This Pride month, we are celebrating travel's capacity for discovery, renewal, and love through a lens of queerness—and its power to open up ourselves to seeing not just the world, but also who we are, in a new light.
Food is not the only way the tongue can travel. Freddy, an Adonis of a personal trainer in Bogotá, taught me that. Cozying up to that warm adventure in-between hooking up and dating, I’d lounge on his couch and he’d sneak up behind me to kiss me over my shoulder, then effortlessly roll onto the couch and into my lap—never breaking the kiss. He was rom-com wonderful. Every day together felt like a giddy montage.
I learned, though, that the vulnerability of bilingual sex is peak immersion. One day during it, Freddy whispered hot into my ear: “Te gusta?” And I breathed my reply into his neck: “Si, me gusta mucho.”
This was not Neruda. He asked me simply if I liked [something unprintable] and I replied that, yes, I liked it a lot. But boom! It shattered the gringo tedium of “Dos tacos por favor” or “¿Dónde está el baño?” and unlocked a queerness within my queerness—in Spanish, I had an emotional speakeasy, a second soul. Spanish has come to feel like it allows me to be my queerest self, which was a vibrant, joyful surprise even unto me.
It’s not as Jeckyl-and-Hyde as it might sound. More like being a double agent. Flexibility and fluidity reign. There are suddenly infinite more ways to express ideas and feelings. So much more to love. Bilingualism is the fastest way for empathy to immigrate into hearts and minds. A remarkable confidence follows that self-awareness.
A 2006 study of folks bilingual in English and Spanish found that knowing both languages made them more agreeable, conscientious, and extroverted, even in their native tongue. I don’t know how to play music or swim but I imagine it’s similar: a fluency with worldly pursuits creates an aura that can be felt even when a superpower is dormant. It's the way you can spot a surfer even in a grocery store. My superpower—well, now my other superpower—is my queerness en Español.
That transcendence of queerness is what learning another language is, too: you go from memorizing vocabulary and conjugations to inhabiting another way of being. They are both rooted in expressive exploration: who you are in leather or drag, in threesomes or gloryholes, as a guncle or a diva, and who you are in the aftermath of a bully’s violence or a relative’s disgust. Queerness is always the road less traveled and, on that road, Spanish has been my other coming out: the way beer becomes cerveza or love becomes amor, Richard becomes Ricardo and suddenly everything feels grande.
In English, for example, I have a habit of rambling and unraveling tongue-tied anxiety with dumb phrases like “I know, right?” or “so anyway…” Ugh. Now, whenever I can, I skip English and summon Spanish. I conjure it, my words chosen with the intentionality of spellcasting. The effect is that instead of saying “I was thinking—I dunno—maybe we could get dinner together sometime or whatever,” I say, “Let’s have dinner.” Simple. Direct. Clear. Confident. Richard is a nice enough guy, but Ricardo says and does things Richard would never do. Ricardo says “culissimo” infinitely more often than Richard says its counterpart (bootylicious). In Spanish, my safeword is más.
Flirting with a man over beers and hookahs in Bilbao, Spain, I complimented him on his English (in Spanish). He explained that he had worked in Manchester. Oh, I chimed, doing what? Turns out he was a player for Manchester United, arguably the world’s most famous fútbol club. What’s Spanish for zoinks?
Instead of imploding with embarrassment or recoiling in what I can only describe in English as womp-womp, my inner Ricardo changed the topic of conversation to this footballer’s bandaged thumb. He had sliced it in a kitchen accident. “You don’t need your hands for fútbol anyway,” I said. “But!” I added, with a jokingly dramatic sweep of my hand across his bewildered entourage, “If any of them hurt you, just tell me. I am stronger than I look.”
It was the biggest laugh I’ve ever gotten. And we had a raucous—if not romantic—rest of the night. All thanks to Ricardo.
The miracle here is that this is two-way magic. Spanish speakers can arc into romance by way of English, too.
Strolling into a bar in Havana, I asked my paramour what he wanted to drink. “Life,” he answered in English as he squeezed my hand. When I told another at a dance club that I had no rhythm, he laughed. “Lies!” he said, knowing I’m a writer. “You have rhythm. It’s in your hands and your tongue but you have it.” On a sunset beach in the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana, I told a proud singleton that he put el sol en soltero—the sunshine in being single. He was the sun and I was the moon, we agreed. “A shame they never touch,” I shrugged. Then he reminded me of eclipses and said in English “You put the lips in eclipse.” By searching for meaning in another language, we found deeper meaning in ourselves and our shared moments. Sin prisa pero sin pausa. No rush but non-stop.
In Peru’s Machu Picchu Pueblo this spring, I met Mateo. A karaoke bar and a hot tub later, he sighed happily. “Talking with you is like reading a book,” he said. “I want the next page.”
I was shocked. Mateo had said it in English—the first time he'd revealed his command of the language all night. Ricardo had met Matthew. I asked why he had switched sides, and he seemed suddenly embarrassed. “English is for school and jobs and tourists and Hollywood,” he said in Spanish before switching to English, mostly: “I know your…your…orejas (ears) listen my words,” he said. “Now I want your heart to listen me.”
So we shared a kiss beyond the bounds of words. Some truths are constant across languages and Spanish has taught me this one: that a kiss is the farthest you can travel in a single breath.
English on his lips and Spanish on mine, our bilingualism built a bridge that spanned souls. Our shared confidence and shared intimacy—and the entwined empathy that followed—did have a downside, though: the kiss ended abruptly because we were both smiling too much. Cuidado.
For more queer love stories, head here.