25th. But I’ll return at the end of April a better woman for this journey, hopefully having connected with many colleagues in the global lesbian community. And baby, after all those years working at women’s music festivals, I’m a dyke who knows how to pack a duffel bag. Now, where’d I put those malaria pills?