This year, my partner and I took an Olivia cruise to Alaska. For the uninitiated, Olivia has been marketing cruises and resort vacations to lesbians for almost 40 years. We had heard about them for years, but we had kept putting off going on one, partly because of my water phobia. I don’t mind being beside the water, but being on water makes me terror-stricken. Because of this problem, I looked forward to the trip, taken to celebrate my partner’s 80th birthday in advance, with mixed feelings. We had friends on the cruise and who doesn’t want fabulous, unlimited food for a week; on the other hand, water ….
The trip was amazing! Yes, I spent every night wondering exactly what I would do if the ship (that held over 1400 cruisers) sank. Totally unreasonable, but that’s me. But I loved the food and the travel, and the scenery was fantastic, sort of like the Rocky Mountains on steroids. Despite a few grumps, the women we met were interesting, most of them up and excited about the experience. We talked with women from the United States and Canada and Australia and met friends’ friends. A real delight!
Most astonishing was the feeling of camaraderie on the ship. In the past I had been on other cruises—despite the water—with straight people. Any non-straight people were hiding. On this ship, most of the women wanted to talk with each other. When we saw each other on shore, most of us identified by sweatshirts and jackets that said “Olivia,” we spoke to each other. There was a feeling of joy and lightness and friendliness that I had not found on other cruises.
We even had an oddly serendipitous experience. One friend, who didn’t go on the cruise, kept insisting that we had to go to see Suede, one of her favorite singers. We’re not particularly evening people, but we didn’t want to disappoint our friend, so we faithfully presented ourselves at the door 30 minutes early so that we would have good seats. “We can always leave,” I told my partner.
As we waited for Suede at the end of a long couch, another couple sat down next to us. I turned to the nearest one with my usual opener, “So where are you from?” When she said “Phoenix,” I perked up because my partner is an Arizona native and I had lived there with her for almost 30 years. The other woman said, “I’m a native of Phoenix.” A little more conversation, and we discovered, much to the shock of all four of us, that the “native of Phoenix” has a cousin who is married to my partner’s oldest brother. The six degrees of separation had radically decreased.
There actually is a point to my rambling, however. My partner and I have been mostly out as lesbians in our little Oregon Coast town for upwards of 20 years. I feel safe and assume that I am mostly accepted for my gender orientation. But I learned on this cruise that being in an environment where I know I am judged as a person and not possibly rejected as a lesbian is far different that the real world outside the Olivia cruise.
This became very clear when a straight friend, who also went on the cruise, confided that she didn’t tell anyone about her husband because she didn’t want to make the women she met uncomfortable. I looked at her and said, “That’s how lots of LGBT people think. We don’t tell people we meet about our partners because we don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable.”
Suddenly, I realized how straight people must feel: they never have to worry about being judged because they are straight. On the other hand, we always wonder if someone is judging us just on our gender orientation. People who never have to hide their feelings for the ones they love will never understand how it feels to negotiate the feelings of those around them. It’s not that we feel we’re wrong; it’s just that we know many of them think we are.
I am lucky to have many friends who realize that I have shared a wonderful relationship with an incredible woman for almost 43 years. In fact, many of them like her better than they like me. Some of these friends, however, don’t understand why LGBT people need marriage for legal rights. A dinner discussion on the cruise showed that even other LGBT people may not understand that we are not guaranteed legal rights even with wills and powers of attorney.
After a week of feeling secure in our place in the world—except for the water underneath us—I came home to the far-right hatred found in everyday’s news: in their lawsuits to keep marriage “safe” for a union between one man and one woman, in their determination to return to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” life for gays and lesbians in the military, in their desire to prove that their Christian religion excludes anyone except the straight and narrow.
The world is far safer for us than it was fifty years ago, but there’s still that everyday carefulness—don’t touch in public, don’t hold hands, don’t look at each other too close, don’t make people uncomfortable so that we’ll be safe.
I’m glad I’m home to my friends and my pets and my comfortable patterns of life. But I’m also grateful that I had the chance for one week of the carefree life I found on the ship when I was the norm.