Monday June 27, 2022

A Gay Pilot Reflects on What Travel Means to Queer Folks

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As Pride is celebrated around the world, a traveler recalls the cities that helped shape his identity and dreams.

Credit…Michael Hirshon

June 23, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET

“Bonjour,” says the barista as I reach the head of the line. I order a coffee and croissant, then take a moment to remind myself which country this cafe is in — a familiar quandary for long-haul pilots — and to confirm that the bank note I pull from my pocket is Canadian. Then I mangle a “merci” and step between the tables, each crowded with young tech workers speaking in euphonic blends of French and English, to a stool by the window overlooking the crowded street.

I first came to Montreal in 1992, when I was 18. My boyfriend back then — even after two years together, we remained so fearfully secretive that I often burned his letters — was keen to attend the jazz festival. I was indifferent to jazz, but I liked road trips and couldn’t believe that Pittsfield, our small hometown in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, was within driving distance of a French-speaking metropolis.

Now, 30 years later, I’ve flown to Montreal often as a pilot. Over the last few years, from the cockpit at night, the world’s large cities remained as bright and beguiling as ever, despite the pandemic. At ground level in many places, however, local restrictions had stilled and depleted the streets almost beyond recognition. In some cities, I, along with my fellow pilots and flight attendants, stayed in airport hotels that we were not allowed to leave. Unable to see anything of the destination I’d flown so far to reach, I’d sit at my hotel-room desk as I worked on my latest book, “Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World,” a memoir about growing up as a gay kid in a small place and a pilot’s love letter to great metropolises, and wondered if it might soon read as a memorial to a planet that had permanently dimmed.

Today, in late spring and with most pandemic restrictions lifted, Montreal is blooming. And as Pride celebrations around the world coincide with the arrival of a summer in which so many places are reopening, there’s hardly been a better time to reflect on the importance of journeys in the lives and hopes of queer folks.

For many L.G.B.T.Q. people with the time, money and basic freedoms that travel requires, the most straightforward reason to travel is the possibility of meeting other queer people. For those still in search of their identity, a well-worn aphorism — we travel not only to discover distant places, but to encounter ourselves — retains its poignancy. Other queer people travel to escape. Indeed, when intolerance induces a sense of alienation, travel can remind us that L.G.B.T.Q. people, who in the United States are roughly twice as likely to hold passports as the general population, form our own worldwide community.

Sadly, universal dignity and rights are advancing unevenly — where they’re advancing at all. There’s no eliding the challenges that L.G.B.T.Q. people may face at home or abroad, from the stress of repeated microaggressions to the threat or reality of imprisonment or violence. (Word of mouth is important; so are online resources such as those offered by the IGLTA — the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association and the U.S. Department of State.)

My earliest escapes took place within the security of my imagination. As a kid, I loved the idea of cities almost as much as I loved the planes I dreamed I might someday fly to them. I’d turn my illuminated globe and read out the names of the cities on it; I’d assemble model planes and move them down the runway I made on my dresser; I’d draw maps of the imaginary city that distracted and sustained me, particularly whenever I struggled with the realization that I was gay. Throughout the most worry-filled hours of childhood, I identified my hope of someday being myself with being elsewhere.

As I grew older, travel’s greatest gifts took the form of three early journeys to places where I foresaw the possibility of ordinary happiness.

In June 1988, when I was 14, I flew from New York to Amsterdam for a brief stay with two friends of my parents, before continuing to Belgium to spend the summer with my father’s family. I’d never flown alone before. I settled into my window seat — 33A — on a sky-blue Boeing 747, turned up the volume on my shiny new Walkman and gazed down on the lights of Long Island, Providence, R.I., and Boston, and on the lines of moonlit cumulus that drifted over the ocean like ghosts crossing the floor of a darkened hall. By the time dawn revealed the neat green fields on the ocean’s far side, I knew that I wanted to be a pilot.

That journey also helped me answer a more pressing question. After landing I was met by Lois, the woman who had introduced my parents to each other, and Titia, whom I hadn’t previously understood to be Lois’s partner. In the course of those days in their quiet home in Alphen aan den Rijn, southwest of Amsterdam, I witnessed for the first time the familiar routines — gardening, bike rides, a towering spice rack and good-natured bickering about the seasoning for the chicken — in the life of a same-sex couple. I began to understand that my deepest fear was unfounded: If my parents were such good friends with Lois and Titia, then surely they would love me no matter what I might someday tell them.

Next came the trip I made with my first boyfriend to Montreal. Three decades later, I recall that on that long-ago summer morning we proceeded north from Pittsfield in his Volkswagen, crossed the Canadian line and drove into the city. We climbed Mount Royal for a view of its namesake metropolis and wandered through the McGill University campus. After we’d checked into a hotel and sat down in a restaurant without anyone giving us a second look, I wondered if I’d been too pessimistic about the world and a gay kid’s future in it. On the drive home we listened to the Pet Shop Boys. I loved their London-centered songs, even if I couldn’t appreciate the urban geography — the West End, King’s Cross — they celebrated. Nor could I have conceived that one day I might move to London, fly airliners from the city, or have a first date there (a springtime walk through a leafy park) with my future husband.

Finally, in college, my fascination with Japan led me to study its language and, one summer, to work in Tokyo. My college teacher put me in touch with a former student, Drew Tagliabue, who lived there with his partner. When I met them for dumplings one evening, I marveled at the diminutive dimensions of one of their favorite restaurants in the largest city that has ever existed, and at lives lived more freely than I had imagined possible. That summer, Drew — who later became the executive director of PFLAG NYC — New York’s “partnership of parents, allies, and LGBTQ+ people working to make a better future for LGBTQ+ young people” — gave me a collection of E.M. Forster, in which I found the words that remain with me as a traveler today: “only connect …”

Armchair L.G.B.T.Q. travelers, of course, can hit the proverbial road with the many writers whose words and worldviews were shaped by journeys. Consider James Baldwin in Paris, Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, and Elizabeth Bishop, who broke the heart of a boy from Pittsfield and later lived with an architect named Lota near Rio de Janeiro. Some of the loveliest stories I know — of the ways in which travel may lead to self-discovery and new forms of community — take place in the San Francisco (“nobody’s from here”) of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” novels.

Like many Pittsfield folks, I’m inspired by the wayfaring spirit of Herman Melville, who wrote “Moby-Dick” in my hometown. Whatever the truth of Melville’s sexuality — as Andrew Delbanco notes in “Melville: His World and Work,” it’s not easy to separate the tantalizing clues from the response of “gay readers who find themselves drawn to him” — something impelled him to set out for the open ocean and the wonders of distant cities. Born in New York, he wrote easily of Liverpool, Rome and London, and of the turrets of Jerusalem, the dome-obscuring mists of Constantinople, and “the Parthenon uplifted on its rock first challenging the view on the approach to Athens.”

In my childhood, the low, creaky rooms of Arrowhead, Melville’s Pittsfield home, were a frequent destination of field trips. Only as an adult, however, did I allow myself to find the queernesses embedded in “Moby-Dick.” (Ishmael: “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair.”) And only as an adult could I place Melville’s having dedicated his masterpiece to Nathaniel Hawthorne alongside his loving letters to Hawthorne. (Nearly all of Hawthorne’s replies have vanished; according to Hawthorne’s son, Melville admitted he had destroyed them.)

My husband and I return to Pittsfield often. My parents passed away years ago, but several of their closest friends remain there and are like aunts and uncles. Back home in my first city, I sometimes imagine Melville alive there today, and wonder what further stories of faraway places he might set down in the farmhouse that still stands on Holmes Road and which letters he might keep.

When we’re not Pittsfield-bound, we like to travel overseas. On occasion, a hotel clerk has informed us in a hushed tone that our room — and what Pittsfielder wouldn’t be reminded of Ishmael climbing the stairs to Queequeg’s room beneath the gables of the Spouter Inn? — has only one bed. At other times we’ve been reassigned a room with two. Sometimes hotel staff refer to us as brothers (especially curious, as we’re both named Mark). More pernicious and wearying are the constant, nearly unconscious assessments we still undertake in many unfamiliar settings before one of us will reach for the other’s hand.

Nevertheless, when I look out on the world — to the teeming street outside this ordinary cafe in Montreal, or through the vast panes of the cockpit to a night-palmistry of glowing, interconnected cities — I sometimes summon the cautious optimism of Jan Morris, the intrepid writer and traveler who began her gender transition in 1964 and who, not long before the end of her life, recorded her hope “that in every row of houses, almost anywhere, in any country, decent people are living, only waiting to laugh, cry and be kind.”

It’s a faith I’d like to keep, I think, as here in Montreal I brush the crumbs from my keyboard, check the time of my flight home to London, and recall the red bricks of my childhood house in Pittsfield, the globe and the model planes in my old bedroom, and the view east over the backyard from my small desk. And as pedestrians amble past this window in one more of the metropolises I’ve been lucky enough to see, I’m reminded, too, of how much I miss my parents, who encouraged so many of my early journeys. I try for another moment to remember their faces clearly. Then I finish my coffee, lift my backpack and walk out into the street.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a London-based airline pilot and the author of “Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World” and “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot.”


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