By Hanns Ebensten; Vancouver, May 14th, 2004
As you can see, I am a very old man, and it amazes me to see the mayor of the City of Vancouver, and other dignitaries here today to welcome a homosexual gathering – because, when I was young, we were all criminals and lived furtive lives in the shadows, constantly in fear of being imprisoned.
If four or more of us met for dinner in a private home, the police could – and often did – burst in on us and arrest us for what was termed “gathering with intent to commit an immoral act – or a felony.”
When I did voluntary office work for the Homosexual Law Reform Society in London in the 1950’s, they wanted to offer refreshments to the helpers, but their lawyers warned them that, if they did so, we would all be jailed for gathering with intent to commit a felony; so cups of tea and cookies were brought separately to everyone’s desk, and that could not be considered a crime.
The word gay was unknown – or, rather, it had its original meaning of bright, merry, lively, joyous, frivolous, exuberant, mirthful. Homosexuality was never mentioned, was never discussed, not written about; and in order to establish contact we shyly asked one another “Are you musical” or “Do you like the color green?”
I have never approved of that flippant word gay being adopted to refer to homosexual men, who are often far from frivolous and are serious and sedate; and I tried for many years to propagate instead the use of Bithynian. Bithynia in antiquity was known as the homeland of beautiful men, one of whom was Antinous, the lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian – and the name Bithynian would be no more odd after a year or two of general use than the universally accepted word lesbian, a perfectly good word derived from the island of Lesbos, home of the great poet Sappho.
However, the word gay is now with us, and we are stuck with it.
In the 1960’s, when my dear friend Brian Kenny and I came to live and work in the United States, we were already old and had been in the travel business all our adult lives, and the last thing we wanted to do for our vacations was to join a tour group – but we wanted to raft down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and that cannot be done except with a group. We were thrilled by our raft journey down the most fabulous place in North America, but did not like our fellow travelers – families with querulous children crying: “Mommy, when are we having lunch?” fussy old ladies, and men who were often drunk – and we thought: “wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this with a group of congenial men, who instead of getting dressed up in cowboy hats and jeans and boots to go to the bars, would wear that right here in the real Wild West?”
I was the vice president of a large travel company and could not propose that, so I approached what was then the major gay organization, the Mattachine Society, and suggested that they sponsor such a tour – but they rebuffed the idea; I had it all wrong, they told me. Gay men did not want to rough it down that canyon and get too wet or too cold or too hot and sleep on the ground without bathrooms and toilets – no, what they wanted for their vacation was to stay in luxurious hotels and eat in fine restaurants and go to the opera!
Well, that is very nice, too; but I thought that my friend Brian and I were surely not the only gay men who were adventurous – but I had to wait until I opened my own travel company to take the plunge and try it.
And so, when I invented gay travel in 1972 – and when most of you here today were not yet born – word went around in the travel industry: “Have you heard? Hanns Ebensten has set himself up in a hole in the wall on 42nd Street in New York and is going to run tours for homosexuals!” – “ How the mighty have fallen!” – and Playboy Magazine had a cartoon showing a group of stereotypical faggots with sunglasses and waving handkerchiefs, above the headline South America, Take Them Away! and went on to say “Cruising the Amazon will take on new meaning this year with Hanns Ebensten’s men-only tour…to ally the fears of Nervous Nellies, the tour company stresses that the natives will be friendly” – but Mrs. Arthur Bunker, a highly influential grande dame of New York society whose travel arrangements I had handled for many years announced: “He will do it with class, and it will be extremely successful.
I was never keen on lying on beaches and taking part in mindless jaunts, partying and over-eating; I believe that the purpose of travel is to see places with historical, archaeological and scenic attractions, in hiking and climbing mountains and rafting down rivers, in getting to know people of different cultures and countries; and so I planned all my tours and expeditions for men who like me wanted to have memorable and meaningful travel experiences.
The rest is history.
Pan American World Airways refused to carry my groups. “We consider ourselves to be in the nature of being the United States’ national airline and as such cannot knowingly carry groups of homosexuals” they wrote me. Well, other airlines were less squeamish; but I had to tread very warily and felt obligated to warn all hotels, bus companies and the owners of the ships I chartered on the Amazon, the Nile and elsewhere that I was proposing to bring a group of homosexual men. None objected, but many were reluctant and wanted to be assured that I would closely control my tour members and they would conduct themselves with decency…but when I enquired about taking over all the guest accommodations on Marlon Brando’s private island of Tetiaroa near Tahiti, he reprimanded me for having thought it necessary even to inform him that we were gay – and then I realized how far we had progressed and no longer considered it necessary to warn anyone of my groups’ sexual orientation.
And we were not only accepted but welcomed wherever we went.
Sometimes an all-male group aroused conjecture. The learned lady docent who took us round the Zurich Museum sat us down on fold-up stools before she began her guided tour and rapped out: “Who are you and why are you here?” I explained that we were in Switzerland for only one day before taking the Orient Express to Istanbul and wanted to gain a quick overview of Swiss history and art. She gave us a good look and conducted us directly to the portraits of Swiss mercenary soldiers and pointed out their massive padded codpieces. “As you can see, medieval men were proud of their manhood and enjoyed showing it off,” she said.
The Orient Express stopped in Budapest for six hours, and I had learned that one of its famous old Turkish bath-houses had its weekly Men Only day on the day we would be there, so had written to the local agent that we wanted to go there. When the guide met us at the railroad station he cried: “Oh, you are all men! I am so glad, because I was worried about going to the Kiraly bath, but today happens to be Men Only day there!” Our visit there was a great success, because AIDS had recently closed nearly all bath-houses in the United States but was not yet known behind the Iron Curtain, so my tour members witnessed scenes they had never seen back home. I dressed quickly and waited for them to come up and follow me, but they lingered, and I became very worried because we had to get back to our train, and I was not allowed to go back down to the bath as I was dressed. Fortunately there was a man with whom I could communicate in German and I asked him to go down there and tell my tour members to come up fast; but “What am I to do:” he asked me. “Clap your hands and call out Yankees Go Home!” I told him; and he did, and it worked – though two of my tour members had to get dressed on our bus. But we made the train in time.
Once, when we arrived in Delhi, we were astonished to see a huge banner in the airport reading Northern India Goes Gay! and there were posters with the same message all along the streets to our hotel. “Is this for us?” the tour members asked – but no: the word gay was used in its original meaning and the signs referred to a forthcoming lively, joyous festival.
And when we arrived in Cuzco, in Peru, where all the banks and the post office and the city hall had large rainbow flags, my tour members again thought it was in our honor; but I had to disillusion them and explain that the rainbow flag is the ancient Inca flag.
So we rafted down the Grand Canyon, and went to the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama and played volleyball with the Cuna Indians; and we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and also made more intrepid journeys into remote parts of Peru which even the local travel companies there did not know – the historic Vilcabamba region with the Yurac Rumi, the “sacred stone” of the Incas, equivalent to the Muslims’ Mecca, and to the ruins of Kuelap in the rain forest, far more impressive even than Machu Picchu.
We toured Russia, including Siberia, at the time when President Reagan called it the Evil Empire; and we toured China and were the first foreigners there to climb to the peak of the sacred Huang Shan Mountain. We went to see polar bears and seals in Northern Canada, and Swazi warriors in South Africa.
We climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas and Mount Sinai where God revealed himself to Moses, and we sailed around the coasts of Turkey and in the Galapagos Islands, and on the Mahakam River in Borneo and slept in head-hunters’ huts, and on the Amazon, and annually on the Nile. We stayed with Bedouin tribes in their traditional black goat-hair tents, and in Zen Buddhist monasteries in Japan, and in the Greek Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos, where no females – not even female animals – have been permitted for a thousand years.
We stayed with the mayor of Easter Island and his family in the Pacific, where quite a number of my tour members found the handsome local men of greater interest even than the tall stone figures, and we stayed in the former prison cells on Devil’s Island off the coast of South America, where the resident members of the French Foreign Legion were always more than happy to socialize with us.
Arranging and escorting tours for gay men has been wonderfully rewarding; I have dealt with tour groups all my life and had some ghastly experiences with over-bearing, overly-demanding, inconsiderate, spoiled travelers – and it was truly heart-warming after all that to travel with gay men – and I must apologize to the women here today that I refer always to men – but I am not a woman, and I felt that it would be inappropriate for me to offer tours for lesbians, whose special travel requirements I do not know, as I know those of men, so that, for instance, I knew in St. Petersburg, in Russia, that before my gentlemen went to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum, they wanted to board the battleship Potemkin and meet the sailors and buy their caps and belts.
Let me give you just three examples of why I have found traveling with gay men so gratifying:
On my tours to Rajasthan, in India, we always made an overnight expedition to Jaiselmer, a magnificent medieval sandstone city; but the drive to and from it across the hot and barren desert is exhausting, and the accommodations at the government guesthouse are basic, and there is nothing to do in the evening. The married couples I took there always complained – but my gay tour members were intrigued by the local men’s colorful turbans tied in different ways, and asked our guide about them, and he explained that the men in every village have their own distinctive way of twisting the turbans. “Bring us some cloth! Let’s learn how to do it!” they cried, and they tied the turbans, and got carried away with the fun of it, and photographs were taken, and recently acquired bracelets and necklaces were brought out – it was a huge success!
Then there was the time when a flight was delayed en route to Egypt in London. Other groups would have given me a hard time and screamed “Why did you book us on this crummy airline?” but, as the flight was delayed two hours, and then two hours more, there was not a complaint by any of the gay men, who remained perfectly composed, made themselves comfortable and began to play Scrabble and bridge – and when departure was finally announced, and I ran to tell everyone to hurry to the gate, one of the bridge players cried: “Do you mind! We’re in the middle of a rubber!”
And each year when I board the SS Karim with my mens’ groups on The Nile – it was formerly the royal yacht of Kings Fuad and Farouk – the entire crew of forty men is lined up to welcome us. “Oh, all year we have looked forward to you” they tell me; and I ask them why, because we only come once a year and surely they have many other nice passengers the other weeks?” But: “Oh, no, Mister Hanns,” they say, “those other passengers are so rude, not like your gentlemen who are like friends and ask us about our homes and our families, and call us by our names, and treat us like human beings!”
So there we were. In thirty-two years we have been hospitably received everywhere, because we are well-behaved and respectful and suitably and modestly dressed.
When we travel abroad we must always show that we appreciate the country’s history, traditions and customs, and must not be flamboyant, with feathers in our hair or abbreviated clothes that are offensive to Muslims and devout Catholics and others, or in black leather with whips in our fists and handcuffs dangling from our belts, which is apt to scare and worry people. We will not be turned away from a prudish Caribbean island or from the Temple of Diana and the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus in Turkey, if we conduct ourselves in a dignified manner and are demurely dressed. We must be humble, and realize what a small place we occupy in this great big wonderful world of ours.