Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro has been on my bucket list since I was a teenager, and Jenni has always dreamed of going on a Serengeti safari. But with so many unknowns in Africa for LGBT tourists, we decided to consult with the expert on LGBT African travel – CEO of Wild Rainbow African Safaris, Jody Cole. Jody’s company serves primarily gay tourists in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya. She is a tireless advocate for LGBT rights abroad and at home in California. Last year, Jody managed to raise $20,000 climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for Equality California to fight gay bullying and pass marriage equality legislation.
When we sat down for lunch back in May with Jody, who splits her time between San Francisco and East Africa, we started talking about our buckets lists. Jody told us that going to Africa was also about living a dream for her. She said, “I had been on the phone with a good gay friend of mine having a ‘woe-is-me’ conversation after a breakup. I felt like my life was over. My friend stopped me and asked, ‘if you knew you were going to die in a month, what would you do?’ I was embarrassed because my friend had already come close to death with AIDS and diabetes. I told him that I would go to Africa. My friend then made me promise that I would take steps towards my dream. One year later I traveled by myself to climb Kili and go on my first safari in South Africa.”
Now, Jody can’t wait to spend months in the bush and show first time tourists the wildlife of Africa. She trained in South Africa and Kenya to earn her credentials as a field and trails guide. While tracking wildlife is one thing, navigating African countries where homosexuality is illegal is a whole other skill. Her most important priority is the safety of her guests. “The people I do business with know that I bring gay and lesbian tourists. When I ask for a double bed, they don’t blink an eye. In the seven years I’ve had my company, it has only happened twice that I’ve gotten a funny look from a desk clerk, usually when organizing a double bed for gay men.”
Jody has stayed clear of Uganda in the last year given their severe anti-gay attitudes and policies. Jody serves on the board of directors of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). “The demand is there to tour in Uganda,” she said, “but as a board member of IGLHRC, I just don’t feel I would be representing my organization properly.”
Jody looks for exchanges with local gay communities when possible. She partnered with Supergay Shannon Wentworth’s Sweet Travel company to do a safari in Kenya. She explained, “I coordinated with an organization in Nairobi, and all of our women guests met with four lesbian activists. The guests, Shannon, and I all had the opportunity to hear stories of their lives here. One of the Kenyan women talked to us about being beaten [for being gay]. At the same time she talked about being ready to win the right to walk down the street as her true self. For us all, it was an extraordinary conversation and made us think about how lucky we are when we walk down the streets of San Francisco.”
She also took another group to meet with an OUT, an LGBT organization in South Africa. Jody recounted, “It was two weeks after two lesbians had been murdered in their country. They talked to us about what gay life is like in South Africa. We learned that just because same-sex marriage has been constitutionalized in South Africa doesn’t mean discrimination has gone away. This was profound for us listening to them while fighting for marriage in California.”
Thanks to Jody’s work with IGLHRC, her Kilimanjaro fundraising efforts for Equality California, and cross cultural exchanges between tourists and locals, we are connecting stronger ties with the vulnerable African gay community.
This piece was originally published at Out & Around—see this site for more of Jenni & Lisa's adventures!