My husband, Jacob, is scooping mango-shrimp salsa onto his platter when he realizes that standing next to him at the buffet aboard this city-sized Holland America cruise ship is Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer, one of the most visible, highest-ranking lesbians to fight the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He blushes, turns to her to say hello but manages only to stammer, “Thank you.” He meant for her service, her legacy, her willingness to come out and fight the good fight on behalf of all queer soldiers. But I’m sure she thought he was just a geeky trans boy thanking her for passing that bowl of chips.
We’re aboard an Olivia cruise to the Caribbean. It’s our third, and Jacob is one of four men on the ship, along with 2,000 women. They blend into the background but appreciate the environment nonetheless.
That’s because an Olivia cruise isn’t just a cruise. It’s a sort of cultural touchstone for queer girls, combining all the best elements of a protest, a women’s studies seminar, and a wild party. It’s as if we’ve marched on Washington but brought along performers, DJs, and swimsuits.
The first time I heard of Olivia, I was standing outside a small auditorium where folk singer-songwriter Diedre McCalla had just performed. A woman there had McCalla’s albums, then still on cassette tape, along with tapes by dozens of other women, almost all lesbian, including Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Tret Fure, and Margie Adam. All of the albums were produced by Olivia Records.
Already a brand decades before American marketers were obsessed with building brands, Olivia began as a small record company founded by a lesbian-feminist collective. Named for the 1949 novella Olivia, it provided a way for a group of radical lesbians to build their own economic base in 1973, a year when women could not even get approved for credit cards without a male co-signer. The women — musicians and activists all — lived together, and many loved together as well. Founders Ginny Berson, who went on to become a famed radio broadcaster, and Christian, the first musician whose album they released, were a couple at the time of the group’s founding, and their sexual energy helped propel their contributions to the group. Berson, who had come from the Furies collective, espoused what all of the women felt at the time: “Lesbianism is not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice, which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy.” As co-founder Judy Dlugacz, now the company’s president and CEO, once told me about realizing she could choose to be gay, “I thought I had discovered the Holy Grail. It’s not only OK to be a lesbian, but it’s the strongest and most independent way a woman can live.”
While the record company never made money, it did make history. McCalla, Christian, Fure, and Williamson, whose Changer and the Changed is still among the best-selling indie albums in its genre, all made music for Olivia. And the company produced the first compilation of music by lesbian artists, in response to Anita Bryant’s antigay “Save Our Children” campaign. Adam’s lesbian feminist anthem “We Shall Go Forth” is now in the political history archives at the Smithsonian.
Olivia also successfully created an underground culture of women who used the albums as identifiers, calling cards, and soundtracks to their own coming out. When record sales eventually waned, the collective’s members drifted and broke up, and Dlugacz reimagined the music festival environment that Olivia had provided and took it out to sea.
Suddenly lesbian money rolled in, and so, too, did stories of life-altering travel. Olivia cruises became a lifeline, a haven in often harsh, closeted lives. For many women, the cruises were — and still are — the only time they can be out in their day-to-day lives; for some, they’re the only time they’ve ever felt safe traveling as a gay woman.
Today, the company’s annual revenue — around $20-$30 million — makes Olivia the world’s largest company to serve the lesbian community. Nearly 200,000 women have taken more than 150 trips around the globe with Olivia. The reason isn’t about marketing or consumerism, or even about the increasing power of the lesbian dollar. It’s because Olivia the travel company still feels like it’s run by Olivia the lesbian collective. That sense of safety, community, and empowerment those 10 women were initially seeking is all there on a giant seaworthy vessel, combined with modern amenities many of us don’t even have in our homes (spa, anyone?). And as the years have gone by, Olivia has started to offer not just meaningful lesbian trips, but once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, wondering how a cruise can change a life, I’m with you. I felt exactly the same way before my first cruise. I met countless women who told me that they could only be themselves on the Olivia trips, or that they saved up all year for their one Olivia trip, or that this was their tenth or 14th Olivia trip. I scoffed in line at my first cruise; why repeat something year after year? Seven days later, as I was booking another cruise myself, I understood. That’s the O effect, and after a week or ten days of it, you can expect a heady withdrawal.
That’s because Olivia also makes you feel like you are part of a social movement. The company has donated millions of dollars to LGBT groups and has found ways to integrate education and social justice on its cruises, often offering lesbians information they can’t get in some of their hometowns. For example, on Olivia’s first Cruise for our Cause, women packed into a series of educational workshops on lesbian health and sexuality taught by experts including Dr. Susan Love; cruisers then walked the decks to raise money for breast cancer research. And the Olivia women have an impact on the world around them.
In Kusadasi, a port in Turkey, the women of Olivia spent half a million dollars in one day just after the end of the Kosovo War. The next day, several newspapers in Istanbul ran front-page articles about the “wonderful women of Olivia” who helped revive the local economy. The next day, as they arrived at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Dlugacz says the shopkeepers were calling out, “Lovely lesbian ladies, come to my shop!” It was, she claims, the first time the word “lesbian” appeared in a Turkish newspaper.
Sure, it’s a story, but it seems like one we hear again and again. When you arrive in a port with hundreds of other women, we descend en masse, a swarm of female empowerment that feels safe and free and adventurous all at once. Women explore foreign countries in a way they never would without this Sapphic solidarity. And lesbians in other countries are now there to meet them. As we arrived in Curaçao, we passed a giant rainbow banner that read: “Ladies of Olivia, the les(bi)an community of Curaçao welcomes you!” They held a party in our honor, and many of us spent the night getting to know what life is like in the Dutch Caribbean country.
The last cruise I was on, the one where Jake met Cammermeyer, was like a floating archive of lesbian herstory. The 40th anniversary Caribbean cruise left just before Valentine’s Day of 2013 with an amazing roster of performers, speakers, and leaders. Many of the original founders of Olivia were there, including Williamson, Berson, and Christian. Also aboard were famous lesbian comics (Kate Clinton, Marga Gomez, Elvira Kurt, Karen Williams, and Julie Goldman) and special guests Edie Windsor, Billie Jean King, and Tammy Smith, the first out lesbian U.S. general.
Appearing on an Olivia cruise — and mingling with, not hiding from, the other, less famous travelers all week — has become a sort of new rite of passage for celesbians like swimmer Diana Nyad, musicians k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, and actresses Lily Tomlin and Meredith Baxter. Big mainstream performers want to perform on an Olivia cruise now, too; Heart, Wynonna Judd, and Whoopi Goldberg have all entertained the ladies of Olivia. But on this anniversary cruise, the focus was those founders of “women’s” music — watching the legendary, pioneering lesbian musicians jam together, singing songs I remember from old cassette tapes and talking about the things I too had experienced in the ’80s and ’90s. It was my history; it was our history.
Jacob, who still identified with the lesbian-feminist cause even though he’s now a man, turned to me and said, “This is our history come alive. This is the most amazing experience I could imagine.”
It did and it was.
Olivia offers dozens of trips this year, from riverboats (Amsterdam to Switzerland seems popular) to resorts (Club Med Cancun, one of my faves) to culinary cruises in Italy, France, and Spain. But none, I imagine, will top February’s Caribbean Equality and Leadership Cruise, which brought together some of our most important voices, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Maya Angelou, Windsor, Cammermeyer, the National Center for Lesbian Rights’s Kate Kendall, former Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch, the Indigo Girls, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Baxter, Williams, and Antigone Rising to talk about LGBT issues, leadership, equality, and the things that are affecting lesbian lives around the country.
Add to that the bikini-clad pool parties, concerts, comedy shows, daily bingo and dating games, the Sisters at Sea program, and all the fun that accompanies Caribbean travel (snorkeling in the Virgin Islands, feeding stingrays in Half Moon Cay, riding a rainforest zipline a little too soon after touring the Bacardi distillery in Puerto Rico). That’s the beauty of Olivia, a social movement that’s truly social and perfectly lesbian — political and thinky, sexy and adventurous, and sometimes filled with one too many piña coladas — masquerading as a business.
Image credits: Sascha Baumann/AFP/Getty Images (Etheridge); Rachel Murray/Getty Images For Puma (Love); Jamie Mccarthy/Getty Images For Out100 Presented By Buick (Windsor); Michael Loccisano/Getty Images For The Women’s Sports Foundation (King); Tina Silano (Pool Women); Mike Coppola/Getty Images (Tomlin); Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Indigo Girls); Courtesy Olivia (First Cruise Group); Courtesy Olivia (Dlugacz); Bryan Bedder/Getty Images (Clinton); Tina Silano (Women On Beach); Courtesy Olivia (Ship)