Our exclusive interview with Toto Tours’ founder, Daniel Ware.
In recent years many strides have been made in the fight for LGBTQ rights and representation. The past decade has seen the legalization of same sex marriage in many countries, especially in the west. Most of those who read this website are probably from countries that are at the very least tolerant of alternative ways of life, places where state sanctioned violence against LGBTQ people is unheard of. However there are many nations around the world where LGBTQ people and culture are seen in a far more negative light. The sheer outrage in Ethiopia at Toto Tours’ planned visit to the country is but one example of how cultures can have a radically different perspective of LGBTQ communities.
Toto Tours is an American company that specializes in organizing international travel experiences for members of the gay community. Founded in 1990 by Daniel Ware, the company makes it a point to travel to locales that many skip over. “There wasn’t a lot of adventure travel back then,” Ware says. “Toto tries to push the envelope, opening the world to places off the beaten path that LGBT people might not decide to visit on their own.” Their trip to Ethiopia was set for late October, and was the first time a trip had been planned for the country. It wasn’t however, the first time Toto had been to Africa – far from it in fact. They had been to many countries, even those where homosexual acts are illegal. Ware notes that throughout it all his company had always taken great pains to be as respectful and accommodating to the cultures as possible.
The controversy began on May 25th, when Ethiopian journalist Seyoum Teshome wrote a post on Facebook criticizing Toto Tours’ planned trip. The post went viral there, and most of those who read it were deeply offended. Ethiopia is a deeply religious country, and homosexual relations between both men and women are illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison. According to the Pew Research Center, 97% of Ethiopians believe that homosexuality should not be tolerated. Prejudice against LGBTQ people runs rampant, and violence is quite common.
Today Ethiopian culture is highly conservative. But surprisingly enough it was not always this way. In the 1920s, Irving Bieber noted that both same-sex relationships and “uranism” (an antiquated word referring to transgenderism) were common among some of the indigenous people, and others exploring the region in the early 20th century make similar mentions of such practices. Some scholars have also speculated that Ethiopian Saint Walatta-Petros was in a chaste, non-sexual relationship with a fellow nun and close friend. Even if their relationship was but a close friendship, accounts of the saint’s life written in the immediate years after her death mention that some nuns would have sexual relations with one another.
Ware and his company soon received hundreds of death threats and other harassing messages. He recalls that he was in the middle of a tour of the Balkans when it began, having just crossed into Romania. Surprised by the threats and backlash, his first instinct was to contact the US State Department. He also reached out to the US Embassy in Ethiopia; since then they have kept in frequent contact. As of now he is waiting to hear back from the Ethiopian government to figure out whether Toto Tours is allowed in the country. Once he has that, Ware says, he will make the final decision on whether or not to proceed.
During the ordeal Ware also received several messages from both LGBTQ people and allies expressing their solidarity. Of these one in particular stands out: an anonymous message from a gay Ethiopian. “The people from the opposition campaign are our major enemies,” he wrote. “But we (Ethiopian LGBTIQA+) aren’t able to oppose them…so please speak on behalf of us.” The message describes how many LGBTQ people in Ethiopia are forced to live secretly, how those who oppose homosexuality have no guarantee that some of their friends and family may be homosexual, and most sobering and tragic of all, that neglect and discrimination are causing many to die by illness or by their own hand.
Despite the storm that Toto Tours has faced, Ware remains optimistic about the future. “This experience could easily dishearten people and cast a cloud over those who believe in the goodness of human nature,” he says. “We refuse to be daunted, and we accept that this is a very conservative country that evolved in isolation over many years, and that we cannot change their opinion overnight. But we hope that just as we have celebrated progress in America during pride month, that we will begin to see gay people in Ethiopia stand up for their rights and be recognized. We understand that this is part of your culture, and meant no harm by coming to visit you. We merely wanted to appreciate your culture and learn from it. We are sorry for any agitation and confusion our plan may have caused in your country, and we hope that someday we will be able to embrace as friends and realize that we have nothing to fear from each other.”
Here at Jetset Times we try to be conscious of every aspect of our amazing world—both the good and the bad. A traveler must always be mindful of other cultures and worldviews, and always be aware of the differences between them. While many countries hold progressive perspectives on social issues, many others are more conservative. We hope to educate our readers, so that no matter where they go they know what to expect.