The gayest thing I’ve ever written was the email I sent a straight buddy of mine in Houston: “I’m going on a gay cruise on the Queen Mary 2.” He shot back: “This sentence is redundant.” And then: “Are you serious?”
I never intended to go on a gay cruise. Months and months ago, when people started hearing that RSVP Vacations, the gay and lesbian vacation company owned by Planet Out, had chartered this particular ship, the buzz began. Mostly it was the fact that the QM2 is the jewel in the crown of Cunard, the venerable British company whose ocean liners (not cruise ships; there are significant differences in both structure and style) are legendary, of a different and higher class in the most English sense of the word. The QM2 was, when it was launched in 2004, the largest luxury ship in the world—it is longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall and is still among the top five—and its white-glove service, its pearls-gowns-and-tuxedos ethos, and the fact that this was not “a cruise” but “a crossing,” straight from New York to Southampton U.K. (on the path of the Titanic), put it a world away from the lite-Caribbean disco of the usual gay cruise. So I decided to go.
Under the crystalline warm blue sky of May 29, 2007 we all gathered on the decks, lined up on railings above railings, 2,000 homosexuals drinking champagne and watching the New York skyline slowly recede. A low collective sound began to swell, I turned around to see the top of the ship, 23-stories tall (!), on a collision course with the underside of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We all stared, thousands of people almost involuntarily generating a noise that rose from awe to a cheer, “WhaaAAAOOOH!!” as we cleared the soaring metal span by feet. We looked at each other, astonished and thrilled. The QM2 moved into the ocean. Then, we got down to the business of six days of partying.
If it was for us a different gay cruise from any other, it was very different for the crew. In their years with Cunard, this was a first. They’d had some “what to expect from the gays” training, but you could tell they were a bit hesitant at first, quiet Eastern European stateroom maids and straight-guy stewards from Turkey and India. And here were thousands of queens, Louis Vuitton luggage, Helmut Lang shoes—yes, lots of Chelsea-boy gear. By the second day I’d already heard the ship’s store had never sold so many condoms (given the QM2’s usual not-exactly-youthful passenger demographic, this was perhaps not entirely astounding, but the salespeople still had raised eyebrows).
We carried the daily schedules around in our pockets and still never managed to do everything. We crammed in Varla Jean Merman, the drag queen who is the love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine and jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway. Comedienne Suzanne Westenhoefer started us off the first evening on the Royal Court Theater’s main stage, and she killed. “So there aren’t any port stops on this cruise,” she said. “Usually the dykes are up at 6am. ‘We’re gonna go bungee jumping! Then we scuba dive! Then we climb a volcano!’” She paused. “The fags get up at noon.” She squinted, painfully. “’Where are we? Cabo? Did we bring outfits for Cabo?” We ran for planetarium showings, cocktail parties, and movie screenings; RSVP previewed the Judith Light/ Robert Gant/ Chad Allen movie “Save Me,” an amazingly nuanced, honest, and compassionate depiction of a fundamentalist Christian woman who attempts to reprogram young gay men. It premiers in October and may prove to be one of the most important gay-themed movies ever made. Light and Gant took questions from the audience. When Margaret Cho performed, every seat was filled and people sat on the stairs.
But the revelation of the trip was the duo Amy and Freddy. Amy Armstrong is a 6’ big girl from Chicago with short red hair, a jaw-dropping capacity for martinis, a serious soft-serve ice cream habit, a mouth like the whore of Babylon, the voice of an angel, and talent to burn like rocket fuel. Accompanied, as she has been for 12 years by pianist Freddy Alan (who just married his boyfriend), she ripped out our hearts with ballads like “Grateful” and made us roar with “Pussy” (it’s a sing-along). Armstrong is blisteringly fast on her feet, a brilliant comedienne, and a consummate professional: Here is the next Bette Midler. She asked if there were any single bitches in the audience, and when I raised my hand she made me stand up and put me through my paces with both sardonic speed (“So Chandler, you a top or a bottom?” I’m versatile. “Big bottom here, guys!”) and pure love (“Honey, you’ll find someone—you will!”). She played off the straight hot young waiter delivering drinks around her. “Soren!” she yelled over to him, “How do you say, ‘I love your big cock’ in Romanian?” He laughed and refused to say. There was a young Czech woman behind the bar who made the drinks Soren served. “You single, Sylvia?” asked Amy. “You think Soren’s hot?” “I have a husband,” said Sylvia. “And a boyfriend!” shot back a Hungarian waiter. We yelled and stomped our feet for the boyfriend.
There were a few problems. At tea in the giant Queen’s Room, Cunard served whipped cream instead of clotted cream and shockingly cheap jelly instead of real fruit jam, strange mistakes from this high-Brit company. But the worst error was RSVP’s decision to enlarge the smoking areas. Instead of restricting it to a single smoking lounge, almost the entire ship stank of cigarette smoke, one or two smokers infected performance spaces, bars, and parties with their toxic exhaust, and it was a mistake that created constant, nasty low-level warfare. Complaints finally got the nicotine addicts banned from at least a few public spaces, but the smoking policy was a disaster. People were saying they would never again book a cruise without checking on it.
The rest, on the other hand, was magical. The essence of a gay cruise is the people. RSVP established the context and the atmosphere, made sure the ship was so gay she could barely float, and unleashed us into this fantasyland, and for six days we left reality. We wore insane hats to the traditional Cunard hat party; the winners were two guys who wore 3’-long papier maché replicas of the Queen Mary 2 on their heads, but I liked the high-concept huge black Barneys hat box with the feather hat exploding out of it. And then there was the Count (he swore he was a Count; he became known as Lestat), 6’4” with the stiletto goatee and the head-to-toe black leather who wore a hat with a chandelier in it.
We responded with fervor. For the Troop Transport Party (“Dress: Uniform”), a short beefy guy in starched full Marines get-up waited for drinks behind a big blond in a Navy surplus aviator jumpsuit, who was behind a circuit queen in a skin-tight “Go Army!” T-shirt and molded mesh camouflage underwear. (I stopped a guy in an amazing uniform, a bleeding cross on the back of his black jacket that sported Death’s Head epaulets. Was it from New Orleans Mardi Gras? “I don’t know,” he said brightly, “I got it at Saks!”). At the Leather Party, straight Cunard officers and crew from Russia and the Philippines bought drinks and chatted with queens in leather halters and pierced nipples. The good-looking straight waiters (I’m thinking of one tall Czech kid with thick dark hair and a smile that could cause traffic accidents) who at first seemed wary of the requests—“Can we take a picture with you?”—by the end of the week were posing like pros. On formal evenings, everyone put on tuxedos and immaculate dark suits, and we looked like a movie set.
The warmth was palpable. Everyone said hi to everyone else. On Deck 7 at 3am one morning at the 24-hour buffet (which was packed), I watched a guy sit down alone at a table and instantly the four next to him looked over, said, “You by yourself?” He nodded. “Then get your ass over here, queen! Sit with us!” The moment was worth the trip. The first day I met Mike, a doctor from Los Angeles, and Dean, a financial planner from Boston. When on day two I met David and Lars from Sausalito and David from San Francisco, they assumed by the way we interacted that we’d known each other for years. We all became a posse. At meals in the gorgeous Britannia dining room we ordered everything on the menu and put it in the middle of the table. Some new friends we met said, “So how many years have you six known each other?” Nights, we all danced: two-step, ballroom, house…
Two times at 5am I went out on my balcony. I looked fore to see the pale pink sunrise over the Atlantic, the clouds pearly on top and tangerine underneath. Then aft to the huge full moon and a diamond-like Venus in what was left of the violet night sky, and then went to bed.
At dinner the last night, I asked my adorable, big, straight Romanian waiter if he would write down “I love your big cock” in Romanian. He laughed. “You not tell I giving you this,” he said to me with a huge grin and slipped me a card with my dessert course: “Iubesc pula ta mare.” At 9:58pm beside the stage I handed it to Amy (“Bitch!” she said. Peered at it. “So how do I fucking pronounce this?”) In the middle of the show, Soren came up front to deliver her the fifteenth martini the queens in the audience were sending, and she read it to him at full volume, and he went bright red and we all clapped him on the back as he, the handsome and polite straight Romanian gentleman, walked triumphantly back with his tray.
Amy sang I will remember you / Will you remember me, and we all sang along and stood up and cheered forever and no one wanted to leave the Queen’s Room.
The postscript is that I took the QM2 back home. I didn’t even get off the ship. I just went to bed, and the next day everyone disembarked in Southampton, and the ship was empty and desolate for a few hours, and then it started filling up again with the usual passengers. And it was completely different. The magic was gone. The weird thing was, the crew felt it as strongly as I did. I passed one of the masseurs from the spa, a big beefy blond straight guy. “Wow,” he said, “We miss you guys! That was such great energy, it even came in and filled up the spa!” I saw the quiet Croatian restaurant manager. “We loved you,” he said, “everyone was so nice.” A Dutch stateroom maid told me they wished it could be gay all the time. I went to lunch in the Britannia dining room. The shimmer had vanished. The straight Turkish headwaiter stopped by. “We all loving it,” he said, forlorn. “The leather party was amazing.” I looked at him. Uh, was he straight or gay? “Straight,” he said. He shrugged. “But I go, I talking with people. Really fun party, the leather party. Now,” he said, “we missing. We will all remember you.”
At press time, there are no immediate plans for RSVP to host another Queen Mary 2 crossing. But RSVP hosts cruise vacations all over the world (the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Alaska, the South Pacific, etc.) with several more planned this year. If you’d want to go on RSVP’s next cruise, you can book online via http://www.rsvpvacations.com. Or call RSVP directly:
USA: 800.328.RSVP (7787); International: +44 (0) 7968 962 882.