35 years of cruising

35 years of cruising – notes from a blond

Bruce Vilanch

Thirty-five years ago a gay cruise meant a stroll through the rotting docks on the Hudson River, hoping you would find true love and not simultaneously plunge through a floorboard into the icy depths below. Now those piers have been replaced by a gigantic ship terminal from which as many as 2,000 prosperous and proud gay people haul ass and anchor on exclusively gay cruises on some of the largest ships in the world. Thirty-five years ago most gay bars were on side streets, trying their best to look like shoe repair shops so no one would wander in unexpectedly. Lights were kept low so no one would be recognized. On the holiday cruise I took, there were a dozen bars on the ship, all of them gay, but the lights were still kept low so no one could see the work anyone had had done recently.

Thirty-five years ago the gay community was the steam room at one or two designated YMCA facilities. This summer the 1,800 people on our ship represented a complete microcosm of what really is a gay community. There were couples and singles. Some of the couples were taking a break from their kids. Some were taking a break from each other, for at least a few hours a night.

There were old couples who didn’t make it to the White Party but who could be found at 7 in the morning ready to board the bus to take a look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There were young couples who couldn’t keep their hands off each other’s leaning towers. There were all-night partyers trying not to fall overboard as the fitness freaks jogged past them at sunup. There were old queens who’d been everywhere and who appeared after hours of labor in meticulous `60s drag. There were twinkies who’d been nowhere, staring numbly at the euros their daddies handed them, wondering what all this Monopoly money was about. There were a hundred or so lesbians defying all stereotyping by being at the center of the hoopla, laughing and joking and looking incredibly carefree in the middle of all these men. There were trolls who stalked the moonlit decks late at night. There were activist firebrands getting into loud political conversations with people who just wanted to belt back drinks with parasols in them. There was even a little person, who twinkled each time he noted that, on a deck full of Speedos, his eyes were at crotch level 24-7.

The ship had never hosted a gay cruise before, and there was some concern from seasoned travelers that the international crew wouldn’t know what to make of us. The whole idea of a gay cruise is to establish a comfort zone in an area where gay travelers most often feel alienated. A fearful crew could ruin everything. The cruise line, which had hosted this group on other ships, had prepared. Crew members were given the option of taking the week off or staying on board, but if they stayed, they were put through a mandatory series of sensitivity training sessions.

Every single crew member stayed. Bored with the standard-issue passenger (usually older, or younger with a family), they came alive when the gay group arrived. They couldn’t believe the parties, the camaraderie, and, of course, the tips, not to mention the collection of drag, drug, and God knows what other paraphernalia we left behind.

The only crew member who didn’t seem overly thrilled to have us around was the captain, a stern Norwegian who refused to give a cocktail party, refused to organize a captain’s table, and refused to meet any of us. His first officer, a raging queen, was a regular at tea dance, the one in the dress whites with the beeper going off telling him to report to the bridge. I tried to find the captain’s palm tree to throw it overboard as a symbolic act, but the old Viking didn’t even have one.

A more hostile authority figure than the captain was faced when 1,800 gay boys descended on the Vatican. It was more of a red-letter day for the passengers than the priests, since the Vatican probably hadn’t seen quite so many homosexuals in its halls since, oh, the day before, or the day before that. It felt momentous to me, watching the newest gay community meet one of the oldest. Well, at least they’ve been around more than 35 years.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group