A love letter to community
Author Calum McSwiggan reveals he has travelled far and wide but, no matter where he is, the LGBTQ+ community always makes him feel at home
Long before I set out on grand adventures spontaneously hopping from country to country, my love for travel and community was ignited by the family holidays we’d take to The Algarve and the Canary Islands when I was little. The stunning vistas of Portugal, the lively beach towns of Tenerife and the volcano-top restaurants of Lanzarote populate some of my earliest memories. The recollection that really underlines all of this, though, was the time my father lost his wallet on our summer vacation to Gran Canaria when I was just eight years old. It was a disastrous start to any holiday, no doubt, but one that would lead to a moment that would stick with me forever.
We needed to get to the nearest branch of my father’s bank to cancel his cards, and a quick conversation with the very helpful hotel concierge revealed that we should head to the Yumbo Centre. That meant nothing to my young naïve mind then, and I was far too busy concentrating on my melting ice cream to pay attention, but as we approached in the taxi I remember being excited by the giant cartoon dinosaur that adorned the front of the complex. He was smiling and wearing a bow tie, ready to welcome me to a whole new world that I never knew existed. A place that would change my life forever.
The Yumbo Centre, to my parents’ surprise, was an LGBTQ+ hotspot. A place that proudly waved its rainbow flags and was filled with gay bars, drag shows and all manner of queer cabaret. I don’t think I quite understood this at the time, but what I do remember is being drawn to the glitz and the glamour and, most importantly, it was the first time I’d seen LGBTQ+ people proudly living their truth. I vividly remember walking behind a pair of men holding hands and later seeing them share a kiss. That ignited my whole world. They were proudly and unapologetically sharing their love with everyone around them and, in that small, seemingly insignificant moment, they taught me that it was OK to be gay.
It’s to my parents’ testament that we didn’t rush straight out of there after we were finished in the bank – we stayed for dinner and took in a show. They had no idea that I was gay then, but they thought it would be good for me – and they were right. In the many years that followed where I questioned my identity and who I was, that moment took up free rent in my mind, and seeing how open and accepting my parents were to that environment meant that I always knew that they’d accept me on the day I eventually came out.
I found my community for the first time on that day in 1998, and I’ve spent my whole adult life pursuing ways to find my way back to it. Every time I visit a new place or a new country, the first thing I do is orientate myself to the streets where the rainbow flags fly. In some cities, they proudly boast gay villages with dozens of shops, clubs and restaurants and, in others, it’s just a quiet bar or bookshop tucked away down some side street that you’d have never even known was there. The one thing that I’m always guaranteed to find, though, is a warm welcome from the LGBTQ+ community there waiting for me. People who are just like me, who understand what it means to be different, who are proud of their identity and unapologetic about living their lives to the full.
Just after my 21st birthday, I started working as a teacher overseas and spent two years travelling the world by myself. It was an intimidating experience to put myself out there like that at such a young age, but the incredible thing about every day on that journey was that I never really felt alone. Wherever I went I befriended more LGBT+ people just like me and, although to them I was just some stranger from out of town, they always treated me as if I were family. Even when there was a language barrier dividing us, they still took me along for the adventure, on road trips through Northern India, deep into the jungles of Thailand and through more European cities than I can count.
It’s travelling that has taught me that, although wider society isn’t always accepting of queer people, being LGBT+ is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. Through living this identity, I’ve become a part of an incredible community that spans the entire globe, and for that I couldn’t be more grateful. The friendships and relationships I’ve made throughout the years are something that are still with me today – travel has a special way of fostering relationships, and I feel as close to the people I met on the road ten years ago as I do now. I still frequently chat with the two lesbian couples I travelled South Africa with, I still write to the boy I had a summer romance with in Canada, and, from Nevada to Nebraska, I still frequently hop over to the USA to see the friends I made there.
Growing up, I thought the most important thing about travel was seeing far-off locations but, looking back now, I realise that travel is not about the places you visit, but rather the people you meet. I often think back to that time when my eight-year-old self first found his community, and I’m reminded of that feeling every single time I hop on a flight, because I know that whenever I’m heading for some distant destination, I’m not really going away but, rather, going back.
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