Living in the United States can and will make you pretty spoiled. You become accustomed to life as you know it, and take everyday occurrences completely for granted. Many of us here in Miami are reminded of our abundance as a nation when we share the experience of someone that recently immigrated from Cuba, and see their reactions to to a well stocked produce section at the local grocery store. It’s an all out emotional meltdown at times, something neither person is prepared for. While economic prosperity is something that’s relatively easy to appreciate and witness, individual freedoms are not. Most people vacation in areas of the world where they are welcomed with open arms, but even in the most beautiful and serene locations, the gay tourist has to be mindful of their destination in a different capacity… their personal safety. There are many parts of the world where being homosexual is against the law, and I’m not referring to some distant land on the other side of the planet, I’m talking about enjoying the beauty and splendor of the Caribbean. It was there that my partner Eric and I became very appreciative of the security and liberties we now enjoy in the United States.
Cruising is my idea of the perfect vacation. Every detail is taken care of, and for seven days or more (as is usually our case), your only responsibility is to use the restroom and clothe yourself. For me it’s the ultimate form of relaxation, and for someone that grew up around the sea, nothing could be more appropriate. In the past 17 years I’ve experienced just as many cruises, most of which took place in the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. Many of these cruises were chartered with Atlantis Events, which specializes in providing vacations to the gay community. While Atlantis did a good job in general of keeping us safe, there was once an exception where we experienced mobs of people holding signs and screaming at us while buses took us to our scheduled excursions. The ship was the first all gay vessel to ever dock at Grand Cayman and we were met with much anger and hate. Still, we were all together, thousands of us, and there was quite literally safety in numbers.
Atlantis was a fun alternative to regular cruises when I took my first NCL trip back in 2001. It was a great way to feel comfortable on vacation since so many gays and lesbians were still closeted back then. I still remember our cruise director Malcom telling us during the sail-away-party, that for the next week we could hold our partner’s hand anywhere on-board and we didn’t have to worry about it. Well times have changed and now you can actually get married to the man of your dreams, and invite your family and co-workers to the wedding (you know we do the best weddings….. wedding planners are all gay to begin with.) The appeal of an all gay cruise is arguably no longer the sense of freedom and solidarity, it’s the party itself…and the men. If you’re in a mutual exclusive relationship (monogamous,) and you’ve outgrown the circuit scene, then an all gay cruise can seem as alienating and foreign as a Southern Baptist Convention in Alabama during the middle of summer. With this in mind, Eric and I have always felt extremely comfortable on all our “straight cruises,” with passengers and crew eager to engage us in conversation and merriment. This last voyage, on board Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, was in fact particularly social, with almost a sense of family on-board. However, during a stop in St. Kitts, we were the only gay couple on a day long trip on-board a catamaran, and it was made very obvious to us that we probably shouldn’t have been there.
Our experience on St. Kitts started out much as any wonderful day, the morning sun was shining bright and the view from our balcony made it clear we were no longer at sea and had docked at our first stop. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and made our way to the gangway to meet the other passengers that had booked an excursion on the island. After a brief wait, we walked together to another dock and boarded a bright yellow colored vessel with its sails down and awaiting adventure. Interestingly enough, our experience on-board didn’t start to go south until we were well under way, as we sailed past lush beautiful landscapes, contrasted with impressive cliffs. It was then, as all the men began removing their shirts, that a crew member asked how often we both went to the gym. Seemingly a harmless remark at first, even a compliment, the questions and comments ended up becoming more angry and intrusive as the day progressed. After a couple of chuckles I noticed one of the other crew members staring at me with a somewhat angry expression, however I tried to brush it off as my imagination. Still, he stared in my direction for some time and then the hairs on my arms began to stand, almost as if some dormant predatory instinct was waking up. Although an extremely unpleasant sensation, I decided I wouldn’t verbalize it to Eric because I wanted him to enjoy our excursion. If it was my imagination, I didn’t want to risk impacting his perception of this beautiful scenery. Just moments later Eric nudged me and I turned to look at him. He whispered in my ear “I don’t think they like us.”
When we arrived at our snorkel location it was time to put on our gear on and jump off the back of the boat. We could also walk down a staircase / ladder that was extended down the middle of the craft to the ocean, put our fins on when we reached the bottom, and then basically wade into the water. I opted for the back of the boat since you didn’t have to wait for everyone to gather their equipment and there was much less people. As I was sitting on the back side of the catamaran, I put on my fins expecting to just turn sideways and jump off. Suddenly the crew member that was staring at me earlier was in my face and began shouting “Have you ever seen a duck climb a tree?” Not expecting any sort of confrontation while on vacation, I was completely caught off guard and thought he was joking. And then he continued “Have you ever seen a duck climb a tree? Then how do you think you’re going to be able to get off the back?”
Looking off the back of the boat I saw there was a small set of three steps, nothing I couldn’t handle with fins on, but apparently he didn’t like that I was going to try. He hadn’t spoken, or yelled for that matter, to anyone else but I apparently got the brunt of his frustration. Another passenger next to me whispered something along the lines of “how do I get these things on?” I cautiously replied “I’m not sure, I’m just listening to what he says because I don’t want to get yelled at again.” With that I jumped off the back of the boat and Eric followed, as we began our snorkel “adventure” portion of the excursion. The recent events haunted my mind in the silence of the water and I was angered that I would be treated in such a fashion while paying good money for the experience. The snorkeling wasn’t great either, and I found myself missing the coral reefs and hard bottom communities I’ve seen on previous trips or even in the Florida Keys back home.
After snorkeling was done, the crew began preparing a light lunch for the passengers to enjoy. Once again I was scolded for going on the wrong side of the boat, since the line started in the opposite direction. This pretty much validated for me that I was being singled out, and I could apparently do nothing right on-board this vessel. When lunch was finished we sailed away toward the beach portion of our day and I began thinking about everything that had happened and wondered if it would get worse. It did. While we were sailing, the angry stares continued, this time with two crew members standing side by side. It became extremely awkward when another crew member walked by us and we looked up and caught him pointing down at us as if saying “these two?” The weather seemed to acknowledge the current situation, as clouds rolled in and the sky became dark and grey as we approached the beach.
When you think of Caribbean beaches you normally think of crystal clear blue and emerald green waters, a tropical drink in your hand, and perhaps an umbrella overhead. Unfortunately, the landscape had transformed to completely match the eeriness of the atmosphere. We were on a beach with rusted and broken lounge chairs, which could be rented for two dollars. For the same price you could get an umbrella, some of which were notably stolen from hot dog stands, or were only half present, steel rods protruding where there was once material. The water was still and murky, and reflected the gloomy sky above. Eric and I were starting to feel very concerned for our safety, and even took turns guarding our belongings on the beach, while the other walked into the shallow water. We were also concerned the boat would conveniently leave without us, having no real specified time to be back on-board.
If things couldn’t get any more creepy, Eric and I began to feel the familiar feeling of being stared at and turned around. Just about 50 feet away, a group of beach vendors had joined several of our catamaran crew members, in staring directly at the both of us as if we were exhibits at a zoo. One of the crew members, the original stare guy, presumably realizing at how odd this looked, told me to come over to him because he needed to talk to me. Eric looked at me and said “oh my God” as I walked over and replied “what can I do for you guy?” I was scared shitless but put on my best deep masculine voice I could muster. The crew member responded “You need a drink in your hand, I don’t like seeing people without a drink…. here have two.” I nervously accepted the drink after observing that it came from the same cooler that all the other passengers were getting drinks from as well. When I walked back to Eric with his beverage, one person in the stare-down group, an older man, decided to approach us with a scowl and questioned “Are you two brothers?” Completely nervous, anxious and surprised with the query, we both stuttered and said “Yes, of course, we’re brothers.” As the man walked away I attempted to start up conversation in an attempt to invalidate my fears, I asked how long he had been working with the boat, but he mumbled his answer and returned to his group of onlookers. He didn’t want to have anything to do with us, not being too convinced with our answers.
The rest of the afternoon was shit. As we sailed back to the dock, we couldn’t wait to get safely back on-board our ship. The experience had become completely surreal…we were surrounded by extremely happy straight people that were dancing, laughing and drinking obnoxiously while we were completely terrified. I found myself playing scenarios in my head, trying to figure out what I would do if they tried anything, fear based “what if’s” running through my mind. Things like what if they made up a story about Eric and I, and when we docked would there be police waiting? Even as we approached land, we dared not show our unease. We found ourselves making sure to leave a tip as they passed the jug around, not wanting to let them know how we truly felt. We just wanted the excursion to be over.
Strangely enough, you wouldn’t think that after this sort of experience occurs, you would be wondering what to do next? Do we tell someone? Who do we tell? Would anyone on the ship even care? We kept talking about the experience, a sign that it was truly bothering us, and opened up at the first opportunity that presented itself. While booking our next cruise on-board, we were asked if we’d like to do St. Kitts again by the Royal Caribbean booking agent and we both said in unison “no way!” The reaction was met with curiosity and then bewilderment, as we explained what had happened the day before. We were told that we needed to inform the shore excursions desk immediately, so they’re made fully aware of what transpired so it never happens again. After we wrapped up our booking, we approached the desk as instructed, however we didn’t feel our ordeal would get the attention it deserved. We decided to bring the matter up to our concierge instead and see what she would say.
It’s always a great feeling when you’re a bit beaten up by the world and someone comes along in your defense, especially someone strong in character and wants to make things right. Our concierge was a beautiful young lady from Brazil and had been accustomed to seeing Eric and I in one of the lounges, enjoying drinks and chatting with fellow passengers before dinner each night. When we conveyed our experience to her she became extremely protective of both of us, and explained that as a child she was picked on for having a weight issue and would not tolerate her passengers being harassed for any reason. She immediately filled an entry into the ships log (yes just like Star Trek) and put us in touch with the appropriate persons. Less than an hour later we were issued an almost $300 refund for the shore excursion and were apologized to repeatedly. Even if we hadn’t received our money back, it felt incredible to be acknowledged as people once again, something we missed during our time in St. Kitts. We were and still are incredibly grateful for the way Royal Caribbean and its employees stepped up to the plate.
This learning experience was a valuable one. Eric and I had become so comfortable with the acceptance of crew and passengers on-board, we also became complacent. We forgot that there are many places in this world where people don’t enjoy the freedoms and liberties we do as Americans, even if the road getting there has been paved with much pain and strife. Interestingly enough, while cruising only a year before, we opted not to do any excursions in Jamaica, due to its well documented issues with homophobia. On this trip we didn’t do our research, else we would have known that gay sex is punishable by up to 10 years in prison in St. Kitts, a clear indication of their social acceptance towards homosexuals. For some reason we just let our guard down, something that can be incredibly dangerous when you’re traveling, regardless of who and what you are. So take some time after reading this and be thankful for the personal freedoms you enjoy, especially if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community. It wasn’t that long ago and only a short flight away, where they cease to exist.