A couple looking out a window.
Pierluigi Longo
Couples Travel

How Moving to Zürich Opened My Eyes to A World of Acceptance

As a New Yorker, I was seeking the freedom I was used to. In my life in Zürich, I found a different version of it.

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.

In March 2010, I flew to Switzerland from my home of New York City to write a story on Zürich’s art scene. I’d been to the city once before and was sort of nonplussed by its squeaky-clean perfectness and one percent-er banker vibes, so I wasn’t expecting much from the visit other than seeing some great art and eating some excellent cheese. But on that trip, I happened to meet Ralph, a Swiss architect—and slowly, my perceptions of the city and the country began to change. 

On our second meeting during that visit, Ralph threw me on the back of his Vespa and we buzzed around town on a tour of Zürich’s austere, anti-Baroque architecture, which included landmark works by Le CorbusierFosterCalatrava, and Shigeru Ban. On other dates, he showed me his favorite Cordon Bleu restaurant, took me to his local Zürich badi—lidos that line Zurich’s lake, canal, and rivers—and brought me to some off-the-radar neighborhoods largely ignored by travel guides. By the end of the visit, I had two brand new loves—Ralph and Zürich. 

For the next three years, Ralph and I were in a long-distance relationship—him joining me in Boerum Hill, my Brooklyn neighborhood, every few months, and me flying to Europe on work assignments, always slipping Zürich into the itinerary. Up until then, I’d loved where I lived and couldn’t see myself living anywhere else, but with each visit, the country tugged at my heart and softened my gruff New York edges. 

Every long-distance relationship reaches that inevitable crossroads where one person has to move or the relationship ends. We decided it was time for me to get Swissed, though I would continue to vote and pay taxes in the U.S. and maintain dual citizenship. So, without looking back, and with ten years of New York in me, I said “goodbye to all that” as Joan Didion famously said. For me “that” meant my closet-sized room in Brooklyn, the perpetually tardy F Train, which I’d grown increasingly bitter about, and a ton of irreplaceable friends who, in all honesty, were the only thing keeping me going. I would soon parachute into high-functioning Heidiland with its dreamy snow-capped peaks, thermal baths, and hyper-punctual trains and trams. Minus the friends, it was hard to feel sad about it.

This was back in 2013, before same-sex marriage laws passed in either of our countries. Fortunately, registered partnerships were available in Switzerland. It was the only country where same-sex unions passed by a voter referendum instead of being forced by the government or high court, so I was able to move there with a “family reunion visa.” 

I soon realized that perceptions of my birth country and my new adopted country were in conflict with one another. Before leaving, my gay American friends expressed concern that I was moving from queer-friendly New York to what they called racist and intolerant Switzerland. And after arriving, my new gay Swiss friends asked me what it was like to grow up and live in a racist, intolerant country like the United States. Inhabiting two countries, I learned, was like having two children. You would always love and defend both, even if you didn’t agree with everything they did.  

The truth was, there was still room for improvement with many LGBTQ+ issues in Switzerland, but it seemed like a fair and reasonable alpine sensibility dictated things in Switzerland. And I welcomed that. Soon, I started learning Swiss German, and began my new life in this small, quadrilingual European country that lies at the heart of the EU, but is not officially a part of it. 

“What is this weird exclave shire I moved to?” I often wondered in my first few weeks. Public city fountains flowed with drinkable alpine water. Trams and trains were extremely punctual, as were people. Riding my bike wasn’t a near-death experience. Everyone, everywhere offered you a coffee with a chocolate or biscuit. And trust levels were unbelievably high. A visiting friend left his laptop on the train, which was promptly returned to lost and found. Back in New York, I was so inured to the MTA, I had felt lucky when the F train showed up. 

Like many visitors who fixate on Zürich’s wealth and cleanliness, I had grossly underestimated this surprisingly diverse city. I had also been nervous about moving from such a major city where being a gay man was tolerated unequivocally to a smaller one where I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, I was especially pleased to discover that Zürich’s gay scene was not only especially vibrant and varied, but I felt even safer here than I did in New York City. Here, gay men gather at Seebad Utoquai, Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen, or the scruffy, clothing-optional Werdinsel, especially popular with a pierced, tattooed, nudist queer crowd similar to Germany’s FKK scenes. There is a RuPaul Drag Race gathering every Friday at Cranberry Bar, a vibrant gay pride parade, and subversive leather bars, Kweer Ball events, gay hiking clubs, sports teams, and choral groups.  Zürich, it turned out, was no less gay—or gay-friendly—than New York. 

Since my move here, we have seen full gay marriage pass in both of our countries. I feel grateful that we come from two countries where we’ve seen many LGBTQ+ victories. But like many gays my age, I now fear I will live to see a reversal of those rights. I especially worry about this in the United States. 

In the 2023 LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index by Asher & Lyric many countries actually became safer for gay travelers. Switzerland stayed the same, but the US dropped five places in the last two years and is no longer in the top 20 safest destinations for gay travelers.  “The rights of LGBTQ in the United States seem to be a constant, controversial political talking point with a particular emphasis on the transgender community right now,” says Asher Fergusson, publisher of the list. Discrimination protections are not guaranteed nationwide, and debate about LGBTQ+ in schools has intensified. “It's hard for our LGBTQ+ friends to feel safe when their identity and rights are often a conversation that sparks a lot of anger,” he continues.

As a gay traveler, it used to be very tempting for me to compare one place’s freedom to another, but it seldom gives an accurate picture of either place and its idiosyncrasies. Moving somewhere for love may not, either, but it has allowed me to understand how two radically different places can each offer their own versions of freedom. And that it sometimes takes a journey to understand that. 

For more queer love stories, head here.