Queers, Cruises, and the Many Friends of Dorothy on the High Seas

The euphemism might be outdated, but on board the ship, queer meetups are very much alive.

passengers at cruise ship bar
Just follow the yellow brick road. | AFP/Stringer/DDP/Getty Images
Just follow the yellow brick road. | AFP/Stringer/DDP/Getty Images

“Oh, and if you see a ‘Friends of Dorothy’ meeting listed in the newsletter, it’s actually Alcoholics Anonymous.”

This curious piece of advice was issued to me and my wife Emily by a friendly Michigander named Lee while we sat with our gin and tonics at the open-air bar on the uppermost deck of the Norwegian Spirit. The Alaska-bound ship was docked at its launch port in Vancouver and, finding our cabin wasn’t quite ready upon boarding, we wandered up to Waves Pool Bar to kill some time.

“I don’t know why,” Lee continued between puffs on her vape pen. “But if you see that, you’ll know not to go. It’s that way on all the ships.”

The statement stuck with me as we later filed down the stairs and into our freshly made-up guest room. I had only ever heard “Friends of Dorothy” used as a euphemism for gay people, an homage to the fabulously campy world of the Wizard of Oz. So what would make the cruise industry collectively decide that the term was also a great code for recovering alcoholics? No disrespect to Lee and her wide berth of nautical experience, but something felt off here.

Preliminary research confirmed my suspicions. In years past, a Friends of Dorothy meeting was cruise lingo for an organized gathering of LGBTQ+ passengers. Sometimes they were hosted by members of the staff, other times they happened as freewheeling affairs, but they were typically held in smaller bars or other gathering places onboard as part of the regular programming. These meetups were listed alongside events like pub trivia, art auctions, ping pong tournaments, and, yes, Friends of Bill W. meetings—a.k.a. the actual Alcoholics Anonymous group, named after AA co-founder Bill Wilson.

Of course, my wife and I immediately scoured the “Freestyle Daily” left on our neatly dressed double bed (originally two singles connected upon request) for an upcoming Friends of Dorothy hangout. Ol’ Bill W. was there, clear as day at 7 pm in the Spinnaker Lounge, but Dorothy was nowhere to be found. She had, it seemed, been swapped out for the much more direct LGBTQIA+ Get Together, held that evening at 8 pm at the Social Club.

“Who do you think goes to these things?” I wondered aloud. I’ve never been much of a joiner, and while I whole-heartedly appreciate queer spaces, I’m not sure I’d normally hit up a group full of gay strangers just for the fun of it. Hell, I barely go to gay bars. “Do you think anybody actually shows up?”

“Only one way to find out,” Emily said. Our evening plans were set.

happy cruise ship passengers with a Pride flag
All aboard the queer cruise express. | IGLTA

The history of queer cruise meetups

Friends of Dorothy (or FOD) meetups on cruises date back to the late 1980s, according to top industry blog Cruise Critic. “These meetings occurred sporadically at first, dependent on the policies of the cruise lines and the whims of individual cruise directors,” writes contributor Doug Wallace. “As gays and lesbians gained more acceptance and visibility, these meetings began appearing with more regularity.”

Back then, seeing this language on cruise programming was much more common. It provided those in the know with a feeling of self-selection and anonymity while also ensuring that unfamiliar or even potentially unfriendly guests steered clear of the event. However, as time progressed, the euphemism not only outgrew its social necessity but also became a hindrance to non-native English speakers.

“I remember 13 years ago when I started cruising, it was still named Friends of Dorothy, and actually, I didn't know what it was,” Norwegian Spirit cruise director Gerardo “Jerry” De La Concha told me during an onboard interview. “It was just something that the community would know. But people from other countries, let's say Mexico, would say, ‘I've never heard Friends of Dorothy, but I've heard LGBTQ.’ So probably in my second or third year, that's when I started hearing LGBTQ more.”

Now, the LGBTQ meetups are par for the course. “Every single ship that we have, we always provide a LGBTQ+ gathering,” continued De La Concha.

Cruise ship passengers at the bar
The ship provides a venue and some booze, the rest takes care of itself. | Norwegian Cruise Line

But as De La Concha described it, there’s really no way to predict whether or not an LGBTQ+ mixer will take off or flop, which is why they often stage them in some of a ship’s smaller bars or lounges. But when one does pop off, the resulting comradery can make for a trip to remember.

“I remember in the Norwegian Epic, there was a really cool group, and I became friends with them,” De La Concha says. “It started small and then more people showed up and it was packed, about 40 people. So we moved it from wherever it was, a random bar with not a big space, to a venue called the Cavern Club and we used to provide them with Champagne. It was also Thanksgiving, and one of the restaurants had an extra part that was a little bit secluded. So we closed that off and did a Thanksgiving dinner with them there—it was a lot of fun.”

While some cruise companies still use the terminology—perhaps as a nod to their older-skewing clientele—it’s rare to see Friends of Dorothy listed on a daily bulletin these days. Instead, LGBTQ+ meetups are proudly announced right there on the page (AA meetings, it should be noted, still keep a low profile).

Three men in a swimming pool
On an all-LGBTQ+ cruise, everyone’s a friend of Dorothy. | RSVP Vacations

If meetups aren’t enough, consider booking a LGBTQ+ cruise

As De La Concha puts it, “Cruising has always been super gay-friendly.” So friendly, in fact, an entire subset of the industry is devoted to LGBTQ+ cruises. Whether they’re massive ocean liners or intimate river vessels, chartered from mainstream companies or wholly queer-focused, everyone on board these voyages identifies with some gradient of the rainbow.

A queer travel timeline published by the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) traces LGBTQ+ cruising back to the early 1970s, when Hanns Ebensten, often credited as the father of gay travel, led a party of gay men on a tour down the Colorado River. His previous tour had been dominated by heterosexual families—“children crying, ‘Mommy, when are we going to have lunch?’; fussy old ladies; and men who were often drunk,” he remarked in a 2004 IGLTA convention speech. Unsatisfied with that trip, he decided to switch it up by instead inviting onboard “a group of congenial men.” And so, the first gay ship set sail.

group of women on Olivia cruise ship
The first all-lesbian Olivia Cruise set sail in 1990. | Olivia Travel

The market blossomed. In 1985, IGLTA founding member Kevin Mossier launched RSVP Vacations, the world’s first all-gay cruise company. Five years later, Olivia Records’ Judy Dlugacz chartered a 600-passenger ship from the late Dolphin Cruise Lines, stocked it full of lesbians, and set off on a four-night journey to the Bahamas. But it wasn’t all bronzed bodies, booze, and raucous pool parties (though there was also plenty of that). As generations of LGBTQ+ people achieved increased social and legal acceptance, a new demographic arrived at the shores of the cruising industry: queer families.

Enter Gregg Kaminsky and Kelli Carpenter. Along with actor, and Carpenter’s ex-wife, Rosie O'Donnell, the pair started R Family Vacations, the first-ever cruise company aimed at LGBTQ+ families, in 2003. Over the years, R Family has worked with several different major cruise lines to produce their fleet of LGBTQ+ offerings, including Norwegian and, most recently, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.

Because they operate smaller vessels, Uniworld is a particularly attractive option for queer travelers interested in forming tight connections within their floating community. “Our ships average at 120 guests, and many LGBTQ+ travelers appreciate the intimate experience and ease of making friends with others onboard,” says Uniworld CEO and president Ellen Bettridge. “One thing that all cruisers and travelers in general have in common is that they’re looking to see the world and make lifelong memories free of discrimination.”

Hiking in Denali
Cruises, it turns out, can be a lot like queer summer camp. | Rosanna U/Image Source/Getty Images

Tequila shots, epic hikes, and fast friends

Back on board the Norwegian Spirit, Emily and I ate a quick dinner in the self-serve Garden Cafe before heading down to Social Club for that evening’s much-anticipated LGBTQ+ mixer. The venue, a warm space with plush velvet seating, Art Deco-style light fixtures, and a shamrock-green trim, sat in the belly of the ship on Deck 7, just beyond the not-yet-buzzing casino floor. When we arrived, fashionably late at around 8:15, two older men were sitting at the small, sleek bar, quietly sipping their drinks. A set of girls, probably in their late 20s or early 30s and both fresh-faced with flowing locks, perched at a two-top in the far corner. No one was speaking.

We strode up to the bar, grabbed two stools, and ordered a couple of martinis. “Do you think anyone is here for the mixer?” I asked in a near-whisper.

As if on cue, one of the girls walked over and smiled. “You guys here for the LGBTQ thing?”

An hour later and we were several tequila shots deep, laughing and joking with our fellow cruisers. A gay couple in their mid-20s, all shy smiles and warm handshakes, joined the group, as did an enthusiastic young solo traveler from Texas. The two older gentlemen down the bar had turned their stools to face our little circle, telling us about their many years of cruise adventures—they had just returned from a 21-day transatlantic voyage—while the other two couples chatted about the queer scene back home (both pairs happened to be from St. Louis, go figure).

Cruises are a lot like summer camp, except with unlimited alcohol. You make fast friends and before you know it, you’re talking late into the night, saving seats for each other at the Broadway Review, poring over Bingo cards and card games, and tagging along on each others’ shore excursions.

At port in Skagway some days later, the St. Louis couples led us on a whopper of a hike that followed an old irrigation system up to a sparkling lake. And on the last night, we all took in a comedy show before returning to the bar for one last round. The girls requested shots—if I learned anything about St. Louisans, it’s that they love their shots—as the rest of exchanged phone numbers and Instagram handles.

“To the queers!” they said in unison, holding up their shot glasses. “To the queers!” we shouted back, clinking our glasses together. Turns out Dorothy has some pretty cool friends.

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel. Despite the new friends, she's very happy to be back on land.