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Saturday 08 April 2017

My queer Airbnb affair

Posted in: True Stories
By Alexander Lowë - 26th February 2016

They message me after browsing through various profiles in the area, looking for the best the fit for their particular needs. I check out their pictures, guessing what they are like in real life and decide if I want to accept their offer.

Sounds like a hook up app but this is in fact an Airbnb, program that allows travellers to enhance their travel experience by staying in private houses and seeing the local life from the inside. It is one in a range of popular shared economy apps like Uber and Getaround, based on the same principle pioneered by Grindr: matching people with the use of GPS in satisfying their basic needs like accommodation, transportation or sex.

In fact mostly women hit on my Airbnb profile. Girlfriends traveling together but mostly married couples where women seem to be increasingly in charge of the travel arrangements. Women are particularly keen to stay with a gay couple. I think they subconsciously feel this is a safe place to be plus certain common stereotypes must come to their minds gay guys like to have their place clean and fashionably decorated, they cook well, are fab, friendly and fun to be with. Well, I guess this is actually mostly true for my boyfriend and I.

And this must be working for the others, too, as one can come across more gay Airbnb hosts than could be statistically expected. In fact LGBT affiliated groups are one of the most prominent groups in the Airbnb community, for example Gay-Friendly Global Community Group counting nearly 10,000 members. There does appear to be both high demand and high supply of gay-friendly Airbnb accommodation.

It seems to be quite clear with regards to the prominence of LGBT travellers. Why wouldn't gays love to travel? The excitement of exploring, the attraction of the new and exotic, better and more beautiful places, the appeal of leaving old dramas behind, moving on and emerging as a new person? Not surprisingly, many of the famous explorers were gay, running away from their old lives and actively engaging with the unknown. Aside from extra motivations and reasons to travel, gays are likely to have less baggage to cling on to: less chance of having children and therefore fewer restrictions on time and length of the trip, less pressure to save money etc.

But what about the receptive side of travel, like hosting? Would it be just a coincidence that the hospitality and travel industry have been traditional reserves for gay people? Queer folks are in abundance within the airlines; they flood travel agencies, and are plentiful among the tour guides and hoteliers. So are they simply attracted there by their will to serve, their ability to entertain and their urge to shine? Or are they perhaps also driven by less practical idealism and the wish to change the world to the better?

A recent survey found out that the Maori differ in their motivation for work from the Pakeha, with the first being less driven by the monetary reward. Could there be a difference between gay and straight people motivations too? In my experience there is a bigger ratio of gay people in jobs requiring compassion, like social workers and nurses, where they can make a real difference and help others.

People who experienced hardships and pain can relate to the suffering of others and are more likely to express generosity. Amidst refuge crisis I was touched by the stories of common Greek and Indonesian people who in spite of their misery were helping out refugees generously sharing with them the little they had while other much richer nations were busy engaged in hypocritical rhetoric. LGBT people share collective memories of suffering and rejection, sometimes trauma and abuse.

These experiences shape up our personality and influence our behaviour. Take me for example, I consider myself socially awkward and shy, I avoid crowds, feel rather uncomfortable socialising with strangers and even with work colleagues. I guess this is my defence mechanism, my subconscious protection against just another failure, betrayal, embarrassment and humiliation.

I feel inferior to other people, this probably started from growing as a late sick baby in a nuclear family with successful, sporty and popular siblings, being isolated from other kids by the prolonged illness, then feeling different from everyone else in school, developing different interests and eventually sexuality. Other disastrous experiences followed adding to the self-perception of unworthiness.

My fear is to be publicly embarrassed by being exposed as weak and not manly enough, of being judged and rejected, failing to meet expectations. I would therefore go into length to avoid socialising; I am even terrified to answer a phone call, preferring e-mails, texting or playing back the voice message.

So how did I then manage with these issues to become a guide conducting tours for various groups of people? And how on Earth then have I worked for many years for the airline servicing people over the phone, in the office and at the airport? And how can I now really enjoy hosting complete strangers through Airbnb?

I think my experiences are not very different from many other gay people who also came through rejections and bullying, were made to feel different, inadequate, and second-class. When immediate peer groups were unlikely to offer us full support and acceptance and would instead bring us down and even traumatise, our options were those of a haunted bird: fighting back, freezing and blending in with the environment or running away and moving on.

While we were likely to try all of these at certain times, the later one would often be the most efficient. Could it be then another factor behind our travel bug? Historically gay people, like gypsies or Jews, have been known to move, emerging anew in different places while still maintaining their own culture, remaining committed to their own set of beliefs and practices.

We could as well be tempted to escape into different worlds through drugs or comforting us and numbing our pain addictions, or we could bury ourselves in our work and emerge as a different person with a second go at life.

For me representing an airline, museum, hotel chain etc. gives a sense of belonging to a gay-friendly organisation that provides me a safe place and lends me, along with the uniform, a fair share of its authority and character, then I merely accessorise my position by adding on my skills and personality.

It is the familiar script, formal setting and the well-rehearsed role play that allows me overcome my social awkwardness, giving me that little extra power, confidence and strength that I am otherwise lacking. Like a drag queen with full make-up or superhero equipped with the right outfit, I get magically transformed from a shy and awkward ordinary guy into a fearless and outrageous character.

I have discovered that being able to care about others changes people, even those who no one believed can change. Hard criminals were known to be reformed after been entrusted with raising and training of pups in prison. They realised that despite their own history of misfortune and hard circumstances they could in fact make a positive change in someone's life. Would this be the same turning point for the queer folks who once perceived themselves as inferior, weak and powerless but now are flourishing when in charge of care for other people?

For me, Airbnb is the quintessence of this. It is my chance to give people back what I was deprived of myself: security, support, care and encouragement. And my confidence grows as I see myself capable of enriching experiences of my guests and making the real difference. Similarly, when my boyfriend started doing haircuts on weekends, the money was not his main drive. He was as eager to give free haircuts to our friends and acquaintances as the paid ones for customers. His reward is seeing his customers satisfied with their new haircut. He has found his superpower, the gift of making people happy.

So our work and I believe in particular jobs involving customer service, can help us feel better about ourselves, compensating for our earlier failed interactions with people. This could be our role reversal therapy as when we are put in the position of power over other people and we chose to give them in return love, care and respect, we can heal our wounded pride, repair our damaged confidence and self-worth.

Airbnb experience may feel like a little fling, perfectly timed affair that will not interfere with your life. Indeed, the typical one/two/three night stand will usually only let you and your guest see the best of each other. And the shit, which literally may happen, is unlikely to affect you so much as after all, the visitors are still strangers and your encounters are limited, scripted and well regulated. The experience itself, however, is likely to leave a lasting sense of satisfaction long after the guests are gone.

I trust it is no coincidence that gays often make perfect Airbnb hosts and guests, try it for yourself, you may also fell for it and as it happened to me, your Airbnb affair might even turn into a romance where you can find real friends with benefits far beyond the monetary gain.

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Alexander Lowë - 26th February 2016