big gay road trip

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silent flows the river don

russia-moscow-gay-pride-riot-ru192323This is a warning for visitors and tourists wanting to travel to Russia. Anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech to gays holding hands in public to wearing rainbow suspenders is now illegal. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Monday one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet. Ironically the new law comes just seven months before Russia is set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, expecting visitors and tourists from around the world. Additionally, the law has a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. It is now literally illegal in Russia to say that you are gay. It is illegal to kiss your partner in public – say, after you win a gold medal. It is illegal for a gay athlete to wear the rainbow flag. Or even to acknowledge during an interview that they are gay – or for the foreign press to acknowledge it – unless they mention gay sexual orientation in a negative way. Then there’s the seemingly officially sanctioned violence against gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Russia. It’s been made clear for years now that the Russian government will turn a blind eye towards anti-gay violence, and many have alleged that the Russian government is actually behind such violence. Will gay Olympic athletes and gay Olympic fans be targeted for violence while in Russia? No one knows. What we do know is that the International Olympic Committee’s response to the growing threat of violence against gay athletes and gay Olympics fans has been rather anemic to date. The IOC’s response has been so weak that Human Rights Watch recently sent the Olympic Committee a rather scathing letter demanding that the IOC take action to enforce their own charter, which bans discrimination. Activists are demanding cities like Los Angeles, Quebec and Paris should drop, or suspend, their Sister City relationships with Russian cities. More importantly, anyone thinking of attending the Olympics in Russia, should think twice about the message they’re sending to a country that appears to be rapidly sinking into its old authoritarian ways. Uncle Joe might be a distant memory to many contemporary Russians, but the countenance of Uncle Vlad is eerily familiar.

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playing for change

Nicely tying up my time in Jamaica with a rainbow, my final day on the island coincides with an announcement by the Jamaican LGBT rights group J-FLAG of a television campaign aimed at encouraging Jamaicans to love and support their LGBT family members. The US Ambassador to Jamaica, Pamela E Bridgewater, addressed a packed audience at the launch of the public service announcement, Unconditional Love, stating that “homophobia must be eliminated immediately, [because] as President Obama says, no one should be hated because of who they love.” Featuring Christine Straw, former Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe, and her gay brother Matthew Straw, the video is a public declaration of love and acceptance – not the typically bigoted rhetoric one has come to expect publicly from the island’s leaders. As a step toward greater visibility, the effects of the PSA can’t be underestimated. For too long people have dwelt in the fear of what they don’t know: when it comes home to roost that’s no longer a valid excuse. Change, it seems, is finally coming to Jamaica – whether people like it or not.

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a very visible visitor

The phrase “mixed feelings” doesn’t do justice to my long-held antipathy toward the island of Jamaica. Ever since dancehall artist Buju Banton had a late-80’s hit with the song Boom Bye Bye, which not only incited but also openly celebrated the murder of homosexuals, the country has been at the top of my shortlist of places to avoid. Jamaican criminal code prohibits sex between men (but not women, natch) and neither of the island’s political parties shows any support for gay rights. Moreover, according to both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the country remains one of the most homophobic places on earth. What has long irked me, however, is the tourism industry’s perspicacity in the selling of Jamaica as a carefree, inclusive society – a marked contrast to the reported high incidence of anti-gay violence and a widespread social conservatism fueled by religious zealotry and the economic fallout from globalization. Yet as I mature – somewhat glacially, I’ll admit – I see in the last half of that sentence the unintentionally ironic parallels to our own social failings and am reminded of reading an interview with UK activist Peter Tachell, who claims that homophobia is a 19th-century concept brought by British colonizers and Christian missionaries and not an authentic expression of Jamaican culture. Perhaps if I stop my finger pointing long enough I’ll find out for myself. Which is why, dear readers, I am currently on a plane to a place I never thought I’d go. And feeling so very – visibly – gay.

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sleeping with the niches

Time magazine recently posted an interesting story on what could be a burgeoning trend in LGBT travel:  the ultra-gay hotel.  And while there have always been gay-owned and operated guesthouses, inns, and B&B’s, what Brian Gorman, the founder of Lords South Beach Hotel, a recent Art Deco addition that bills itself as the country’s first large-scale, design-driven gay hotel, points out is that the time has come “to take the concept to a far larger scale.” As for Lords, that means working with Out magazine to develop a Concierge App listing top local LGBT hot spots, asking Levi’s to custom-design its gray and white jean uniforms, and preparing to launch their own social network so guests can (really?!?) check one another out.  But hey, that’s SoBe, right? What’s really eye-opening here are the plans for Out NYC, a massive, 90,000-sq.-ft. “urban resort” opening in 2011 close to Times Square (really?!?) and the revelation that LGBT travel pumps $63 billion annually into the domestic economy alone.

Read the full story HERE. (Just be sure to ignore the ridiculous hyperlinks scattered throughout:  “see pictures of the gay-rights movement,” “watch a gay-marriage wedding video.” Come on Time!)

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