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All Hail the Queen

Living luxe aboard the Queen Mary 2’s first-ever all-gay transatlantic crossing.
By Chandler Burr
Photo provided by Cunard

The gayest thing I’ve ever written was the email I sent a straight buddy of mine in Houston: “I’m going on a gay cruise on the Queen Mary 2.” He shot back: “This sentence is redundant.” And then: “Are you serious?”

I never intended
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to go on a gay cruise. Months and months ago, when people started hearing that RSVP Vacations, the gay and lesbian vacation company owned by Planet Out, had chartered this particular ship, the buzz began. Mostly it was the fact that the QM2 is the jewel in the crown of Cunard, the venerable British company whose ocean liners (not cruise ships; there are significant differences in both structure and style) are legendary, of a different and higher class in the most English sense of the word. The QM2 was, when it was launched in 2004, the largest luxury ship in the world—it is longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall and is still among the top five—and its white-glove service, its pearls-gowns-and-tuxedos ethos, and the fact that this was not “a cruise” but “a crossing,” straight from New York to Southampton U.K. (on the path of the Titanic), put it a world away from the lite-Caribbean disco of the usual gay cruise. So I decided to go.

Under the crystalline warm blue sky of May 29, 2007 we all gathered on the decks, lined up on railings above railings, 2,000 homosexuals drinking champagne and watching the New York skyline slowly recede. A low collective sound began to swell, I turned around to see the top of the ship, 23-stories tall (!), on a collision course with the underside of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We all stared, thousands of people almost involuntarily generating a noise that rose from awe to a cheer, “WhaaAAAOOOH!!” as we cleared the soaring metal span by feet. We looked at each other, astonished and thrilled. The QM2 moved into the ocean. Then, we got down to the business of six days of partying.

If it was for us a different gay cruise from any other, it was very different for the crew. In their years with Cunard, this was a first. They’d had some “what to expect from the gays” training, but you could tell they were a bit hesitant at first, quiet Eastern European stateroom maids and straight-guy stewards from Turkey and India. And here were thousands of queens, Louis Vuitton luggage, Helmut Lang shoes—yes, lots of Chelsea-boy gear. By the second day I’d already heard the ship’s store had never sold so many condoms (given the QM2’s usual not-exactly-youthful passenger demographic, this was perhaps not entirely astounding, but the salespeople still had raised eyebrows).

We carried the daily schedules around in our pockets and still never managed to do everything. We crammed in Varla Jean Merman, the drag queen who is the love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine and jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway. Comedienne Suzanne Westenhoefer started us off the first evening on the Royal Court Theater’s main stage, and she killed. “So there aren’t any port stops on this cruise,” she said. “Usually the dykes are up at 6am. ‘We’re gonna go bungee jumping! Then we scuba dive! Then we climb a volcano!’” She paused. “The fags get up at noon.” She squinted, painfully. “’Where are we? Cabo? Did we bring outfits for Cabo?” We ran for planetarium showings, cocktail parties, and movie screenings; RSVP previewed the Judith Light/ Robert Gant/ Chad Allen movie “Save Me,” an amazingly nuanced, honest, and compassionate depiction of a fundamentalist Christian woman who attempts to reprogram young gay men. It premiers in October and may prove to be one of the most important gay-themed movies ever made. Light and Gant took questions from the audience. When Margaret Cho performed, every seat was filled and people sat on the stairs.

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