Matt and Ben Tanzer first met in Cincinnati, where they were both attending college. The fateful moment was at a Nordstrom Rack, where Matt was working and Ben was shopping with his family. Ben’s family wouldn’t let him leave until he got Matt’s number, and the rest is history.
The gay couple moved to Austin, Texas, in 2014, and they married in 2016. They loved life in liberal Austin, but they always craved adventure. So this June, the couple put their belongings in storage and embarked on a full year of travel, with Ecuador as their first stop.
While the Tanzers originally planned to quit their jobs and backpack on a shoestring, they’ve been lucky enough to convince their employers to let them stay on full-time and work remotely throughout the trip. Ben, 31, works as a customer success manager for Datafiniti, a data startup in Austin, and he’s also a photographer on the side. Matt, 26, recently started as a project manager at Cornershop Creative, a digital services company that supports nonprofits.
The couple plans to work via WiFi as they travel throughout South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, spending all of their free time exploring. Matt and Ben have also launched a blog to document their travels, Husbros on the Road. While it’s in part to keep their friends and family up-to-date, they’re also hoping their blog and social media accounts can serve as a resource to help LGBTQ+ travelers, from sharing gay-friendly locations and hotels to providing advice about how to travel safely as a member of the LGBTQ community. Because let’s be real — in some countries, being gay is still a crime. The Tanzers have done their research and are on a mission to share what they learn throughout this year around the world as a gay couple.
I interviewed the Tanzers from the beaches of Montañita, Ecuador. This is their story of coming out as gay, their unlikely meeting, this epic round-the-world adventure, and their hopes for creating resources for LGBTQ travelers.
Profiles in Pride: Before we talk about your travels, can you both tell me about your journey to realizing you were gay and coming out?
Ben Tanzer: I realized I was gay when I was pretty young, in fifth or sixth grade. We’d just gotten a home computer and the Internet, and someone in my family discovered Internet porn around the same time. I was super nerdy, and there were all these Cyber World websites; it was the precursor to Second Life.
I saw a new bookmark, and thinking it was one of those sites, I clicked on it. It turns out it was porn. I saw straight porn and thought it was weird and confusing. But then I scrolled down and saw gay porn, and I thought, “This makes sense, this is what people should be doing.” I don’t think I understood what that meant at that time, but all of a sudden I had a word to associate with it and to help make sense of it.
I didn’t come out until I was a sophomore in high school. People always knew I was gay; people would ask me a lot, and I’d say, “No, I like girls.” Then I came out to some friends freshman year of high school, then sophomore year I came out to my parents. They were incredibly supportive. I told my mom first, and she was very open to it and had a nice, warm response. Then I told my dad and sister, and everyone was very supportive. It was a very privileged coming out story, for sure.
PIP: That’s great. Matt, what about you?
Matt Tanzer: I probably knew I was gay around the same time; in elementary school I found myself more aware of the boys than the girls — something I would later realize was attraction. I denied it for a very long time, but somehow I was able to divide my brain enough to watch gay porn but still tell myself I was super straight. I dated girls all through high school and even into college and had some long-term, multi-year relationships.
Then I came out in pieces at the end of freshman year of college. The first time I actually said it, I was hanging out with a friend. At some point during our conversation — it was just the two of us and we’d been drinking for a while — all of the sudden I said I thought I was bisexual. Then I pretty much ran out of his apartment and didn’t talk to him until the next day. He and I hung out for a couple weeks, and he came out in some form or fashion apparently, and so he and I started hooking up.
A week later one of our really good mutual friends could tell something was going on because I was hanging out with him way more than I normally would have by myself. She, for lack of better word, pressured me to tell her what was going on, so I ended up coming out to her. But I didn’t tell any of my other friends, and I told her she couldn’t tell anyone until I could tell my family. Two weeks later my sister was graduating from college, and I didn’t want to make it a big deal and take over her graduation week, so I awkwardly told everyone in my family individually so that it wasn’t a big announcement.
I told my mom in the eight-hour car ride from Kansas City, where I grew up, to Indianapolis. I spent the entire car ride trying to figure out how to say it, and then 20 minutes from Indianapolis, I blurted out that I was gay. I made her swear not to tell my dad until I could tell him, which was awful because it took a day for me to find time alone where I could tell him. Then I told my sister, and then I didn’t actually get to spend any time alone with my brother all weekend, so I ended up and calling him two weeks later and telling him.
Everyone was super supportive; my family didn’t care. I think they all avoided saying, “I knew this already” or “of course you are.” A few weeks later I ended up back in Cincinnati, where I went to college, and I ended up telling the rest of my friends at that point. Ben and I were both very lucky with our friends and family.
PIP: How did you two meet?
Ben: I was shopping with my mom and my grandmother for jeans for my grandfather for my cousin’s bat mitzvah. Matt swears that we were looking for white jeans for my grandfather, and I don’t think I would have let that happen.
Matt: I was working at Nordstrom Rack, where Ben was shopping. I do swear they were buying white jeans for their grandpa, because I remember going to the back and making fun of him with all of my coworkers.
Ben: So we were shopping and Matt was helping us. He was very cute, but I was with mom and grandma — what was I going to do? But then my mom and grandma were talking about how cute he was, and I agreed. I decided to try on some jeans for myself, and when I came out of the dressing room, my mom, who owned a women’s clothing store and therefore is very aware of where the pricing tags usually are, said, “I can’t find the price for these!” She said to Matt, “Why don’t you look?” She was making Matt stare at my ass to try to find a price!
I came back out in my regular clothes, and my mom and grandma were nowhere to be found. I was standing there holding my clothes. I’m awkward, so I just said something to Matt like, “Thanks for your help, bye!” and walked away. I went over to my mom and grandma, and they asked if I got his number. I said no, and they both were like, “Well, we can’t leave the store until you’ve gone and talked to him.” So I went over to him again and I said, “My mom and grandma won’t let me leave until I get your phone number.” And he gave me his phone number! And then we went on a date.
PIP: What a cute story! So what made you two decide to embark on this year-long trip together?
Ben: I have always wanted to go on some sort of long trip. Originally I was in school at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and I would often search things like “how long does it take someone to walk to Mexico?” Haha! I’ve always known I wanted to do some version of traveling like this. I told Matt early on that this is really important to me and something I want to do. I don’t know if Matt was as on board at the time, but I planted the seed. I don’t know when the turning point was, but I got Matt interested, and maybe three years ago we started planning this trip in some form or another, just kind of casually, and it evolved into something.
Matt: The trip started as just traveling for a little while, but then we settled on a year. Originally we didn’t think we’d be working at all, so we thought we’d be doing WWOOFing and organic farming and working for rent, and just save enough money to spend for the year. We decided in December that in March, we’d ask our employers if we could work remotely instead of having to quit. Ben’s job ended up saying yes, and I ended up finding a remote job later on. So this trip transformed from backpacking everywhere and getting free rent for working to working as digital nomads with WiFi everywhere and both of our jobs still being in the States.
PIP: That’s great. Where are you planning to travel, and do you have any concerns about being a gay couple in any of those places?
Ben: We’re going to do four and a half months in South America, coming back to the States for two weeks, then going to Eastern Europe for a few months and finishing up in Asia. For now, the South America itinerary is Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and the Galapagos Islands, which is off the coast of Ecuador. For Eastern Europe, the countries are tentatively Hungary and the Czech Republic. For Asia, we’re hoping to do Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, and India.
When we were doing research, we found on the US embassy site that there are LGBT travel advisories. There were plenty of places that we were interested in that had to be removed from the list.
Singapore is one. What’s interesting to me about Singapore is how safe it is in terms of how hetero/cis people can run around and do whatever they want at whatever hour, and nobody will rob them. The example people kept telling us is “it’s super safe, single white women go on runs at 11 p.m. in parks alone, and nobody attacks them and they’re not worried.” And that’s cool, that’s not something you can say about every city. But you can get arrested for being gay or holding hands in Singapore. You can get arrested for spitting out gum out on the sidewalk. We knew there were strong anti-LGBT sentiments in that area, so it was taken off the list. Malaysia was also questionable.
Matt: Malaysia was another one where people kept saying, “Go there, it’s beautiful,” but if you do research, Malaysia hates gays. It’s interesting, because you get different opinions. Even Singapore — I’m good friends with a lesbian couple in Austin, and they know a gay couple that met there. Two dudes who met there and lived there for six years; they got married, though probably not there since it’s not legal there, and they loved it. So you’ll hear individual stories of people when you’re doing research, but the laws and the Internet say don’t go there. It’s hard to figure out what’s real and what isn’t; how much is paranoia and how much is legitimate concern.
One of the things about Ecuador is, there aren’t legal concerns with being gay, but it’s definitely not the gay-friendliest country. We started in Quito, and I think we were a lot more aware there about being gay. Even before we left, we started joking that we need to stop saying “babe” all the time and a lot of affectionate names. Like if I’m trying to get Ben’s attention, I’ll say, “Hey babe.” So we started watching that language so it didn’t sound so obviously gay all the time. And we started trying to change natural tendencies to reach out to touch for comfort, like if I’m walking behind him or around him, I’d touch his back to signal where I am.
Ben: What I think has been really interesting is, like Matt was saying, we had all these thoughts, and even when we were in Quito, we were actively working on implementing those. Like, “Oh shit, I said babe,” or “Oh God, sorry, I didn’t mean to touch your back.” I think it’s a hyper-awareness. You see people walking down the street who are friendly and touching each other, but I don’t feel necessarily comfortable doing that because I am gay.
If I were straight, I don’t think it would matter at all, but I’m worried about being detected almost. We did see two or three gay people, and we accidentally stumbled into a secret gay bar — it was super weird. We opened up Grindr just to see, and we were like, “Oh shit, there are like 50 people here!” It was totally secret.
Matt: Then it’s funny coming to where we are now, Montañita; it’s a little hippie surfer town. Because of that, it’s very LGBT-friendly. When you do research on it, people are like, “They love gays, they don’t care.” The first night we were walking around here, there was a bar that said “solo por nosotros,” or “only for us” night, and it was all in rainbow letters. It was a gay night, and we ended up going for a little while and drinking with them.
Ben: It was just us and the staff until 11:30 p.m. when we left, so I actually don’t know if other people showed up!
Matt: But they were very friendly, and it was clear we were together. So to Ben’s point, I think we’re probably way more hyper-aware than we need to be. It kind of feels like back in Cincinnati, where we were a lot more aware of being gay. In Austin, we got used to not thinking about it at all. But that may also be because of how long we’ve been together, and now we’re married, so that’s probably where a lot of the comfort has grown, so there’s more of an awareness than it is a concern at this point.
Ben: I mean, we were walking down the beach and it was nighttime and we were holding hands. When we’d approach someone, we’d stop holding hands. Someone said something, but we didn’t know what they said. I think you do have to be safe, even when booking AirBnbs. Because we are working while we’re traveling, we need to ensure a certain level of WiFi access. In a town as small as Montañita, there wasn’t really a coworking space, so when we’re booking, we casually drop, “Let me run it by my husband. Thanks, Ben and Matt.” Or “My husband and I are blah blah blah.” Because if someone has an issue, you can discover that at a safe distance.
Matt: You don’t want to discover the issue when you show up at the door. We’ve been dropping those types of hints, and nobody has had an issue. In a hostel in Quito, we shared a double bed. We talked about how if we showed up and they were weird about it, we’d say, “Oh, we must have booked the wrong thing, can we get two single beds? Sorry!”
Ben: It changes the way we exist in a lot of ways. We go back and forth. We try to be super out there when we’re at a safe distance, when we’re dropping “husband” and checking things out. But when we’re here, we try to be a little more subdued than normal.
Matt: It’s interesting, because when you travel abroad, you also run into the legality of showing your ID. This could be difficult for a trans person who hasn’t legally changed their name or gender yet. For us, our last names are the same, and we clearly don’t look like brothers.
Ben: Although this woman wanted to follow us on Instagram, so I told her our handle was “Husbros on the Road.” She said, “Oh, y’all are brothers?” “Oh no, we’re husbands!”
Matt: As we go, I’m intrigued to see the differences between South America and Asia. It’ll be interesting in regards to the culture and if people care. At this point, it’s been pretty impressive to me how little we’ve actually had to be concerned, versus how aware we are of it.
PIP: Absolutely. What are your goals for documenting your trip? Is it more to keep friends and family updated, or to inspire and educate the LGBTQ community?
Matt: I think obviously the pipe dream is that we get tons of followers and people paying attention to what we’re doing, because that would be cool. But right now it’s a pretty good mix of family, friends, and random followers.
One of the things we had talked about years ago as a fun idea or goal for us, or a pet project that we’re hoping to roll out as we do this, is something we coined “nomengayture.” They would be travel books or guides for different cities about where to go if you’re gay and looking for something. The original concept was if you’re going to a city, and specifically more on the gay male side of things, there’s bears and otters and other animals, and what type of person you are and you’re looking for, and you can use this guidebook to rifle through and see, where do the bears hang out? It would look like a field guide.
Ben: Like sketches of a shirtless bear gay man at a bar, so it’s sort of like where are the wild animals of the gay kingdom in your city? Where are the watering holes and the dens and things to do and places to go? It’s a long ways off, but that would definitely include safety tips and pointers and what we observed along the way. But originally it was just an idea of where these types are and what to do, which is fun and a way for us to travel and be a self-perpetuating traveling machine.
Matt: I think the need arose because it’s really hard to know if someone is gay-friendly. To be able to tell you, even if you want to go outside of that area, here’s a couple bars to start out or a hostel to book or a hotel to go to where we had a good experience, where the gay population is welcome, that’s big.
We spent a lot of time looking at site called Misterb&b, which is a gay-friendly Airbnb. Airbnbs tend to be LGBT-friendly in general; they have a lot of policies to put in place to try to protect you, but you can only do so much. Misterb&b I think is LGBT-friendly in general, but it also seems to be concentrated in bigger cities. So I think over the course of our year, we’re hoping to document things like “these were good experiences as a gay couple” that can hopefully be extrapolated to LGBT people in general. Like if you’re in these places specifically, feel free to reach out to us or let us know and we can give you recommendations, or you can maybe find those here. We’ll definitely be beginning that step, and hopefully we’ll do more throughout the year.
Ben: I could see us doing some per country analysis, like “This is our experience in Ecuador.” It’s a lot of little changes. For example, we kiss each other every night. We’ve got seven years or so of this tradition; you don’t want to break it. So rather than kissing at the hostel, you just put your lips together silently — you don’t want to draw any attention to what’s going on in your bunk. If someone thought you were brothers sharing a bunk, they don’t want to hear you kiss!