When Robin Tyler, a Los Angeles-based lesbian activist and former comedian, went on a gay cruise over 20 years ago she experienced what many do when they sail the high seas with hundreds of LGBT people: too much “cruising,” too little actual cruising.
“There were nine bars on the ship!” she says now.
Tyler, producing women’s music festivals at the time, decided she wanted to go on a cruise where people actually got off at the ports of call and experienced the culture of the places where the ships disembarked. But her options for gay, lesbian, or LGBT-exclusive options were slim.
“In 1990, there were only one or two cruise companies that gay or lesbian people could charter,” she says. “I think there was one male company.”
Tyler called luxury vacation company Abercrombie & Kent and told them she wanted to take women, specifically lesbians, on exotic tours.
“I explained I had this group of older women, not old but not young, and I wanted to travel the world,” she recalls. “So they sent me to Africa for nothing and it was fabulous. The next thing I knew I brought 60 women to Africa.”
The successful first venture turned into Robin Tyler International Tours & Cruises, a boutique travel company now run by Tyler and her wife Diane Olson. Tyler and Olson were two of the original plaintiffs in the California supreme court lawsuit challenging the state’s marriage ban; the case was a catalyst in the eventual legalization of marriage equality there. Tyler and Olson produce the trips themselves, chartering the ships, traveling with the women, visiting far-off places like Jordan and Nepal, and cruising down the Amazon and Nile.
Tyler and Olson have never advertised, relying completely on referrals and extremely good word-of-mouth. New Yorker Linda Ware has traveled on Robin and Diane’s trips to Botswana and the Galapagos Islands, and she and her partner have nothing but praise.
“[Initially] I thought, What’s it going to be like with all women?” Ware says. “Are we going to stand out? But it was fabulous. On the Galapagos trip, we had a yacht to ourselves. In Botswana, we stayed at some of the best lodges, and they were small and intimate. She really only does top tours.”
All the cruises are individually curated by Tyler and Olson, who meet the tour guides before the trip.
“Robin always makes it very clear with the [tour] companies that we’re a gay group,” Olson says. “And we meet who we’re going to be dealing with so it’s not uncomfortable or unsafe.”
Since the company’s inception, the trips have been women-only. But next year’s cruise to Myanmar will be different: men are invited.
“I once took a huge crew over to the Gay Games in Australia and guys wanted to join us,” Tyler says. “I said no, but the truth is I should have said yes. I have friends who are gay men who like theater and what I love. They want life experiences. So it doesn’t have to be broken down anymore into men and women.”
Tyler and Olson are extremely excited for the Myanmar trip in March 2015 (Tyler is taking this year off to make a film about comedy), which includes a river cruise that wends through the Southeast Asian nation and stops in historical cities like Bagan and Mandalay. There are also pre-cruise options with more time in Myanmar, or a longer option along the famed Yangtze River in China.
Places like China and Jordan aren’t known for their hospitality toward LGBT travelers, but Tyler and Olson say they only deal with charters and tour operators who embrace gay and lesbian tourists. Ware says that in Botswana, the innkeepers and tour guides didn’t bat an eye when women embraced and kissed. The reward for people like that, Tyler and Olson believe, is the LGBT dollar.
Visiting Russia is not an option though, as the country moves backward, not forward, when it comes to LGBT rights.
“[Diane] and I did a conference [in Russia] in 1990 on communism,” Tyler says. “So I’ve been there. Unless I was going back with some activists to work with Russian LGBT people, I would not go back.”
Click here for more information on Robin and Diane’s company. Egypt picture by Lorraine Michaels.