05/24/2012 07:23 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

The Necessary Evil Of Traveling In The Closet

I'm a gay traveler, but I find myself quickly bored when I travel in gay hotspots like Miami, Barcelona or Rio de Janeiro. While it's true that the easy availability of sex and parties is alluring, it also diminishes my sense that I am somewhere truly different, which is the whole reason I travel.

Unfortunately, in off-the-beaten path destinations, deprivation from sex is often the least of my worries. You see, being gay is not only frowned upon in many regions of the world, but is actually illegal and punishable by law.

My solution might seem cowardly or even shocking to you if you have never traveled in such places: I frequently adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to international travel.

China and Losing Face

My first experience with closeted travel was in China, where I lived from late 2009 to early 2010. Initially, my decision not to reveal my sexuality was harmless in nature. After all, I was teaching English to adults: The topic of my personal life seemed generally irrelevant.

Interestingly, not one of my students ever so much as asked me if I was gay while all of my Western colleagues all knew from the get-go. Dozens of my female students forcefully threw themselves at me, but I didn't have the heart to tell them the truth.

"I just enjoy being single," I'd tell them. "I'm so busy, after all."

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing, for the first time in my life, not to be perceived as gay. Without the limp-wristed, pink elephant in the room, I felt like I was taken much more seriously.

As the months passed, I would learn that my decision to keep my private life private had been a smart one. Being openly gay in China makes you run the risk of losing "face" among your colleagues and non-gay friends.

More surprisingly, being gay in China can also get you into trouble with the police, even if homosexuality isn't officially illegal in China.

Writing for CNNGo, I interviewed the owner of Eddy's Bar, Shanghai's first gay establishment. What he revealed to me was shocking: During his first seven years of operation -- the bar opened in 1995 -- the police shut him down seven separate times.

Bromance in Muslim North Africa

When I crossed into North Africa last September, it was after spending two weeks in Tel Aviv, Israel, arguably one of the gayest places in the world. I literally lost track of how many men I kissed when I was there, many on the street and in broad daylight.

I knew prior to visiting Egypt and, later, Morocco, that I could technically be punished for being gay in both countries. Although being gay is not specifically outlawed in Egypt, fines and even prison time can apply; In Morocco, being gay is officially illegal, and can carry a prison sentence of up to three years.

Luckily, people in North Africa seemed just as oblivious to my gayness as those in China had. My extremely white features, it seems, make me "different" enough to avoid more careful scrutiny.

What's funny is that behavior we in the West consider to be homoerotic is common throughout the Muslim world. Men can frequently be seen holding hands and even with their arms wrapped around one another.

Actual gay activity occurs in Muslim countries too, albeit very much in the shadows. In both Morocco and Egypt several men discreetly propositioned me -- other gays, it seems, are the only ones who know "what to look for" -- but in every case I declined, for fear of retribution.

The Intellectual Dilemma of Closeted Travel

I imagine that some of you reading this are wagging your fingers at me. What a coward, you might be thinking, going back into the closet 12 years after you came out.

And that's fair enough. If you haven't traveled in countries where homosexuality is illegal or, at best, highly frowned upon, you have likely never felt the constant fear that I did. Those of you who live or have lived in some of the less tolerant parts of the United States, Europe and other developed countries will probably empathize.

To be sure, if you had told me years ago that I would, for any reason, hide my sexuality at some point in the future, I'd have laughed in your face. The fact that I am relatively flamboyant notwithstanding, I am extremely outspoken about my views and values.

I won't attempt to defend my decision to travel some countries "in the closet" outright. Rather, I'll appeal to common sense: I would much rather live a minor lie that face imprisonment, abuse or, as I've heard is often the case for foreigners, deportation.

If I had the balls, or the legal defense team, to join with LGBT people in places where being gay is illegal or viewed more negatively than it is here, I wouldn't hesitate. Until then, I feel I have little choice but to occasionally head back into the closet when I travel in certain regions.