John Tanzella: Guide to gay globetrotting

John Tanzella: Guide to gay globetrotting

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As I was doing research about LGBT travel, I kept reading about how LGBT travelers were sought-after customers because we are “early adopters.” Having traveled quite a bit with the lesbian travel group “A-broad for Adventure,” I can say firsthand that we are an adventurous bunch. There are some things that are unique to LGBT travel. Two of my favorite moments happened in Greece. The first was expanding the mind of my Greek boat captain after he remarked, “I don’t mind gay women because you stay women; I don’t like men because they turn into women.” After 30 minutes of me showing him numerous wonderful trans men and drag kings, he relented. After a week with me, he became an ally and the group has been back to tour with him several more times. My other favorite moment was at a festival in Athens. My partner at the time and I were debating buying a bottle of wine from one of the kiosks. The vendor asked why we were so keen for the one particular bottle. It was wine from the Isle of Lesbos, so we explained that we thought it was cool since we were lesbians. He exclaimed, “What? So am I! What part?” I quipped, “All of me!” He was very confused until we said, “We’re lesbians, as in women together.” At that point, he scoffed and said, “That’s a homosexual. I’m a real Lesbian, born and bred. My whole family has been Lesbian for generations.” We decided not to argue.

This week’s profile could have probably given us a warning about such a cultural faux pas. John Tanzella is the president/CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. The IGLTA is the world’s leading global travel nonprofit dedicated to connecting and educating LGBT travelers and the businesses that welcome and support us along the way. Their annual convention is coming up in May and Visit Philly will present the IGLTA Honors Awards.

PGN: Give me a brief travel description of the hometown you grew up in.

JT: I grew up in Atlanta, even though I wasn’t born there. It has a very large, vibrant and active LGBTQ community. It’s a great destination spot because it offers a large diversity of things to do, from the adventure of the North Georgia mountains to the arts and culture of the city. There’s a lot to do both within and outside of the gay community, and the dining scene, just like in Philadelphia, has really exploded. The winters are quite short so it’s a very active city; there are a lot of bike trails, a lot of outdoor festivals. I think it’s a fantastic gay travel destination. But I’m a little biased!

PGN: I’ve been to Atlanta a few times and I know that it’s a very modern, cosmopolitan city but I still somehow, in the back of my mind, expect to see men in long coats and women in hoop skirts whenever I go.

JT: That’s funny. It’s like going to Dallas and expecting everyone to walk around in 10-gallon hats and chaps looking like cowboys! Though if you drive outside of Atlanta, there are some great Southern towns that weren’t destroyed by Sherman that have the beautiful old plantation homes you can tour and you would probably see a lot of period clothing there.

PGN: Tell me about the fam.

JT: I have two older brothers. With all boys, it was a real love/hate relationship; you’re close but yet you beat each other up regularly. And as the youngest, I was usually the one getting beaten up. But we had a lot of fun as well. We were born in Boston, so we were really into both ice and street hockey, even when we moved to Atlanta. My parents were in the air industry. They met in the ’50s when they both worked for American Airlines. My mom was working at the ticket counter and my father was on the ramp. He’d walk by the ticket counter every day and wink at her. She thought he was fresh and wouldn’t talk to him but he eventually wore her down!

PGN: Did you travel a lot as a kid?

JT: Oh yes, I grew up traveling. I was very privileged; we lived in Boston until I was 8 and during the winter we’d fly off to Miami or Bermuda on the weekends to escape the cold. And then when we moved to Atlanta, he was with Delta and we’d fly to New York to visit relatives or to California, all over the place. I eventually went on to work for Delta as well.

PGN: What was a favorite travel moment as a kid?

JT: I remember quite well my mother waking me up one morning and saying that I didn’t have to go to school because we were going to Miami for a long weekend. It was exciting to be able to play hooky from school and have a vacation!

PGN: What kinds of things were you involved with in school?

JT: I was involved with the scrapbook committee … wait, not scrapbook, yearbook!

PGN: [Laughs] There’s a difference there! I was about to put down scrapbook club to the “first sign you were gay” question.

JT: No, no, it was yearbook! I was also involved in a lot of sports: soccer, ice hockey, track.

PGN: You were a jock. What was a best or worst moment in sports?

JT: Ha, I wasn’t a jock, it just sounds like it on paper. Worst moment was having to get up for hockey practice. It was at 5:30 in the morning and it was treacherous having to get up that early, but I loved ice hockey. Hated the Flyers because I was a big Bruins fan. Sorry.

PGN: Apology accepted. When did you have your first inkling that you were gay?

JT: Way back, I’d say elementary school. I was attracted to my neighbor, David. We hung out all the time and I was madly in love with him. Then in high school, I was friends with a guy who was a bit of a renegade; he’d spend the night and we’d share a bed and at some point in the night we’d end up cuddling. The next day we’d never mention it and never talked about it. Nothing more than that ever happened. I’m not sure he was even aware of it!

PGN: OK, tell me about IGLTA.

JT: It was created in Florida in 1983 by a small group of travel agents and guesthouse owners to help their LGBT clients. Flash-forward 34 years and we have businesses in 70-plus countries around the world. From travel agents and guesthouses to cruise companies, tourism boards, journalists, LGBTQ publications, you name it. We’re historically a business-to-business organization, but recently we’re migrating more to helping travelers find places that are LGBTQ-friendly, here or in far-reaching corners of the earth. Going on safari and want a lesbian tour guide? We can help. We’re launching a new website with incidental tips for travelers, a blog site, some cool things for consumers.

PGN: My aunt and uncle used to have a magazine that listed all the restaurants and hotels where people of color could stay and cities where you had less of a chance of being lynched just because you wanted to get lunch.

JT: Ah, interesting, very similar to how we started. This country has some very ugly moments in history.

PGN: Is safety something you guys take into consideration? Especially now, when towns and businesses are deciding it’s OK to say they won’t serve gay people?

JT: Yes, the trans community especially is getting attacked left and right. It seems like we’re sliding backwards, here and in places like India and Russia, but on the other hand, there are a lot of places that are very forward-thinking as well. We try to work with the communities in the places where it’s problematic and help the LGBTQ-owned or-friendly businesses there by sending them customers or helping travelers from those areas find places to go. We do a lot of educational work with mainstream travel organizations.

PGN: In this day and age, when most people are travel-savvy and can book their own tickets, why should they use a travel agent?

JT: There are a lot of reasons, especially if you’re traveling to extreme places. If you’re going halfway across the globe, you want someone who has been there and knows the venues and attractions firsthand. A lot of times, travel agents have relationships with global consortiums that can get you extra perks, anything from a free room upgrade to a free bottle of champagne on arrival. And it probably won’t cost you anything because travel agents usually don’t charge customers for their services. Instead, their payment comes through hotels and wholesalers, meaning you can tap into a free service.

PGN: Why are LGBT people considered “early adopters”?

JT: We tend to go to places first. Even in some of the farthest corners of the world, we are looked at by the rest of the world as a trendsetting niche when it comes to a lot of things: technology, the arts, travel. We’ve done the mainstream things, and will go back to them, but we’re willing to try going to Cambodia or Vietnam before it gets popular. We’re willing to do adventure traveling and seek new experiences.

PGN: A surprising place you’d recommend to visit in the U.S.? My pick would be Saugatuck, Mich.: an LGBT-friendly arts community very much like New Hope, but larger and with both a lakefront and a beach nearby.

JT: I’ve heard that, but have never been. My recommendation would be to take advantage of the national parks. I don’t think our community does that enough … exploring nature in Yosemite or the Everglades. Our cities are great, but it’s good to get out of them on occasion. I love going to Longwood Gardens; they’re a member of ours and that place is amazing!

PGN: It is, and if you like Longwood, you should also check out Grounds for Sculpture near Trenton or Chanticleer in Radnor. [Laughs] I should work for you guys! How about a place outside the states? I’ve always wanted to go to the Pink Dot Celebration in Singapore.

JT: Singapore is interesting. Same-sex activity is illegal but it’s rarely enforced and they have gay bars and a thriving LGBT community. I’m glad you mentioned them because there are a lot of places that don’t look LGBT-friendly on paper — and we should be mindful of the culture and laws — but they can be amazing places we should go to and explore. I’ve been to a few safaris in South Africa outside of Capetown and Jo-berg and loved it. That’s where we had our last conference and it was my favorite one we’ve ever had. Bishop Desmond Tutu’s son spoke, along with a lesbian activist from the townships, and the minister of tourism spoke and gave a fantastic speech about inclusion. They also have amazing wines and the currency rate is great for Americans, so it’s really cheap to do things once you’re there. They’re an interesting place. They were one of the first countries to add sexual-orientation protections to the constitution but at the same time there are areas where we’re really not welcome, but you’ll find that in parts of the U.S. as well. I also loved Israel; Tel Aviv does a lot of marketing to the LGBT community but I liked going beyond that to places like the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is wonderful too, especially if you love history. Peru is a golden treasure as well; Machu Picchu and all the ruins are quite moving and spiritual.

PGN: What’s a surprisingly gay-friendly place?

JT: I’d say Italy. Even though it’s a conservative, Catholic country, they’re very welcoming to visitors of all kinds. I lived there for a few years and never experienced any problems, even traveling with a gaggle of gays. There are even several LGBT destination spots now — Gallipoli in the South, Torre Del Lago on the coast — and there are a lot of LGBT things to do. In Rome they have the Gay Village each year, a summer-long festival of live music, sport, dance, theater, film and other events at Parco del Ninfeo.

PGN: Scariest travel moment?

JT: When I was a teenager, I was flying from Atlanta to LaGuardia during a storm and we got hit by lightning. We were bouncing around like we were being shaken in a box. The baseball announcer Joe Garagiola was on the flight and he was screaming the whole time. He was yelling and telling the flight attendants that he was going to sue as he was throwing up.

PGN: That’s funny. I guess they should have had better control of the lightning! So are you single?

JT: Yes! And very available …

PGN: And take note, fellas: He speaks fluent Italian, the language of romance. OK, random questions: What’s a historical moment you wish you had witnessed?

JT: The moon landing. I’m fascinated with anything to do with space. I was just a kid but I would have loved to have been there at the Kennedy Center when it launched.

PGN: Laser vision or X-ray vision? I’d want laser so I could see through walls.

JT: I’d want laser so I could cut down the walls!

PGN: Who was your favorite band, group or solo artist when you were in high school?

JT: It’s a toss-up between REM and The Go-Go’s!

PGN: If you could own your own shop, what would you sell?

JT: A kiosk with juice smoothies and UGA Bulldog souvenirs.

PGN: A sentimental item you wouldn’t sell if someone offered you $10,000?

JT: A glass egg I bought for my mom in Venice, Italy.

PGN: Clark Kent or Superman?

JT: Clark Kent! You get the best of both, but with those handsome good looks with his black glasses.

PGN: What’s the coldest you’ve ever been in your life?

JT: I freeze every day in the IGLTA offices! It’s a constant battle of the thermostat each day! n

For more information on IGLTA, visit

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