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Cruising to Equality? The Cruise Industry & LGBTQ+ Rights

Gay couple walking along beach holding hands with their child

Gay cruises helped establish the LGBTQ+ tourism market — and gain civil rights. Has the ship now sailed?

In “Cruising to Equality: Tourism, U.S. Homonationalism, and the Lesbian and Gay Family Market,” author Liz Montegary wrote (as she explains now) that “spending money in local and global tourism markets increased the visibility of ‘respectable,’ economically privilegedm lesbian and gay parents and, in doing so, strengthened lesbian and gay demands for marital and parental rights.”

The focus of her study was the LGBTQ+ family cruise company R Family Vacations. 

Montegary is now director of graduate studies at Stony Brook University’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and author of the 2018 book Familiar Perversions: The Racial, Sexual, and Economic Politics of LGBT Families. In the nearly two decades since R Family launched, the LGBTQ+ cruise industry has been dramatically transformed. (Read how R Family is changing as well). And while marriage equality is currently the law of the land, parental rights are under threat and a Supreme Court justice wants to undo our marriages. I

In this conversation we talk to Montegary about the connection between cruising and equality.  

Has cruising contributed to LGBTQ+ equality?

I think cruising has played a role in moving some LGBTQ+ people toward equality, but I also think it has contributed to moving other LGBTQ+ people further from equality.

The cruise industry helped establish the LGBTQ+ tourism market — and gain rights. But has it gone far enough?

As companies began more aggressively courting “pink dollars” over the course of the 1990s, group-based commercial activities, like tourism, took on new meaning. Lesbian and gay identity was organized around a shared set of desires — not just in terms of same-sex eroticism but now around shared consumer wants and common political interests. Within this context, private acts of consumption — like booking a cruise — could be experienced as politicized public acts. Not only were these travelers doing the political work of building community, they were also increasing their visibility as valuable consumers deserving of state recognition and legal protections.

Now for my but. Tourism is only a liberatory site for LGBTQ+ travelers equipped with the bodies, resources, legal status, and cultural capital needed to engage in leisure travel. By increasing the visibility of gender conforming, economically privileged, and able-bodied/ minded LGBTQ+ citizens, the industry effectively marginalizes those who cannot or will not conform to the white middleclass norms of consumer culture.

I’m not convinced “equality” is the thing we should be cruising toward. This is not to say legal rights and protections don’t matter. They most certainly do! But, over the past few decades, demands for LGBTQ+ “equality” have been disconnected from racial, economic, and disability justice. Rather than focusing on structural change and the redistribution of wealth and life chances, movements for “equality” have narrowly focused on gaining access to the military, marriage and the family, consumer culture, etc. — the very institutions that cause harm and unevenly allocate material resources.

Talk about mobility justice and how it relates to the cruising industry.

This conceptual framework understands mobility as an unfairly distributed resource and analyzes the structures that make the freedom of movement possible for some and impossible for others. Mobilities researchers pay particular attention to the fact that the mobility of certain individuals often depends upon the containment or displacement of others. The expansion of the cruise industry, in particular, has had devastating economic and environmental effects on local populations and ecosystems…. [And] cruising threatens to always be at odds with truly transnational justice movements for gender and sexual liberation.

Some LGBTQ+ travelers now prefer to travel on mainstream cruises.

I’m quite intrigued by the rise of “inclusive” mainstream cruise packages. Cruises emerged as an incredibly popular and profitable venue for hosting communitybuilding vacations. The perceived safety of the cruise ship was especially appealing for [queer] tourists. The availability of “inclusive” vacation options marks a break from the industry’s earlier attempts to sell the fantasy of escaping the straight world and sailing away in a queer utopia. Instead, these companies hold out the promise of inclusion and assimilation.

I can’t help recalling a conversation I had with students a few years ago. My students were appalled to learn lesbians and gay men have been forced to vacation separately. I was so caught off guard that I almost cracked up: Why on Earth would queers want to travel with straights?! I eventually pulled myself together, and we had an interesting conversation about community-building projects…but [they] remained uncomfortable with the idea of “segregating” the queers from the straights. 


Bear Couple on VACAYA cruise


Anything else you’d like to share about LGBTQ+ cruises?

I wanted to clarify that, regardless of how companies market their cruises, we can’t be totally sure how people will use the space of the ship. In the longer version of my “Cruising to Equality” article (which is chapter 2 of Familiar Perversions), I talk about some of the unexpected encounters I had while on my Alaska cruise.

Take, for example, the group of 40-something-year-old gay men, all of whom identified as bears. For them, the appeal of R Family was not the child-friendly aspect but rather the sexually flexible space that refused to abide by the ageist and fatphobic bodily norms associated with most all-male gay cruises.

Or, consider the contingent of white gay men in their thirties…. According to them, the hot tubs had been a prime spot for being cruised by dads who were looking for some fun after putting their kids to bed.

So, even as I wonder (and maybe worry) about what might be a growing preference for “inclusive” vacation opportunities, I want to acknowledge that people don’t always use spaces in the way they are intended. I have the utmost of faith in the capacity of queer sexual cultures to permeate these new configurations. And we can’t really know what kinds of queer desires and alliances — erotic, political, or otherwise — might take shape on the decks of these “gay-friendly” cruises.

Find more of our cruise coverage here.

Gay men at pool on Atlantis cruise

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