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OUT OF THE CLOSET

Now, tours and trips for gays abound

Shawn Dooley, a Realtor with Century 21 Carole Realty in San Diego, has taken several gay cruises for one reason. ''I've had a partner for seven years, and we can hold hands and embrace and not have someone on the street look at us like we're from outer space,'' he says.

A decade ago, gay or lesbian-only trips were hard to find, save for a few ''discreet gentlemen tours,'' in which companions would be lucky to find a room with one large bed. But these days, with more people coming out of the closet, many tour operators and travel agents are catering to openly gay travelers. While vacationing homosexuals might have traditionally congregated in parts of Fire Island, New York, San Francisco, or Key West, Fla., gay men and lesbians today can go virtually anywhere in the world. (Of course, in some Catholic or Middle Eastern countries, discretion is advised.) What gay-specific trips offer is a safe haven for those either traveling with their partners or by themselves.

Indeed, mainstream travel companies are actively courting the gay community. Dallas-based American Airlines, which tracked $140 million in revenue last year from gays, was the first airline to set up a special marketing department dedicated to homosexuals. And it changed its policy in 1994 so that gays could transfer travel certificates issued by frequent-flier programs to their domestic partners. Previously, the privilege only applied to spouses. Likewise, National Car Rental used to waive an extra-driver fee for spouses but charged one for gay partners. Now, gay pairs who rent a vehicle from National are entitled to the same benefits as straight couples as long as they share an address.

THEME TRIPS. A good place for gay tourists to start is the International Gay Travel Assn. (800 448-8550) in Key West, which comprises 1,300 gay-friendly travel agents, tour operators, hotels, cruises, car-rental agencies, and airlines. Atlantis Events in West Hollywood, Calif., (800 628-5268) puts together special gay all-inclusive packages at Club Mediterranee resorts, other tropical locales, and aboard cruise ships. RSVP Travel Productions in Minneapolis (800 328-RSVP) is the oldest gay cruise-tour operator in the country, offering all-gay voyages on mainstream cruise liners to Northern Europe, the Caribbean, and Alaska. San Francisco-based Above & Beyond Tours (415 284-1666) offers some packages with a twist, such as a trip to Sydney, Australia, for the Incarceration & Sleaze Ball '97. Accommodations are a plush room in an old jail. Other gay theme trips include a ski week in Aspen, Colo., every January, and a golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., in March.

Over the past few years, numerous travel guides that target gays have surfaced in bookstores (box). In addition, New York-based publisher Out & About puts out a newsletter by the same name that's loaded with information on guest houses for gays, trendy restaurants, and things HIV-positive travelers should know, such as how to get proper travel insurance. Gays can also consult the Out & About Web site (www.outandabout. com) or the Planet Out site (www. planetout. com).

Participants in gay trips are able to let loose without the stigma many face back home. ''A lot of guys come from areas where they are totally in the closet,'' says Jim Noss, a gay police officer in Los Angeles. These trips ''allow you to be much more yourself.'' So whether they want to lie on a beach or attack the slopes, homosexuals need not look far to find a suitable alternative vacation.

By Gabrielle Saveri
EDITED BY EDWARD BAIG



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