The Antipodean Dilemma of the Gay Traveler

I’ve lived in Australia for 4 years now, and I do love living here, but it’s location in the world can be trying.

If you have your family and/or business mostly in the Western part of the United States, getting there is about a 12-14 hour nonstop flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

(This also explains why Australians tend to view the US through a Californian lens, and worthy of its own post.)

Getting to the Midwest or the East Coast generally involves adding on a flight from California to one’s final destination, adding on an extra 3-6 hours.

QANTAS itself operates a flight from New York to Los Angeles (where you can subsequently connect to its flights to the Australian East Coast), mostly due to the presumed reputation of US carriers and also to get its own significant slice of the fare pie.

Now, the reason I bring this up, is because QANTAS has been in the Australian media a lot these days because of their new alliance with Emirates, a major carrier from Dubai.

Emirates has been making serious inroads into the Australian market because whilst it’s 13 hours to Dubai from Sydney, it’s also 5 or 6 hours from Dubai to Europe, and the Europe to Australia market is huge and competitive.

Whereas before one generally flew QANTAS from Australia to Europe via Singapore (where homosexuality is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced), or via Hong Kong (where it is at least legal to be gay), or Bangkok (same), now those who want to fly the main national carrier will be routed through the UAE, a country where there are significant legal differences with Australia, homosexuality being illegal and prosecuted being a notable difference, as this article in the Star Observer points out.

Even the Australian government itself warns gay travelers to the UAE.

The other main Australian carrier, Virgin Australia, has an alliance with UAE carrier Etihad Airways, to fly its Europe bound passengers via Abu Dhabi. (Oddly enough they don’t emphasise the daily Virgin Atlantic flight from Sydney to London via Hong Kong, but that’s a bit of a quirk of Virgin Australia’s ownership.)

Getting to Europe without going through the UAE is seemingly difficult, but not impossible.

Air New Zealand avoids the issue by having its London flights via Los Angeles, though it’s not the most pleasant transit experience from what I’ve heard.

China Southern, Cathay Pacific, Thai, and JAL have been encouraging Australians to get to Europe (and the US) via Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Tokyo respectively.

That said it is hard to avoid the intense advertisement by the UAE carriers. I gave in, even though I was fully aware that by doing so, I was giving money to a homophobic government.

So I flew to Chicago from Melbourne via Abu Dhabi.

The flight was present, but when I got to the lounge, I was not able to log into several gay-identified websites (AfterElton, JOY94.9, The Advocate), because they were blocked.

Perhaps this is a bit close to my heart, because I’ve worked in the LGBT media. Others might not be bothered by it.

For me, personally, the cost savings were outweighed by the moral compromise.

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My Other Side

2008 Pride March, St. Kilda, Victoria.

Image via Wikipedia

Longtime readers of this little corner of the Internet may have noticed that I’ve been a bit cagey about some of my work recently. Well, I think it’s safe to say that I can let the proverbial cat a little bit out of the bag: I’ve been a member of the white collar crowd, quite unexpectedly, over the past year.

It has fortunately come to somewhat of a close recently, and it’s been quite a journey. A journey in more ways than one, as I will be talking about my life as an unexpected business traveller on JOY 94.9 this Christmas Eve at 12 noon. If you’re not in Melbourne, you can listen online via the website or via JOY’s smartphone app.

I’ll be talking how I’ve been treated nicely and not so nicely by airlines and customs officers (including US ones), why I gave in and finally flew a Middle Eastern airline (and regretted it), that lovely subject of profiling, why you should always keep your e-ticket on you (even at Disneyland Paris) and many other stories (including some hilarious ones from my late mother).

By the way, 12pm Saturday 24 December in Melbourne translates as:

10am Saturday 24 December Tokyo
1am Saturday 24 December GMT
8pm Friday 23 December New York (EST)
7pm Friday 23 December Milwaukee (CST)
5pm Friday 23 December Los Angeles (PST)

And remember there’s also World Wide Waves, the little late night LGBT Global news and views show that I co-present on JOY 94.9 every Wednesday night at 11pm Melbourne. I’m a little more strait-laced on The Wave, but only just a little.

Tune in!

Homeland Insecurity

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As part of my current role, I periodically have to travel overseas, pretty much exclusively to the US. Fares being what they are from Australia, it is inherently cheaper for me to fly on Around-the-world tickets than just a simple return one.

I’ve done this three times and it has done me in. Not the stress of flying, but the stress of scrutiny especially in the USA and UK (the latter which has yet to fully strip off the America-in-Europe status it had during Blair).

Example:

I arrive in Los Angeles after a practically sleepless flight due to the decision by mid-level executives to take their families on holiday en masse. (Damn you, strong Australian Dollar!) I go through the US Citizens’ Line and hand over my passport and form, which clearly states that I am coming in on business. The officer at Passport Control takes a glance at it and stamps it.

I pick up my luggage and get in the next line for customs. Next thing I know, I get an officer who clearly was transferred from Mayberry [or Woop Woop, for those unfamiliar with The Andy Griffith Show]. He proceeds to look at my Customs form as if it was written in hieroglyphics instead of BLOCK CAPITAL LETTER ENGLISH, which is what the form asks you to do. Finally loading his English-to-English translator, he seizes upon the thing that makes the logical part of his brain feel funny: I had checked Business under purpose of visit.

He asks me why.

I tell him that my business needs me to be physically present for several matters.

He then asks why did I mark down Australia as my country of residence.

“Because it is. If I live in Australia, own property in Australia, have no intention of ever leaving Australia, and have gone through the process of becoming a Permanent Resident of Australia, then I am not going to mark down the US as my country of residence.”

“Calm down.”

Considering my general antipathy-bordering-on-animosity of Americans from West of the Mississippi River, I think I was relatively restrained.

“You look a bit young to own a business,” he said with a drawl that made me think he was restraining himself from adding the word “Boy” at the end.*

* Note for non-American readers: Many Black American males, especially those who went through or had close family go through Segregation, recoil at being called “Boy,” particularly when considerably over age 18. Apart the obvious disrespect it shows, it also reminds us of those halcyon days when we were considered 3/5s of a human being. The Homeland Security officer was White and at least old enough (not to mention trained) to know about this.

I point out to him that I have inherited my late mother’s business interests and if he wanted to go check with the Coroner’s Office in Wisconsin he could verify the death certificate I pulled out to show him.

Furrowing his brow, he passed me through.

I wrote a complaint the second I arrived at my hotel.

Now, you would say that this is one incident, but I found it indicative of the current attitude one tends to receive if you don’t fit a certain profile. Business travelers apparently must not be under 35, and apparently no US citizen can ever live full-time in a country other than the US. Duly noted, Homeland Security!

Now I did adhere to the long-standing advice to dress appropriately. Believe you me, I would definitely understand Homeland Security officers being suspicious of anyone who marked down “business” as purpose of visit while dressed in cargo pants and a shirt that read “I’m from Milwaukee and that’s not funny.” So I didn’t wear what I feel most comfortable in.

I cannot change however, my age, my race, nor my place of birth, and I have too much self-respect to even contemplate a moving back to the US even just on paper.

So as long as I have to keep heading there, I will have to put up with the fact that I do not fit their profile. They’ll gladly take my money (I’m still a taxpayer, both personally and corporate now), but still can’t seem to handle the fact that I exist and mean no ill will.

Funny that.