Queers Ahoy!

The high price of gay and lesbian travel

Of the several thousand New Yorkers expected to attend the Gay & Lesbian World Travel Expo at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Thursday, some will be scoping out their next big vacation, while others will be lining up their first Caribbean cruise, trip up the Nile, or commitment package to Hawaii, complete with leis. There's something for everyone--dungeon tours, antique-hunting expeditions, and sweaty sorties for hiking dykes. Everyone has a niche, except the transgendered community; no one's courting them. Yet.

But queer travel has certainly become big business. The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association estimates that gay people spend $30 billion a year on tourism. Community Marketing, Inc., producers of the Travel Expo, claim that an overwhelming 93 percent of gay men they surveyed (based on people who attend such events and direct-mail queries) seek "gay tours, destinations, and suppliers." And for good reason: Having sex behind closed doors isn't a problem for most homosexuals. "Holding hands and watching the sunset is a problem," according to Charles Rounds, president of RSVP, the oldest and largest gay tour packager. "I wouldn't want to be one of 30 fags in the dining room among 3000 heterosexuals," noted Billy Kolber-Stuart, editor of Out & About, a gay travel newsletter.

No wonder queer cruises and tours are popping up like pecs in Chelsea. One calendar lists more than 150 options between now and next August, and that's not counting companies that market to "women" rather than lesbians. Lured by homo dollars, American Airlines, National Car Rental, Carnival Cruise Line, "Gay Friendly Québec," and others are courting the queer consumer. Even in the face of attacks from the right, American Airlines maintains a "RAAinbow Team" of sales reps to market to the gay community.

Until the Cayman Islands refused docking privileges last February to a gay male cruise sponsored by Atlantis Events of Los Angeles, the industry ran like a nuclear submarine, gliding beneath the radar of the American public. It developed quietly at first, with RSVP Travel chartering ships as far back as 1986. Now there are about 20 companies booking cruises or land packages, often taking over a ship or an entire resort for a week.

Lesbian trips quickly differentiate themselves from their gay male counterparts. Theme nights on cruises sum it up. Favorite lesbian themes include the Fabulous Fifties and Klon-Dykes, while gay men have toga parties, leather nights, underwear bashes, and dog-tag tea dances. Lesbians are entertained by the same performers who populate the "wimmin's music festivals": Olivia recording artists like Cris Williamson and Tret Fure, along with comics Marga Gomez and Sara Cytron. Except for top-of-the-line performers, these artists can choose between a modest fee or a free trip with a companion. Male-cruise bookers pay much better, drawing mainstream performers like Sister Sledge, Harvey Fierstein, Lanie Kazan, and the one and only Joan Rivers.

As a rule, lesbians behave very differently from gay men on their vacations. For one thing, the major topic of conversation at the dining table on male cruises is not likely to be sperm donations. But lesbians can be silly, too--as in running around the dining room with napkins on their heads. Still, dykes tend to be activity oriented. The women at the Club Med in Sonora in October 1996 thought nothing of playing a golf tournament, softball, or volleyball, and even mountain biking in the hundred-degree heat. Afterward, the hungry athletes charged the buffet with a gusto that made the running of the bulls in Pamplona look like an amateur event.

The centerpiece of a lesbian cruise is often the "commitment ceremony." This has more in common with an ordinary mixer than with a solemn exchange of vows. On one Olivia Cruises & Resorts excursion, about 200 to 400 women crowded into one of the larger lounges to share where they're from, how long they've been together, and who they are. A few ecumenical words about relationships from Olivia president Judy Dlugacz were followed by a toast, after which everyone snapped souvenir photos, and a band played romantic tunes.

Gay male excursions, in contrast, are party circuits afloat. Even many of the gay male couples expect a hot time on board, and though sex isn't openly promoted by the tour operators, it's clearly in the sea air. Word quickly spreads of different types of sexual activity available on various decks of the ship late at night. "I will not deny it," says Charles Rounds of RSVP. "But just so you know, we have somebody at night, that that's his job, the whole night, from midnight until 6 a.m., to patrol the open decks to keep that activity from going on. When we charter a ship, we agree that there cannot be public sex, so we need to enforce that."

Of course, as Rounds notes, straight people also have deck-sex on their cruises, "and probably lesbians too, let's be democratic." But Eric Rofes, author of Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures, says, "It was always in part about having sex, meeting men, affirming your looks, affirming your sexual taste. That was a big part of the cruise."

On RSVP trips, voyagers' sexual availability is broadcast via green (unattached or open to other relationships), red (monogamous), or yellow (anything goes) wristbands. One magazine editor recalls that on an RSVP cruise to Mexico, some men resented the color coding. "Some wound up turning their red wristbands around because no one would talk to them." Though lesbians tend to be monogamous, putting hundreds together for a week increases the likelihood of new romances exponentially. One woman complains that her partner later swam off with a snorkeling buddy she met on the ship. Would she go on another cruise? "Never!"

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