One day in early December 1974 a crowd of passengers lined up to board the cruise ship Renaissance docked in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. Typically there would be nothing exceptional about this sight.
By 1974 Fort Lauderdale’s was one of the main American cruise ship ports with over 260,000 people departing the port that year for a typical 7-10 day Caribbean vacation cruise.
But in contrast to the typical cruise ship crowd, this one had over 300 men and a small number of women. Most of them were under 35, white and came from New York, California and Florida.
They took part in what the New York Times would later call in a front-page story in its Sunday travel section “The All-Gay Cruise: Prejudice and Pride.”
Obviously prior to this, gay men and lesbians had gone on cruises. However typically, they were as closeted as they were in the cities and towns from where they came. As they did back home, they shared space with others as “roommates.”
However this cruise trip was put together and marketed specifically to the gay and lesbian community. It was organized by the Islanders Club, a gay-owned business in New York which for the past seven years ran weekend shuttle buses to Fire Island. They came up with the idea of an all-gay cruise and were able to interest Paquet Cruises, a subsidiary of a French-owned travel conglomerate that provided the ship Renaissance and its crew.
For a gay man in the mid-1970s, going on a “gay” cruise was a risky thing. Even though Stonewall was a very recent memory and vibrant gay culture were emerging in places like San Francisco and New York, “being in the closet” was still the modus operandi of most gay men and lesbians. Being associated with a “gay” cruise could easily mean the loss of family and friends and the end of one’s career.
Also, for the younger generation of gay men more connected to a post Stonewall sensibility, the prospect of being stuck on a boat for seven days with an older generation of gay men, who bore the psyche wounds and self-hatred inflicted on them by a homophobic society, was not an appealing one. The campy humor and meanness these pre-Stonewall older gay men often threw at each other — à la the 1970 film “Boys in the Band” — would seem more like an extended stay in hell with endless screaming Bette Davis and Joan Crawford imitators than a vacation.
But in the mid-70s various businesses were beginning to wake up to the potential of the gay market. At this point gay group travel was a new thing. The organizers handed out publicity for the cruise at Fire Island that summer. Through both word of mouth and mailed cruise folders the news spread. But the organizers were very concerned that publicity about the cruise would get out to the general public. The over 5,000 cruise folders sent out to people all across the country asked them to remember that “discretion is the better part of folic.”
Fortunately there was no publicity and when the cruise took off and almost all the cabins were sold. A number of travelers' friends came to see the boat off. Amid the usual confetti and streamers, three women at the dockside waved to a pair of bearded men at the rail, “S’ long, Georgie and Michael. Happy Honeymoon!”
The dining room that evening had, in the words of the writer Cliff Jahr, “The exotic air of a Kiwanis Club father-and-son banquet: penny loafers and baggy slacks, cotton pullovers and army fatigues, even Johnny Carson double-knits.”
Notably absent among them were the “‘queens,’ those dyed and cosmetic symbols of homosexuality.” Signs of mid-70s intergenerational tensions were reflected in that “the gay world’s old guard was politely excluded. Effeminacy, seen by the younger gays as a symptom of needless guilt feelings, [was] considered embarrassing and old-fashioned.”
Soon, the mixture of sea-air, six-course dining, pampered loafing and causal mating began to loosen the crowd up. The presence of scores of good looking men was commented on. “I don’t know where to start,” noted one passenger sipping his Tequila Sunrise, “I’ve met three Mr. Rights before lunch.”
The next evening at dinner near the captain’s table sat a group of “leather-men” in black cowhide dress, trimmed with chains, zippers and metal studs. Later at one of the dances, a young man showed up in blond curls wearing a crepe dress and a silver fox clutch cape. At a Hawaiian luau party, one man appeared in a sarong wearing $20,000 worth of jewels.
“They’re always just sitting in the goddam vault,” he said to his table mates.
The theme of each evenings’ dinner was devoted to a celebration of an upcoming 1975 holiday: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Bastille Day and Halloween. Afterward, the entertainment ranged from gay comedians (“Did you notice the boat lisping to one side?”) to various singers. After the entertainment was over the grand salon quickly became a discotheque, with cigarette smoke wafting through the flashing lights. Many passengers stayed to “bugaloo” but others went to their rooms, often as couples or regrouped into small pot parties. Although rumors of “flash orgies” circulated, it was clear the action was in the cabins.
Typically the evening partying lasted past 4 a.m. and in the morning passengers sleepily came out and looked for deckchairs where they would collapse into sleep. Photo-taking, particularly on the sun-deck, was limited. Passengers trusted the discretion of the photographer employed by the ship and others with cameras.
The afternoons were spent with the typical cruise ship diversion: movies, cooking classes, jogging, bingo and calisthenics. However there were other diversions one would never find on the typical cruise.
One was a quiz show You Bet Your Aft based on the popular The Dating Game. A contestant selected a partner by sizing-up the answers given by the three “bachelors” standing unseen behind a screen. Typical question: “Bachelor Number Two — If you were to suddenly become a great American monument which one would you be 1) Old Faithful, 2) Death Valley or 3) The Grand Canyon?” To help the contestant “size-up” the bachelors, there were three valentine-shaped holes cut in the screen to reveal a strategic part of the bachelors’ lower anatomy.
Another was an SM/Leather fashion show with men modeling harnesses, tit-clamps and G-strings and a background tape-recording of the shrieks and moans of someone being savagely whipped. Against this tableaux the announcer narrated: “John is wearing a lovely two-piece vest and matching chaps combination. What lines. If the evening gets warm , he can slip out of his top … those chaps slip off pretty easily too.” Noticing that the captain was watching from the bridge, the announcer went on, “Of course these clothes have no interest for the crew — they’re all STRAIGHT.” To which the captain smiled and shook his head.
On the last afternoon of the cruise, the passengers assembled to select “Mr. Renaissance,” not so much a muscle contest but a Mr. Congeniality award.
Out of 25 contestants, a well-known soap opera actor was selected, who blushed when a red satin robe was draped over his shoulders. Stepping up to the microphone, he flashed a smile and said, “A moment ago I thought this spelled the end of my career. But I am really proud to be part of the cruise.” And speaking to the bad self-image the typical gay man had at that time, he said, “It’s nice we can do something that also lets us feel righteous and good about doing it.”
Many of the men expected that a cruise of 300 gay men would sink into a week bitchery, pretensions and bad manners — the extended stay in hell many feared. Instead the week passed in a warm spirit of moderation, mutual respect and new-found friendships. As one of the organizers of the cruise noted, “Something happened out there on the Renaissance — everyone keeps telling me. While we were having the laughs, we were sort of changing our minds about each other.”