It was on a family trip to San Francisco, in my early tweens, that I saw what I recognized to be a real, true to life lesbian for the first time. Two, actually. I could tell because they held hands. After that, I started seeing lesbians everywhere. Well, not everywhere. But around. Whenever we left home, I saw women, often much older than me, loving other women: On the beach at the Mexican all-inclusive resorts my family vacationed at, walking down the same Main Street in a small Northeastern fishing town, at a second cousin’s wedding and reception in a midwestern town. Vacation, it seemed, was about lesbian-spotting. This was the early aughts, when absolutely no appropriate lesbian television shows or movies or really even books for girls my age existed.
My sixth sense continued as I grew up. I’d scout out lesbians, studying them as if looking for clues. My overactive imagination would wonder who these women were and where they lived and if their families still talked to them and if they had to lie at their jobs about their personal lives to afford a very nice vacation. I’d look at what books they’d leave on their pool chairs, what they ate and drank, and what they talked about, if I could hear. I was curious, totally unaware of why I was so staunchly fascinated by these strangers, like objects in a museum.
Years later, I found myself embodying my role as the lesbian at the resort with my now-wife, on a long weekend getaway to Sandals South Coast in Jamaica.
“Where’s Mr. Nice Guy?” our server asked us before we could decide if we wanted a lobster roll or fish sandwich and fries. I was confused, wondering if he meant the staff member who’d brought our bags to the room. “Where’s your man?” he asked again, insinuating that two very beautiful women couldn’t possibly be at a couple’s resort alone.
We hesitantly explained that we were together, and after a few seconds, the server fist bumped my wife, like I was an accomplishment, exclaiming something along the lines of “nice.” That became the familiar approval message once staff learned of our relationship status, though many seemed to completely misread why two women from New York were traveling together.
While our stay included a couples’ massage, staff insisted two women would prefer side-by-side facials instead. I don’t know if anyone suggesting this has ever had a facial, but having a stranger extract clogged goo from your pores anywhere near your partner is not my idea of romance.
Sandals resorts banned same-sex couples in 1981, in efforts to maintain the chain’s exclusive image, allegedly prevent debauchery (still happens between straight couples on vacation, just FYI) and you know, to discriminate. In August 2004, following over a decade of criticism and pushback, the chain rolled back its restrictions, pushing for more inclusive marketing. It worked, swaying a proud, coupled lesbian like me to want to lay on the white beach and eat pasta chased by a frozen Bob Marley—three layers of slushie in the color of the Jamaican flag, thinned with a generous pour of rum.
I generally don’t travel where I’m not wanted, preferring to support LGBTQ+ businesses in LGBTQ+ affirming destinations, but I’d actually been blissfully unaware of Sandals homophobic past. We’d stayed at one similar all-inclusive previously, an adults-only resort in Punta Cana we’d picked based off colorful pictures on a travel deal site. We didn’t really consider LGBTQ+ inclusion when picking that hotel. Sandals, whose marketing is targeted toward heterosexual couples eager for a luxe romantic getaway to a white sand beach, merely blended in with me to the majority of mass marketing in America. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that there are zero lesbian resorts in the Caribbean, or anywhere, and the few gay properties cater to men.
The difference between the adults-only (party with friends) resort in Punta Cana and the couples’ (romance) resort in Jamaica wasn’t obvious to me until I experienced it: Everything was tailored for a man and a woman. Two women together were presumed to be friends, guests at one of the many weddings taking place on the property. This, of course, was nothing new: we generally don’t make our status as a couple obvious unless our surroundings seem safe. I was in Jamaica to relax, not to feel like I was being scrutinized or morally evaluated for holding hands with my partner.
Anywhere we go, including New York, our home, if we’re not obviously engaged in some type of PDA, my identity, as a femme lesbian, is often erased. When I’m out of my comfort zone, I’m not hiding—but I’m hyper-aware of my safety and surroundings: A taxi driver when I’m traveling solo doesn’t need to know my sexuality or relationship status; strangers at a couple’s resort, where we’re staying to unwind, relax, and hopefully, let our guard down, had to be clued in, and, as the hospitality industry is seemingly learning to do, be accepting, make us feel welcome, regardless of who we are.
On our last night in Jamaica, a folded piece of paper slipped under our door indicated that we’d been booked for a couple’s massage at the spa, just after sunset. It was unclear if the spa had ever accommodated a same-sex couple for a massage before (and I hadn’t thought to ask), but the masseuses walked us through a so-called love ritual involving the swapping of melting body oil candles and ostensibly enjoyed the same experience as any other couple staying on site.
As we slipped back into our oversize robes, a staff member encouraged us to relax out on the spa’s lawn chairs. Under the stars and illuminated by the light of the spa, several dozen towels lay rolled and styled across the grass. At a closer glance, they spelled out I <3 U, the arrangement adorned with kissing swans and sparkling red cocktails. We took a picture, laughed, and sipped our sugary drinks at the welcome cliche of it all. We were seen—and hearted—for who we were, if only in fluffy white hotel towels.
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