Traveling As A Gay Guy in Eastern Europe
There are some destinations where travel as a gay man is pretty easy, where you can hold your partner’s hand and not get hissed at, or where there are a multitude of places to meet up with guys. San Francisco springs to mind. So does London. Bangkok, New York, Taipei, Berlin, too. But, of course, not everywhere is so easy for a gay man, and one such region is Eastern Europe, an area I spent a couple of months in last year. Sure, things in Eastern Europe aren’t perfect for gay men but, unless you’re looking for gay resorts or intend on making out with guys in public, you don’t really have much to be worried about as a traveller.
Before I get started, I want to make a small disclaimer and say that this post is about being a traveller. I don’t have a deep understanding of LGBT issues in each of the countries I write about here, nor do I pretend to. I’m simply writing about my perceptions and experiences travelling as a gay man in the region, not as someone living there and facing various issues on a daily basis. Now that’s out of the way. So, what is it like being gay in Eastern Europe, a region of the world I spent a fair bit of time in in 2013?
Being Gay in Romania
Let’s start with a little story…
Mikhail rested his arms on the marble ballustrade and looked out over the gardens sprawled out in front of us at the palace in Iasi, a border city in north-east Romania. His brow was furrowed, taking in what I’d just said, and no doubt contemplating what to say next, without causing any offence to me. Rewind back a few minutes, and this is the conversation we’d had:
“I bet the girls in Korea loved you!”
“Haha, no, not really.”
“You’re kidding? You dated, right?”
“Yeah, I dated, but the Korean girls didn’t like me…”
“C’mon man! Don’t be shy!”
“I dated Korean guys. Guys.” Then silence.
I’d worried about Mikhail’s reaction, but needn’t have. An Orthodox Christian and my Couchsurfing host in Iasi, he told me later that he didn’t agree with homosexuality, but also that it’s not his place to judge people. He asked me how did I know I was gay, if I’d never tried sex with a woman before? I asked him the same question in reverse. He asked me about sexuality being a choice. I asked him if he chose to be straight. He told his girlfriend I was gay, and she giggled, and that was that. Mikhail didn’t approve of my being gay, but he didn’t treat me any differently for it.
Mikhail was the only straight Couchsurfer I stayed with in Romania. My other two hosts – a gay couple in Targu Mures, and a guy in Cluj-Napoca who had a ‘special friend’ visiting from Bucharest – reminded me of how gay guys behaved in South Korea. Reserved with public affection, but open and carefree among friends. In Targu Mures, there was much teasing and jaunting as one of the Coca-Cola cans we had said ‘Diva’ on it, when we stopped off for mici at a fast-food place, although the taste level remained high enough that no jokes were made regarding sausage consumption, at least not in English, anyway.
The verdict? Woeful nightlife and few places for gay men to socialise. You can’t walk around holding hands, but gay men do exist, as they do everywhere. Don’t openly declare your homosexuality to people you don’t know or trust, and you should be fine.
Being Gay in Moldova and Ukraine
Moldova and Ukraine have the among the hunkiest guys in Europe – I’ve never been a fan of the Nordic look, and like my men dark and rather rough-looking. The men in Odessa had me swooning at the Black Sea beaches, and given the shoes that Ukrainian women wear, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re among swarms of fag hags. You’d probably be wrong. Gay life in Moldova appeared to be non-existent, and Odessa’s consisted of a bar or two, according to my dorm-mate from Chisinau, who headed to Odessa a couple of days before me.
The verdict? Be careful in Ukraine. Like neighbouring Russia, homosexuality is not only frowned upon, but gay people are often targeted in attacks, as demonstrated by a homophobic crime wave that swept the country last year. There is progress in Moldova, but things are still far from anywhere near acceptable. Keep your sexuality under wraps, unless you manage to hunt down one of the tiny amount of gay bars in Ukraine.
Being Gay in Hungary
Home of numerous adult movie stars (or so I’ve heard), Hungary would appear to be a gay paradise on first glance. A quick search on a couple of gay websites that I may or may not be a member of reveals a large amount of rather hunky men that reside in the capital Budapest – you may even recognise some of them from their movies. And they’ll want to charge you for any time you spend with them, in or out of the bedroom. That’s right, Budapest is swarming with escorts. As for the guys who don’t charge? I found men in Budapest to have great bodies, unfortunate faces, and even more unfortunate attitudes. Being gay in Budapest didn’t seem to be much of a problem – certainly better than Romania, Ukraine and Moldova, but still, it was no London or New York. When it comes to being gay in eastern Europe, Budapest is possibly your best bet, and hopefully the guys there will be your type.
The verdict? Hungarian men weren’t my cup of tea, and gay life in the city seemed to be a little seedy. What’s gay life outside of Budapest? I don’t know, but I’d imagine that being a gay man in the likes of Pecs and Debrecen comes with more difficulty and fewer porn stars.
Being Gay in Slovakia
If you’re in Bratislava and want to head to a gay bar, just take a train for an hour and go to Vienna, in neighbouring Austria, instead.
The verdict? Go to Vienna.
Being Gay in the Czech Republic
Prague was absolutely choc-a-bloc with cute guys on Grindr, and if I hadn’t have been staying with my friend Sarah, I’d have likely met up with this cute Kazakh guy who I messaged back and forth. The guys were friendlier than in Budapest, although not quite as direct. As for Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city? There was a mere smattering of guys, with the majority being in nearby Vienna.
The verdict? Again, like with the rest of eastern and central Europe, don’t flaunt your sexuality in the Czech Republic. However, Prague has a fairly respectable gay scene, although if you’re in Brno, make a beeline for Vienna, if you’re looking for a multitude of men.
Being Gay in Serbia
The menfolk of Serbia made me swoon – built like the men in Budapest, but as handsome as the residents of Chisinau and Odessa. But there was a snag. Every guy seemed to live with their relatives, who didn’t know they were gay. I headed to a gay club with the Taiwanese diplomat I was hanging out with, and we were told it didn’t get busy until 2am – so we promptly left and, by the time 2am rolled around, we were fast asleep.
The verdict? If you’re looking for action, don’t stay in a dorm room. Clubbing? Be prepared to stay up late.
What do I want to show you from this post? That travel in Eastern Europe as a gay man is possible. Don’t let media reports scare you – unless you’re kissing or holding hands in public, it’s likely that you’ll be left alone. Gay men exist in Eastern Europe, and they’ll be keen to make friends with you. Go with an open mind, and enjoy what these wonderful countries have to offer.