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Trailblazer: Dr Christian Jessen – ‘I was arrested in Uganda for being a spy’

Trailblazer: Dr Christian Jessen – ‘I was arrested in Uganda for being a spy’

Where’s the most random destination you’ve visited?
I’ve spent a lot of time in east Africa – it’s incredible. You cross over the border from Kenya into Uganda and they’re completely different countries; even the soil’s a different color.

How did you feel as a gay traveler in those countries – did you feel safe?
It’s weird I suppose – you switch off ‘gay’. Now I’m known for being gay, but at that age – 19, 20 – I was less aware of my sexuality; it wasn’t really an issue, sex wasn’t happening. To say 19-year-olds aren’t interested in sex is probably a bit of a fib, but it wasn’t on the agenda at that time. It was just such a mind-blowing experience being out there volunteering at that age, I had enough to be thinking about.

What’s been your biggest travel disaster?
I was arrested in Uganda for being a spy – I was put in a Ugandan prison for four days. It was basically a big scam to try and get money out of the naive white tourist traveler. But I’d been living out [there] for about six months, so I wasn’t having any of it. After four days of refusing to give in they let me go.

I was at a place called the ‘source of the Nile’ where they were building a big dam, where it comes out of Lake Victoria and becomes the Nile and starts its journey all the way up through Africa to Egypt. I was taking photos of them building it, and a couple of policemen thought ‘let’s have a go at this one.’

They arrested me and accused me of spying on the dam project, of wanting to sabotage it. Four days in a Ugandan prison – I wouldn’t recommend it, whatever your kinks may be.

Was it traumatic?
Very. You’re in a locked room with lots of other people, one of whom told me he had just killed his wife. Of course one has no clean water, I got malaria… Looking back I was incredibly vulnerable. They asked for money – if I’d just handed it over I would’ve been out the same day! But my stubbornness said no, they’re not getting away with this, absolutely not…

Thank goodness your sexuality didn’t come into it…
Quite. It could’ve been quite unpleasant. I spoke good Swahili by then, which helped me. They quickly worked out I really wasn’t the naive tourist. It backfired and they let me go with a bit of an apology.

Moving on – where’s the best place you’ve been on holiday?
I know you interviewed Alan Carr recently and he said Costa Rica. I don’t want to copy him but it is an extraordinary place! We went to Costa Rica as a family 15 or 20 years ago, and went horse riding through the rainforests. We had a native guide showing us the birds, the insects, the animals. It’s my most memorable holiday ever.


So you’ve been well-travelled since you were a child?
I probably am compared to most. I film a lot abroad. I worked out I’ve been to 40 of the 50 states of America. And I’ve got some good trips coming up. I’m going to Lucerne to see some opera soon – I’m a bit of an opera queen!

Where were you going the last time you went on a plane?
Amsterdam a few weeks ago. I went for one of their big Saturday chat shows as a guest and I had a few extra days with my partner, just bumming around! It poured with rain every single day, but I think it’s a lovely city. The Dutch are beautiful: very good-looking, very tall, very friendly. Also as I’m a big Napoleon fanatic, and they have a special exhibition on [Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine, a Story of Friendship, War and Art is at Hermitage Amsterdam until 8 November]. We got invited to the gala opening evening – that was quite exciting!

Where has been the most romantic destination you’ve been to?
It’s between Paris and some amazing places in Italy – not the usual cliches but the little out of the way places, like San Gimignano, with its little fortress on a hillside [below].

Have you ever experienced homophobia abroad?
Personally, no. When I go abroad I don’t ‘do’ gay. Let’s say I go to Paris, I don’t go to gay bars and stuff. I can do that at home, it’s probably nothing different. I don’t know – how does one say this in a not too inflammatory way? I don’t think I look particularly gay or come across particularly gay.

To be honest, it’s never really been a problem for me my whole life. I’ve never experienced it. I’ve experienced it indirectly; I’ve heard homophobic comments, but not aimed at me. I’m lucky in that respect.

That’s your experience and is probably the experience for a lot of LGBTI people – it’s different for everybody.
It is. I think you can help yourself avoid it or you can sometimes be a little bit naive. Not invite it, because it’s never justified, but I think some people are not as careful as perhaps they could be, knowing the problems and the dangers [in some countries].

Do you think the travel industry does enough to cater for same-sex couples?
I think governments could do more, I don’t think it’s up to tour operators. There are some governments who could make gay people feel a lot more welcome. I was having this debate the other day – should we be boycotting countries with terrible human rights records, and terrible attitude to gayness, or should we be flocking there in our droves to show we’re not going away? It’s a difficult one to answer.

[Also] we want to be totally equal and included in with everyone else, but on the other hand we want to do gay holidays and gay tours. Well, which is it? Do you want to do a gay cruise or do you want – and I hate to use the phrase but I’m going to – a ‘normal’ holiday? Part of me says we should just get on and do what everyone else does, rather than shouting about it and being too political sometimes, which can grate a little bit. I get [that]. Just shut up and get on with your life!

So you’ve never done a gay cruise then?
Well…I have! [laughs] It was a freebie. I got invited on the Queen Mary 2, and I think it was their one and only gay cruise. It was from Southampton to New York and back again, so five days at sea. In a way it was incredibly dull, but actually it was quite extraordinary being aboard a ship as famous as the Queen Mary 2, just full of gay people! Would I do it again? Probably not. It was a bit much!

Dr Christian is hosting the National AIDS Trust’s annual Spring Awakening on the 13 May at BAFTA in London. For tickets, visit the official website