When I first realized I was gay I was 17 years old and terrified. Although I was sexually attracted to other men, I was frightened to become a part of the stereotype I saw on television and magazines. Of course times were different and what you saw on television was exactly that, a stereotype. As I began to meet other gay people I realized we were a diverse crowd of Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics and any other ethnic category you could find on a college application. We celebrated our diversity because we needed to, our sites were set on fighting the AIDS epidemic, acceptance and equal rights. I quickly realized the scary images I saw in my youth were no where near the Gays and Lesbians I had come to know.
As a young adult I began to explore the community, culture, and what it had to offer. My first long term relationship of almost nine years ended in my late twenties and I was eager to experience a part of the gay world that was previously off limits… the club scene. Still filled with enough crazy hormones to fuel lots of stupid mistakes, I was introduced to this sub-culture and its not so wonderful characteristics. Only this seemed different because it felt somewhat threatening to me. I was surrounded by groups of men that all wanted to fall in love, but didn’t seem to want any of the Ozzie and Harriet style of relationships their parents lived through. In fact, I would say they completely rebelled against these established norms, I’m guessing because they experienced much judgement and hostility due to their sexuality from those that practiced them. Fair enough. If there’s any stereotype of the gay world that’s close to being true, it’s that we never do anything low key, so gay relationships became completely polar opposite to mom and dad’s. However I really wanted that sense of normalcy, real or perceived, in my life. After all, that’s what I had told everyone around me…that I was normal and just like everyone else.
Years went by and I started to become fairly bitter with the gay world. The level of shallowness and self centered behavior I was seeing just seemed to be getting worse. There were even websites that sprung up with the immense popularity of the Internet, which re-enforced these qualities. We were now posting profiles on websites like bigmuscle.com, which contained statements like “looking only for other good looking muscled men to make friends and hang out with.” Wow! Seriously? I didn’t want any part of that!
Until I did.
I started going on “all gay cruises” back in 2001 during a short lived relationship with someone that grew up surrounded by the party and gay scene. The experience was utterly miserable for me and I swore I would never do it again. I was completely immersed in gay music, gay television, campy gay comedy… gay everything for seven very long days. I was force-fed gayness and I wanted to puke. But then, a couple of years later, I was convinced to try it again by my partner that I would share almost 10 years of my life with. Even my therapist thought it was a good idea. It actually turned out completely different in every way and I enjoyed the solidarity immensely. Gay rights was starting to be a huge deal, the Constitution of the United States was about to be modified to define marriage between a man and a woman, for the sole purpose of denying us rights and recognition. We so needed the support of each other as a community! What better way than to pack three thousand of us on a boat for a week! Yay! Not to mention that I was starting to bulk up with some serious muscle, and although we were monogamous at the time, I was getting lots of attention. This was really fun! Why didn’t I do this sooner? It was even time for me to get my own profile on bigmuscle.com! In retrospect, it’s very clear to me that I started to become assimilated into the very lifestyle I had such a distaste for… by the looming presence and fear of a shared threat. I wanted to belong because I was scared.
As years passed and more gay cruises came and went, the climate of the country completely changed. Gays were only years away from being allowed to be married, many companies and local governments started enacting domestic partnership benefits, and there was this cool show on television called Glee. Gay youth and teens now had a place in society and role models to look up to. It was a pretty amazing time for Gays and Lesbians, but something else started to happen. The cruises I loved so much started becoming less and less about community and more about the “party.” With technology becoming more advanced and cruises becoming more and more popular, the ships got bigger and so did the on-board dances. As anything that keeps growing in size, there comes a time where critical mass comes into play and a good thing becomes unsustainable. Gay cruises aren’t any exception and in 2011, on the largest gay cruise on the largest cruise ship in the world, the Allure of the Seas was raided by US Customs and passengers were arrested. I remember seeing all the dogs and agents on-board and thinking something very serious was up. A member of the Atlantis staff, the charter company that booked the cruise, lied completely and told a group of us that it was a case of mistaken identity with one of our fellow passengers. We didn’t know the entire story until we got back home and saw the coverage on CNN and other media outlets. It wasn’t really a surprise since multiple times a night we’d hear the call go out on the ship’s speakers, “alpha, alpha, alpha,” the maritime signal for a medical emergency. For Atlantis passengers, it was code for drug overdose. The stories of passengers collapsing and defecating on themselves during dances didn’t seem so far fetched after all.
Accelerated by the events on that last voyage, my love affair with gay cruises and the gay scene began to diminish rather quickly. The sense of community I had once witnessed had become a complete mess and practically non-existent. I went on a couple more cruises, even tried different brands like RSVP, but they weren’t much different. The drugs weren’t as prevalent, but the campy gay comedy and stupid jokes every time the automated elevator voice with a British accent announced “deck 8″ were getting old. I was tired of eating breakfast and hearing men discuss their conquests from the night before. I guess that’s called “growing up.”
Today, I still enjoy cruising with my partner Eric, celebrating diversity once again, albeit with straight and fellow gay passengers alike. Who knew that in all those prior years I had put myself into a social box, doing exactly what conservatives and the religious right wanted, and at the same time fighting so hard against.
I look back at my journey in and out of the gay scene and realize it was a real learning experience, one that I shouldn’t regret or even deny. The gay world is continually evolving, but I’m not sure in the right direction at the moment. Pride events are becoming less of a celebration of unity, and more of a promoter’s opportunity to pull another all night party. At least in the old days, I’m old enough to say that now, we had something we were focused on…a goal, a mission, which helped ground us and provided a type of social lighthouse when we went astray. Much of the binding properties of the gay community are gone for the first time in our history. Our friends aren’t dying of AIDS and we basically have the rights and recognition we wanted for generations. Where we will go without the guiding principles that glued us all together? What we will do with this new found freedom which carries with it new responsibility?
There’s a new sub-culture I see emerging with young gay men and it’s not a healthy one. Unlike so many negative stereotypes, this one is very much encourage in pop culture and social media. It’s evolving into a mindset, one of no-consequence and “go fuck yourself if you don’t like me.” We’re being encouraged as a community to be as loud and as crazy as we want to be, since we’ve been restricted for so long and it obviously still makes straight people laugh. The balance part of the equation seems to be left out though, and we’re not checking ourselves to see if we’re going too far. Our community used to be so much more than a party, and now it seems so many gay men just live for it…or die. I think it’s time to take inventory of what’s truly important, especially with recent events in our nation’s political climate. Perhaps another shared threat is exactly what we need, a common cause to keep us focused on the individual lights in our community, and not the ones on the dance floor.