After spending a year travelling the globe, Luke Lopez reflects on how living as a digital nomad has changed his outlook on life as Queer person. Here are 8 lessons he learned along the way...
By Luke Lopez
By July 2021, I’d gotten my second does of the vaccine, and at the same time, I’d received an email that Remote Year (a company that organizes and facilitates a unique travel program for digital nomads) was back in action, and I had this immediate feeling of, “Now’s the time, if not now, then when? If you don’t do this now, you never will.” That’s why when the idea bubbled up in me, I knew without a doubt that it was finally time to realize one of my biggest dreams since my early twenties. So I took the leap, paid that down payment and started preparing. In Dec 2021, I left Toronto in search of a new beginning. Something to heal the last few years spent enduring a traumatic global pandemic and push me into post-traumatic growth. It was time to do the around-the-world travel year I had been putting off. I lived and worked remotely for 12 months in 12 countries with a group of 14 digital nomads, traversing the globe from Dec 2021-Dec 2022. We started in Latin America, headed to Europe, then to South Africa, and finished in Asia.
Taking a broader perspective, in today's world, it’s crucial to acknowledge the persistent injustices that still plague the lives of queer individuals around the world. At the time of writing, it’s still illegal to be LGBTQ+ in 64 UN member States, according to a new database by ILGA World. Many also criminalize transgender people. 13 countries do this mostly using “cross-dressing” laws. The simple act of waving a rainbow flag, or holding hands with your partner, or expressing you’re queer could be dangerous and unthinkable. However, amidst these challenges, there are also reasons for celebration. Over the past 30 years, 49 UN member States have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual acts. Over 34 countries now recognize marriage equality, and at least 15 acknowledge a neutral gender-marker on passports. As LGBTQ+ travellers or nomads, we must approach our journeys with intention and planning to ensure our safety and well-being while abroad.
1. Unfolding Identity and Recognizing Global LGBTQ+ Realities.
As I embarked on my journey, I discovered that it was not just an exploration of the world, but also a profound journey of self-discovery. How had I been changed by the pandemic? What did I need to purge? Did all those years of therapy really sink in? Who am I after my divorce? Contrary to popular belief, travel doesn't always provide an escape; instead, it confronts you with your true self and the experiences that have shaped you. Through travel, I found that it uncovers your deepest truths, allowing for more clarity and self-awareness that often eludes me at home. Being a queer traveller opened doors to unfolding my identity in ways I never thought possible.
The varying degrees of LGBTQ+ acceptance in different cities, with some offering vibrant queer spaces and communities while others lack them entirely, highlight the significance of embracing one's true self wherever you go (while prioritizing safety). In Medellin, Colombia I still recall being in the park with a date and both of us being aggressively frisked by the cops just for sitting together holding hands. This was so wild to me, especially growing up in Toronto where that would never happen. We were both terrified, luckily, nothing worse happened. That said, we both left that incident shaken. This reminds me that our experiences as LGBTQ+ people depending where we’re born are so vastly different and to never take our liberties for granted.
2. Owning My Authenticity and Unveiling Multitudes.
During my adventures abroad, I made sure to assess the LGBTQ+ vibes of each city and fully own my queerness in unique ways. In Peru, I rocked some killer nail art. All year I proudly displayed my LGBTQ+ pins on my jean jacket collar. In the later part of the year, I went all out and dyed my hair blonde and then after a striking hot pink, as an act of unapologetic self-expression. In Vietnam, I indulged my fashion craving by getting custom-made clothes that perfectly matched my style. But the ultimate highlight was my epic Britney Spears-themed birthday bash in Bali. I rocked a "Oops I Did It Again" custom outfit, and to my absolute joy, I had 25 fellow travellers join in the fun, with over 12 of them wearing their own custom outfits. It's essential to stay true to yourself no matter where you go and refuse to dim your light based on your environment.
Also, turns out, there's a massive gap between being a traveller and a tourist. When you actually live in a place rather than just visiting, it completely changes the way you see things. Living in a place gives you a whole new perspective and allows you to explore different sides of yourself. It's like trying on different versions of you, and each place you live in brings out a unique aspect of your personality. It's surprising how these experiences can shape you and bring out new dimensions of who you are, especially when it comes to your queerness. And here's the best part: these amazing multitudes you unlock during your travels? They stick with you long after you've left those places behind.
3. Tapping Into the Power of Community and Global Connections.
Unfortunately, social acceptance doesn’t always translate into legal rights, so be aware of those disconnects when you’re traveling and know beforehand what the reality is for queer locals by doing your research. I witnessed firsthand the profound impact of inclusivity and allyship through my group. In reality, a trip like this will attract more white straight cis-het middle class folks, but there were still also wonderful POC and queer travellers that I met along the way. Plot twist, I made more white, straight, male-identifying friends/allies than ever before, healing some of my own childhood trauma/stigmas in the process.
I’ll never forget when a friend from Toronto sent me a story about a A Trans Activist Who Was On His Honeymoon In Bali Who Died After Police Detained Him. It shocked me to read and made me incredibly scared to enter Indonesia. In a panic, I shared this with the group I was traveling with, and my friend Matt messaged me to say that if I ever felt unsafe, I shouldn't hesitate to reach out to him for support, he’d show up no matter what. That moment of reassurance and allyship meant everything to me, as it allowed me to trust that someone had my back. I entered Indonesia cautious but with far less worry.
Community-building on a global scale has been one of the most remarkable and rewarding aspects of my journey. The ability to connect with people from different corners of the world, and form friendships on a global scale is truly extraordinary. This gift of a global network of friends pays dividends in ways that are immeasurable — enriching life tenfold.
4. Conquering Challenges and Discovering Hidden Strengths on the Path to Personal Growth.
No adventure is complete without its fair share of triumphs and challenges. Language barriers, unfamiliar customs, and unexpected obstacles tested my resilience. I never did fully learn as much Spanish as I thought I would, but that’s ok, I got by with what I knew (and google translate). But through these experiences, I grew stronger, more adaptable, and more self-assured.
For instance, I never considered myself a hiker, I hate being in pain or discomfort, like most folks. I used to grimace at the invitation of a hike. However, when I embarked on the challenging ascent of an active volcano (Fuego) in Guatemala, enduring a gruelling nine-hour hike (while with a stomach bug, damn altitude!), and witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle of its eruptions occurring every 15 minutes, I was not only captivated by the grandeur of nature but also deeply amazed by the remarkable capabilities of both my body and mind. In that moment at the summit, I realized that few achievements can rival the profound sense of accomplishment derived from such a remarkable feat. Sometimes, the thing we dread most doing can be the most fulfilling and unforgettable.
5. Adopting a Digital Nomad Lifestyle for Freedom and Cultural Enrichment.
Amidst the allure of this newfound digital nomad lifestyle, I soon discovered the challenges that came with it. Finding balance became an ongoing struggle as I navigated different time zones, grappled with my physical limitations, inconsistent productivity, and dealt with constant change.
The fatigue and travel burnout were very real.
It took some time, but I discovered new ways to sustain myself while on the move, allowing for the flexibility to explore and create simultaneously while prioritizing what brought me a genuine sense of freedom. Ultimately, the goal became making work not the center of my identity, just a part of it.
Also, technology became my ally, offering support on-the-go, connectivity, and the ability to build communities, work through challenging situations, and maintain my relationships back home and all over the world. I discovered a deeper sense of security, when I realized that my close relationships can endure and thrive across vast distances.
Experiencing firsthand the nuances, traditions, and customs of various cultures provided me with an enriched outlook on the world. I was eager to stay ahead of the curve, I relished in the emerging remote work culture of a post-pandemic world and the innovative ways in which digital nomads were shaping the future of work.
6. Navigating Reverse Culture Shock and Finding Belonging in a Changed City.
Returning from such a transformative journey was not without its own set of challenges. Initially the familiarity of home felt strangely foreign, and I grappled with reverse culture shock. I was grieving who I was before the pandemic, the little pocket of camaraderie I had with my bubble of close friends who, without fail, I played board games with every weekend for almost two years during the pandemic. I struggled with ambient grief, feeling a sense of loss for the experiences I missed in Toronto while I was gone and a longing to make up for lost time in my friends’ lives. It’s like I travelled to the future where everything looked the same, but everything felt vastly different.
That sense of being out of place persists as I readjust to a changed city, it's colder culture, and pace, challenging my sense of belonging. The exorbitant cost of living adds to the uncertainty about staying in Toronto long-term, prompting me to question my long-term goals and explore alternative models for my future. Despite the disconnection from the city itself, I still found an anchor in the connection and care from my chosen family and loved ones.
7. Rediscovering Who I Truly Am.
Ultimately, this adventure was more than just ticking off destinations on a map and fulfilling a lifelong dream; it was a profound exploration of my queer identity, a challenge to define what a fully realized life means to me, and a rediscovery of who I truly am. I was able to start to see my life from different vantage points. One where I could live a life of my own design, which I’m still figuring out now as I integrate all that I’ve experienced and learned from my travels. As a queer nomad and traveller, what I cherished most was to live without the traditional expectations and milestones imposed by a heteronormative society. Instead of lamenting what I didn't have, I saw endless possibilities ahead surrounded by other folks who had the same outlook as me. Experiencing the world, fundamentally shifts your internal world. When you’ve gone through that much change, your ability to adapt becomes second nature.
8. Redefining Home.
l've come to realise that the idea of home no longer becomes confined to a physical place or specific location. Instead, it encompasses the deep connections I've forged with amazing friends from all over the world, the nurturing routines I've established for myself, and the overall sense of belonging and comfort it evokes. Home is now a rich tapestry of relationships, self-care practices, and a profound feeling of contentment. It's knowing at the end of the day that I can create home and be proudly queer anywhere I go.
Luke Lopez (he/they)
Luke is the Head of Marketing for We Create Space, a Freelance Art Director and a passionate speaker. Before joining We Create Space, he was the co-founder and design director of DESALU Creative.
You can find more information about Luke here.
While you're here...
Did you know we consult with Businesses, ERGs and Change-Leaders providing bespoke corporate solutions? Through consultancy we design shared learning experiences, produce DEI insights and craft bespoke content that support individuals with strengthening their roles as change-agents within their communities and organisations. Find out more here.
We also organise FREE community events throughout the year! We offer a variety of ways to get involved - both online and in person. This is a great way to network and learn more about others' experiences, through in-depth discussion on an array of topics. You can find out what events we have coming up here. New ones are added all the time, so make sure you sign up to our newsletter so you can stay up to date!