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Interview with Tom Gates

Author of Wayward: Fetching Tales From a Year on the Road

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Tom Gates in Vietnam

Author Tom Gates in Vietnam

Courtesy of Tom Gates
Updated June 12, 2012
Before he became a travel writer, Tom Gates was a music manager. He worked with artists such as Patti Smith, Annie Lennox and Sarah McLachlan. The business wore him out and he decided to quit his job, sell everything he owned and travel the world. His adventures took him to Chile, Argentina, Fiji, Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, India, England, Germany, Italy and France. Wayward: Fetching Tales From a Year on the Road is his short book of travel stories from that experience. As an out gay man traveling solo, we talked to Tom Gates about his adventures and any tips he has for LGBT travelers wanting to get off the beaten path and see the world. Tom has a great sense of humor and a unique way of seeing the world.

Lesbian Life: Tom, as a gay man you set off to travel the world by yourself. Did you have any fears of homophobia in any of the countries you traveled to?

Tom Gates:I picked places that I knew were going to be mostly gay-friendly, with a few exceptions. I didn't feel blatant homophobia living in small-town Tuscany, but I certainly didn't feel a gay pulse either. I lived largely in the closet for the month I was there teaching, with the exception of telling my co-workers, who always seemed to be on the lookout for the right in-the-closet-local for me. "How about him?" He smokes. "How about him?" I can't date a Luigi. "Him?" He's straight. All Italians wear tight jeans, and yes you can see his penis.

The most repressed I felt was India, where gay bars are less likely than icebergs. It was a long month. By the time I left, being groped on public transport was a relief, not an intrusion.

What advice do you have for LGBT people traveling to places where being gay is not accepted?

I can't fathom going to a place where I might be hanged for my sexuality, so I guess my advice is that of a ninny. I guess my advice here is that no matter where you are, there's going to somebody into same-sex get-down. Put your radar up. I talk about it in the book, but I was hit on at a bar with four chairs in Malaysia, and struck up a conversation during which he told me all about gay life in the country. Then tried to get in my pants. Malaysia is hardly a gay mecca and I am hardly an obvious gay dude. Somehow the vibe went out. As for the pants part, you'll have to read the book.

What kind of tips can you give us for lesbians (or any woman) who want to travel the world by herself?

First of all, do it. Second - spend some time researching whether or not our kind is welcome. I'm going to Myanmar over Christmas and already know that there's no gay scene. Fine. I'm going for other reasons, because I'm dying to know the culture there. BUT I KNOW in advance that there probably isn't going to be a bar called Splash, Gilda's, Rampage or The Hole. If you're doing a whole world tour, you'll really want to parse out breaks where you can be with Your Kind. Local sites are imperative, and weed through the ones that are really just hotel-bookers with half-assed reviews of bars that haven't been standing in a dozen years. Utopia-asia is a great example of a site that can give you a gay lay-of-the-land in one fell swoop. If all else fails, zero in on a gay guest-house or hotel and ask someone for all of the dirt. They're just dying to tell you.

There are plenty of blogs and stories about solo female travel, and you should check them out. I've met so many single female travelers I've lost count. It's not as scary as it seems. I coaxed my friend Susan into doing two weeks by herself in Spain, and she'll tell you it was the greatest adventure of her life, if not the scariest, because she was a woman alone. Now, ask her if she'll go to Nepal, and she'll get this dreamy look - YES, I can do that. It's been my experience that women who travel alone really dig it. I met an 80-year-old woman named Betty who was traveling alone on a backpacker bus. If she can, you can.

I loved your stories. Each one is a tidbit of an adventure. Some were funny. Some were harrowing. All were extremely well written. After a year of traveling, how did you decide which stories to include in the book?

I held onto the largely finished book for a year, because I was indeed nervous about "putting it all out there". It's definitely a PG-13 book and I knew that Aunt Becky would get her hands on it, and regaling my adventures in the backroom in Buenos Aires wasn't something I was planning to do at Thanksgiving dinner. "Pass the gravy boat, and yes, I did touch that in there."

Ultimately I picked the stories that moved me. I know that that seems narcissistic, but when I collected all of those stories, they seemed to develop as a narrative. The book starts with me at the end of my roped in my 'perfect' New York City life, and ends with me markedly changed, re-launching in LA a year later. What happened in-between changed me, and I only wanted to include pieces that showed how that change happened.

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