So, Are You Friends?

3/13/17

We all live in our bubbles, and I am profoundly grateful for mine. I live in a big city in California where most folks are pretty accepting of me. I have an amazing support system in my friends and family. I have amBi LA, so I can surround myself with an even larger welcoming community. Every now and then I run into idiots, but I can brush off the experience because it is the exception.

This last winter I decided to leave my bubble for three months. My friend and I decided to go see the world and have been having an amazing time. We started in Japan, went to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, then on to Egypt, and now I am sitting on a terrace in Athens looking at the Acropolis. Yes, my life is hard.

Last week we stayed at two different places in Egypt, one in Giza and one in Cairo. Neither of us were sure what to expect in Egypt. We both left the US before the inauguration and were unsure how the political climate would affect our travels. Friends and family were concerned about us going to Egypt as two women. We’ve both travelled before and were feeling fairly confident, but unsure what to expect, so we decided to book slightly nicer accommodations for our time in Egypt.

Our first stop was a hotel with a view of the pyramids of Giza. We landed in Cairo already dressed conservatively, covered from neck to wrist to ankle and took a prearranged car service to the hotel. When we checked in, the gentleman behind the desk seemed surprised that we were sharing a room, then told us “it’s okay, because there are two beds.” At this point, I had been traveling for 12 hours and just assumed he thought we would be more comfy with two beds.

Me and my friend at the pyramids of Giza

We got some sleep and then started exploring Egypt. Everyone we talked to started the conversation by saying “You are friends?..”

I am pretty oblivious and just smiled and said yes. I mean, it seemed obvious to me that we are friends, but people kept asking.

The significance of this question became clear at our second stop. It was a hostel, but we splurged and got a private room. We went to check in and the lovely young woman behind the desk said, “You are friends?…”

We smiled and said yes.

She said, “Ah, there is one small problem.”

We look at each other concerned. Had they lost our reservation? Were we homeless in downtown Cairo?

“There are two of you and only one bed,” she continued.

Still oblivious I smiled and said, “That’s okay we’re used to sharing.”

She gave me a pained smile and then went on, “if we had a room with two beds we would upgrade you for free, but they are all booked.”

“No worries,” we say.

“Here is what we will do,” she said, “Tonight you will sleep in the room with one bed, then tomorrow when the family checks out, you will move to big family room.”

I finally realized that she really didn’t want us sharing a bed. Then I remembered the guides, shopkeepers, other hotel folks asking, “You are friends?..” Everyone in Egypt had been really worried about two women traveling together. Not just because we might not be safe, but also because we might not just be “friends”.

Our first night at the hostel in the shared bed, a nice young man brought complimentary tea to our room unannounced. He just knocked on the door and gave us tea. It was delicious and much appreciated.

Similarly breakfast was brought to our room as a bit of a surprise.

We speculated that we were being checked on, our sharing a bed definitely made the staff of the hostel deeply uncomfortable. If we had known it was a problem, we probably would have just booked dorm rooms instead of a private room, but at this point it was too late.

The next day we were moved to a room with 5 beds and all the surprise visits stopped. No late night tea and no breakfast in bed.

My friend and I have a few theories on our reception and the deep suspicion that we are secretly lesbians. It is probably in part just that we are two women, in our 30s, traveling together. Most of the women we saw in Cairo, not accompanied by men, were teenagers or in their early 20s. On top of this, my very short hair was a definite curiosity. Once we got out of the more touristy areas, I had children asking to take their picture with me. We are assuming it was because of my short hair, but are not sure. Regardless, I am now in the photo albums of quite a few strangers.

For the most part I had an incredible time in Egypt. I felt safe, I met really nice people, I ate so much good food, I discovered some very nice Egyptian wines, and I got to see the pyramids. That leg of our trip was a success.

Still, when I got on the plane and flew to Greece I also breathed a sigh of relief. I realized that I had been prevaricating when people asked about what I do (write about gender and sexuality) and avoiding mentioning things like the fact that I have a husband and a boyfriend.

I try to be honest and open about these things, even with strangers. I am in a position of incredible privilege where I can be honest about who I am and so I feel like it is my duty to do so. It can be uncomfortable at times, but it can also lead to some great conversations. It has been a long time since it has felt unsafe for me to be honest.

Although homosexuality is not specifically criminalized in Egypt, it is made illegal by other morality and public decency laws. This fact definitely informed a lot of my conversations while we were in Egypt. Once I had deciphered the “friend” question, I found myself even more uncomfortable when people started to ask about my personal life, my job, or my relationship status.

My time in Egypt was incredible, and it is a country that I would love to visit again. It also made me deeply grateful for my wonderful supportive bubble and the fact that that support structure allows me to be honest. It made me grateful for the fact that my policy can be honesty and reminded me what a privilege that policy is.

Talia Squires
Talia Squires is the editor in chief for bi.org. Talia has a degree in German Literature from Bryn Mawr College and a Master's in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She's obsessed with good food, fantastic wine, and trashy television. She lives in LA with her husband and fluffy Lhasa Apso.