Each month, Proudly Portugal invites an individual or brand to share their LGBTI+-related knowledge and advice about visiting, relocating to, or investing in Portugal.
This month, we hear from Alex Pollard, who founded Alex’s Queer Lisbon Tours & Events in 2023. Learn from his experience in Portugal since he first visited 30 years ago.
Falling in love with Portugal
Have you ever read about a place and thought, “I just have to go there!”? That was my reaction to an article in Christopher Street, a gay US literary magazine, by a journalist, passing through Lisbon in April 1974, getting caught up in the Carnation Revolution and a passionate aﬀair with a soldier, and experiencing the explosion of possibilities of the end of the dictatorship. He asked, “Could this revolution create space for lesbian and gay liberation?”
I knew nothing of Portugal before I read the article in 1989, but I was volunteering for gay rights pressure groups in the UK, was starting my post-graduate work in Queer cultural studies, and was ready for an adventure!
As soon as I arrived at Santa Apolónia station, I fell in love with Lisbon’s modest charms, faded grandeur and unhurried calm. I came back almost every year for the next 30 years—Lisbon was my safety-valve through a challenging career in gay men’s health services from the 1990’s onwards, at the height of the AIDS pandemic and the UK’s struggle for gay rights.
I wasn’t always aware of the parallel struggles here, but I felt welcome and safe in Lisbon. So, when Brexit Britain started to feel less safe and respectful, I ﬁnally made the move to Portugal in September 2019. While in the UK hysterical anti-immigrant slogans were peaking, it was refreshing and reassuring to ﬁnd a digniﬁed banner stating “Lisbon Welcomes Immigrants” across the Câmara Municipal.
New challenges, new friends, new ideas
Portuguese immigration bureaucracy was still a challenge, and life proved more diﬃcult than expected when COVID-19 forced us all into conﬁnement six months later! Friends in the UK anxiously encouraged me to return, but I was committed to Portugal and conﬁdent that it would manage a national health emergency. From the perspective of my background in UK public health services, Portugal’s political and public reaction to the pandemic was impressive. Lockdown was tough at times, but Portugal generally rose above the political self-interest and social individualism that aﬀected many other countries.
Just before COVID-19 erupted, I had pushed through my shyness around making new friends by setting up a LGBTQ social group on Meetup.com. I needed friends, and I like hiking, so I took on an LGBTQ hiking group and invited people to join me. I am deeply grateful to the mix of immigrants and Portuguese who came along and made the group a success. After only a few hikes, we stopped and waited until lockdowns enabled us to meet in groups of 10, and then avoided public transport with hikes around city parks. I have a photograph from 2020 of ten happy hikers in Parque Bela Vista, eight of whom remain friends today.
LGBTQ Hiking Portugal now has over 2,400 members, and has run more than 70 hiking, picnic
and cycling events in the last three years. A team of occasional organisers maintains a trickle of periodic events, and we encourage you to join us and propose your own!
Starting a business in Lisbon
While I’d arrived in Lisbon 2019 with £12,000 in the bank and a desperate need to relax, I do need to work for a living, so over the last four years, I developed both a new life in Portugal and a new career or two. I love Lisbon, I love to share my love of Lisbon, and I’m passionate about asserting the history of LGBTQ lives, so in 2023 I started Alex’s Queer Lisbon, a half-day walking tour around Bairro Alto and Principe Real to visit the sights of Lisbon’s fascinating, scandalous and sometimes bizarre Queer past at the same time as we tour the modern gay-scene venues. (The money would be terrible, but it would be fun!) Also that year, I started Alex’s Queer Lisbon Treasure Hunt: An LGBTQ History Event, which brings Lisbon’s queer history to life through a team adventure (in English) around the main gay neighbourhoods of Bairro Alto and Principe Real, then comes together for a pub-quiz and prizes.
The tours cover 17th-Century cruising sites; anecdotes from 19th-Century sex work; gay life during the Inquisition, Dictatorship, and Carnation Revolution; why Fado is queer; how Pride is diﬀerent in Lisbon; how LGBTI+ rights were established in Portugal; the ﬁrst drag shows; how Fernando Pessoa has been denied; the Three Marias; Two Fernandes; and gay writers, Queer pop stars, straight censors, disgraced 19th-Century politicians, real-life spies, and 20th-Century feminists.
Learning from experience
Understanding a new industry has been demanding, and working in a diﬀerent business culture has required me to adapt my expectations and approach. Finding a broker to arrange the necessary insurance practically brought me to tears of frustration, and it’s been fascinating to discover how business in Portugal relies on personal introductions and recommendations for even routine commercial necessities.
But the ﬂip side of relying on personal contacts in business is the beneﬁt of those relationships. The support of individual MrBnB owners has been invaluable and, especially, the Late Birds Hotel, where we ﬁnish our tour and for whose guests I run other cultural and history tours. Word of mouth recommendations have been essential to generating business, and interest from within the LGBTI+ community led to a double-page feature in Público, a national newspaper.
Alex’s Lisbon Tours & Events is still in its start-up phase, and it has been a challenge to reach LGBTI+ visitors in a crowded market. To generate interest, I wrote Alex’s Long List: LGBTQ Guide to Lisbon, a 40-page guide that goes beyond a list of bars and clubs to include a Queer events calendar; culture, sports, and women’s groups; community support groups; an LGBTI+ map of Lisbon; LGBTI+ health services (male and female); Queer news sources; and more. Alex’s Long List helps visitors and residents make the best use of the community and raises the proﬁle of Lisbon as a city with a diverse and welcoming Queer scene.
A bright future
So, did the Carnation Revolution create space for a revolution in gay rights, as that young, American journalist wondered back in 1974? As we learn on Alex’s Queer Lisbon Tour, just three weeks after the revolution, General Galvão de Melo declared that “the 25th of April was not made for prostitutes and homosexuals to claim”. But his attempted counter-revolution ended badly for him and, just seven years later, homosexuality was decriminalised in Portugal. Since 1983, constitutional protection from discrimination has enabled progress towards full LGBTI+ equality in marriage, family rights, adoption/reproduction, age of consent, and gender self-determination.
I’m grateful for the welcome Portugal has given me, and I hope I can keep giving something back in my small way.