All travelers are different and I’ve included a LGBT column on the website to talk about issues that affect those members of our community. I want everyone to have the travel knowledge they need! In this semi-monthly column, we hear from voices in the LGBT community about their experiences on the road, safety tips, events, and overall advice for other LGBT travelers! Returning this month is our column leader, Adam from travelsofadam.com.
It was raining when I walked up to the park entrance, decked out in a brightly colored banner and a row of security staff checking bags. In front of me, a guy was wearing a pink tutu under a blue poncho and two girls to my right had faces painted with more colors than I could count. Ahead of me, I could hear the beats from a faraway stage. A little while later, the rain clouds disappeared and a rainbow lit up the sky. No, this wasn’t your typical music festival, nor was it a Gay Pride festival — it was Milkshake Festival in Amsterdam.
Milkshake Festival takes place the week before Amsterdam’s annual Gay Pride and is labeled as a festival “for all who love” (raises hand). Most major queer performers, from Peaches and Mykki Blanco to crossover indie acts like Hercules and the Love Affair, have performed here. There are bright colors, crazy costumes, incredible performances, half-naked dance parties, drugs, and people of all shapes and sizes. It’s wild and it’s wonderful! And it’s more than just a celebration of LGBT pride — it promotes and celebrates queer culture like only a multicultural, independent, and original festival can.
Gay Pride festivals in the West were once opportunities to be visible and publicly demand equal rights; as more and more of those rights have materialized (especially in the past few years), the political aspect of many Gay Prides has diminished. That’s not to say it’s totally gone (read on), but these days, a lot of our Gay Pride celebrations center around headline bands, parades, parties, and plenty of skin.
Gay Pride is a lot of fun — but the fun doesn’t have to stop there. All year long, there are dozens of festivals and events celebrating LGBT culture, sports, and arts, some specialized for different segments of our community or particular fields of interest. It’s a great way to experience a new destination, surrounded by like-minded travelers and locals. These are some of my other favorite events and festivals worth traveling for:
LGBT Film Festivals
Even if you’re not a film aficionado (spoiler alert: I am!), film festivals are a great way to experience LGBT or queer culture. There are literally hundreds of LGBT-specific film festivals taking place around the world. From small towns like Bloomington, Indiana (Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival) to less-than-expected cities like Fort Worth, Texas (Q Cinema), these are often fun events to meet other LGBT locals and see outstanding cinema. And the best part? They happen year-round!
At the Q Cinema Film Festival this winter in Fort Worth, local and regional filmmakers from Ohio to Louisiana premiered their works. It was a small and casual affair at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, catered by local businesses and an easy place to meet filmmakers, actors, and documentarians between screenings. “Professional lesbian” stand-up comic Vickie Shaw (who has performed on LOGO and Olivia Cruises and at HRC events) had the audience in tears from laughter. Featuring the best empanadas I’ve had in Texas, it was a fun weekend.
Bigger LGBT film festivals like the legendary OutFest in Los Angeles or BFI Flare in London are as popular for industry insiders as they are for local film fans and visitors. At these larger events, you generally need tickets in advance — especially for big-picture premieres. In February, the leading Berlinale International Film Festival presents the Teddy Awards for excellence in LGBT cinema; past Teddy winners — about murder, mystery, sexual desire, and everyday themes — have often been attended by A-list celebrities (cue James Franco, who seems to show up to every gay event).
Why visit an LGBT film festival? While more often than not big Hollywood productions don’t include LGBT characters (exception this Oscar season: Moonlight), at an LGBT film festival, you’ll find films touching on every aspect of queer identity and culture. (Check out my picks for independent gay cinema from 2016.) Besides, everyone loves to see a bit of themselves portrayed in the movies. Movies can also be the perfect kind of escapism, the chance to see different scenarios related to our own personal experiences or emotions.
Art, Music, and Theater Festivals
Sure, it’s a stereotype that a lot of those in the art, music, and theater industries might identify as LGBT, but that’s what makes these institutions so colorful. Around the world, there are many cultural festivals and events tailored specifically to LGBT artists and performers. Each May, the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival celebrates LGBT artists, writers, and performers in the hometown of celebrated gay writer Oscar Wilde. Theater companies from around the world get the chance to show their work — including but not limited to musicals, dramas, comedies, and cabaret — over two weeks throughout Dublin. With both free and paid events, it’s a fun way to experience Ireland’s LGBT culture and history.
Afterward, a lot of artists bring their successful submissions to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Though not explicitly gay, it always includes plenty of LGBT artists. And naturally, because of the large number of international performers and creatives in Edinburgh during the month — whether as spectators or performers — there’s just a great big gay vibe in the city.
Gay Sporting Events
While a lot of the biggest gay events occur in the summertime, there are plenty of gay festivals each winter, too. Gay ski weeks are a thing: imagine drag queens in hot tubs, daytime adventures from skiing to snowshoeing (or lounging by the fireplace with a hot cup of cocoa), and steamy, late-night parties. European Gay Ski Week takes place in Switzerland each winter, while North America’s largest ski area celebrates Whistler Pride & Ski Week each January. There’s a definite party vibe to these ski events, but in such a relaxing and peaceful setting, it’s easy to enjoy as a couple or a single.
Gay sports don’t just happen in winter, though; there’s also the annual World OutGames that rotates locations around the world (this year it’s in Miami). At the OutGames, you’ll find tens of thousands of athletes competing in everything from beach volleyball to wrestling (and even chess!), as well as cultural happenings and a human rights conference (see below). At the OutGames 2013 in Antwerp, the entire city turned into a festival, with fit men and women storming the city. Suddenly, gay bars and clubs were crowded with LGBT tourists and the whole city was decked out with rainbow flags. The other major LGBT sporting event is the quadrennial Gay Games, taking place next in Paris in 2018, with a similar goal to promote equality through sport.
And if cowboys and cowgirls are more your style, there are the many gay rodeos in the United States organized by the International Gay Rodeo Association.
Attending any gay sporting event as an athlete is always fun (plus there’s the prospect of trophies and prizes), but usually these are big events that overtake towns and cities, turning them into temporary queer meccas and creating a way for anyone to enjoy somewhere new safely and comfortably out.
Lesbian & Transgender Festivals
Some segments of the LGBT community are regularly sidelined in many events and festivals. Lesbians have a handful of events around the world to look forward to each year, however — from the annual ELLA International Lesbian Festival each summer in Spain to The Dinah in Palm Springs. Both are heavily attended by international visitors and include music acts, parties, and more — all with a very festive vibe and in summery locations, so expect bikinis, sunglasses, and lots of swimming (or poolside lounging).
Since 2006, the National Transgender Charity has hosted an annual transgender festival called Sparkle in the Park in Manchester (arguably the UK’s gayest city), at the Sackville Gardens (where a National Transgender Memorial stands) in the city’s gay village; last year there were over 12,000 attendees. There’s free music, entertainment, and educational workshops. Alongside the festival, a “fringe” event features plenty of cabaret, music, theater, and comedy.
Political, Human Rights, and Tech Events & Conferences
In addition to the many fun festivals and events described, many LGBT events are also still entrenched in serious political activism. Even the gay sporting events like OutGames run alongside LGBT conferences dealing with activism and politics. And many Gay Pride festivals are attended by local political action groups, political parties, and activist organizations.
But there are also many conferences year-round by national and global organizations dealing exclusively with human rights. In Fort Lauderdale each autumn, the city hosts the Southern Comfort Conference where transgender activists and educators gather for learning and networking. Other activists and allies meet each year at conferences organized by OutRight International, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the ILGA — offering community leaders from around the world a chance to meet and plan LGBT equality initiatives around the world.
Gay Circuit Parties
There are mega-parties that take place annually around the world, catering to different segments. For example, Sitges Bear Week hosts thousands of bears on the Spanish beaches each September, while Provincetown attracts bears and their admirers for the annual Provincetown Bear Week each July. Then there are circuit parties, popular for a particular subset of gay men. While these mega dance-parties have been around for decades, it’s Barcelona’s annual Circuit Festival which has made the mega electronic-music parties popular again.
Barcelona’s Circuit Festival has become so big and so popular since starting up in 2007, the entire city seems to be overflowing with hunky gay men for weeks leading up to and following the festival. With beach and foam parties, all-day & night DJs, and (so it seems) a rule that requires men to go topless, similar gay circuit festivals are now popular around the world from Bangkok (GCircuit during Songkran) to Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and WE Party in Madrid.
Similar parties to the circuit festivals include Southern Decadence in New Orleans (friends swear by it being one of the best parties in Nola, the “gay Mardi Gras”) and White Party in Miami. And then there are the Gay Days Orlando — the first Saturday of June where tens of thousands of gays and lesbians descend upon the Magic Kingdom and at hotel pool parties throughout the city for sun and fun.
Other LGBT Events
Not all LGBT events are based around big parties, however. Just as the full LGBTQ spectrum includes so many varied sexualities and gender identities, it makes sense there’d be an equally wide range of events for every type of individual. In Sonoma each Spring there’s the Gay Wine Weekend for three days of tastings, dancing and food in a picturesque setting. In Slovenia, Pink Week is a week-long experience through the country including wine tastings, museum tours and culminating in a formal ball to benefit LGBT organizations in the country. Vienna’s annual Life Ball takes place in the Vienna City Hall and is one of the world’s biggest AIDS charity events, while Black Tie in Dallas, Texas similarly raises donations each year for both local and national LGBT organizations.
Events like the #UNIT Festival in Berlin or the Lesbians Who Tech summit (this year in San Francisco) promote LGBT technology and science for general audiences. In two of the world’s biggest tech hubs, these are events where technology and queer culture intersect, giving LGBT start-up employees and entrepreneurs the chance to network, brainstorm, and discuss ideas and innovations in related industries. Past presentation topics have included hackathons, feminism, and virtual reality — all from a queer perspective — and LGBTQ apps and queer history (or in some cases, both at once).
Family-friendly LGBT events are increasingly popular as well, including many zoos from Berlin to Washington, D.C. which open up for specific “gay days” to promote family equality. Check local LGBT community centers for the most up-to-date listings of similar events. Globally, Wikipedia has the most comprehensive list of LGBT events, while Travel Gay Europe and Travel Gay Asia both have up-to-date event, festival, and party listings for each respective continent. Sometimes events are canceled due to poor attendance, so always make sure to check with organizers when making travel plans.
To be LGBTQ is to be a part of a really diverse community. Luckily for us, there are so many different LGBT events for so many different niches and interests, it’s easy to find a cool festival or event abroad or at home. Traveling to an event like this is a great way to meet other like-minded travelers — those that share the same passions and interests — or to experience a new place through a comfortable or familiar lens.
P.S. – If you would like to help underprivileged students travel more and expand their world view, we’re currently fundraising for a group of students to go volunteer in Ecuador. Help us reach our goal, change someone’s life by exposing them to the world of travel, and get some travel swag in the process.