When we first planned our trip to Tanzania, illness I looked up information for gay and lesbian travelers in Lonely Planet Tanzania. That’s when I read, “Homosexuality is illegal in Tanzania, incurring penalties of up to 14 years of imprisonment. Discretion is advised as gay relationships are culturally tabboo and public displays of affection are frowned down upon.”
Despite 50+ emails to international LGBT organizations, I failed to locate any Supergays to interview in Tanzania. Apparently, any Supergays that do exist are very wary about speaking out. Ex-pats living in Tanzania warned us of the conservative culture. One told us about an American Peace Corp volunteer who had to be evacuated when locals in her village discovered that she was gay and began to threaten her life.
So why did we chose to travel to such an unwelcoming country? Well, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro has been on my bucket list since I was a teenager, and Jenni has always dreamed of going on a Serengeti safari. Before going though, we consulted with Supergay Jody Cole, director of Wild Rainbow African Safaris who recently climbed Kilimanjaro to raise $20,000 for Equality California. In our interview with Jody, she explained how she’s managed to pull off running an LGBT safari company in East Africa and advised us to use good judgement and stick to the tourist routes.
VIDEO: Did all of us make it to the top of Kili? (unfortunately, no) Did we find all the animals from the Lion King? (yes, except for Timon who apparently doesn’t live in Tanzania) Did we queers make it out without incarceration? (yes, thank goodness, but not without internal trials and tribulations)
If we were entering a danger zone, at least we weren’t doing it alone. Our close friends from San Francisco and another lesbian couple, Krista and Gilda, would join us for our African adventure. Krista arrived first to join us on our 7-day climb up Kilimanjaro.
On the night of the summit, we left camp at 10pm to start our ascent. Unfortunately for us, we hit a bad patch of weather. A very bad patch. Temperatures dropped to -31F, the wind blew so hard we struggled to stay upright, and our water packs froze along with our fingers and toes. On top of all that, trekking at an altitude at 18,500 feet ain’t no picnic. Despite her best efforts, the thin air eventually got the best of Jenni – just two hours away from the rooftop of Africa, she lost vision in her left eye due to the altitude and had to descend.
But Krista and I kept going, and as the morning sun came up we made it to the top. It was as if we were walking on the moon, and we saw the most incredible sunrise of our lives over the entire continent (see photos here). Before descending, we staked a rainbow flag in the ground and left it there to represent all of the LGBT individuals in Tanzania who have to live in silence due to fear for their own safety.
Luckily, Jenni’s eyesight returned once she got off the mountain. After taking the best shower of our lives, we picked up Gilda at the airport, repacked our bags and headed out into the bush for our safari. When we arrived at our campground in the middle of Serengeti, we were shocked that there were no fences or guards. A hyena stole one of Jenni’s sandal from outside our tent (why he wanted a rubber fake croc, I have no idea). An elephant also paid a visit to drink out of the water tank. Safari life felt like living in the middle of The Lion King.
Our last week in Tanzania we spent on the beach in Zanzibar, one of the world’s best teal blue waters with white sand. In this romantic setting, we met many honeymooning Western couples walking hand-in-hand on the beach. I couldn’t help but feel envious of their freedom. Frankly, it’s been stressful traveling here. We’ve had to be extremely conscious about not holding hands, not being affectionate, and not disclosing to anyone that we are any more than a group of friends. Krista tells her internal conflicts of disclosure in My Beard: A Tanzanian Love Story and Gilda writes about the disrespect of her relationship in Turning Me: A Failed Mission by an American Tourist.
Looking at our pictures, you can understand why Kilimanjaro, the Sergeneti, and Zanzibar make Tanzania the best tourist destination in Africa with unforgettable places that we loved. The people also offer an Hakuna Matata, “no worries” attitude. But, as queer tourists we found it hard to adapt to a carefree way of life here. We look forward to the day when LGBT Tanzanians gain visibility and basic safety. Until then, we can only hope that they know that outside their government and country, there are people who support their freedom as a basic human right.