Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shipping Activism

I work as the Executive Director of a gay specific organization, so in a culture like ours where you are what you do – virtually every social interaction is a coming out opportunity. Back in the mid-90’s when I was the Executive Director of a gay specific social services organization – it became so tiresome that on airplanes and in some general conversation I found it easier to say that I ran a social services group rather than give the full name. It only happened a handful of times, but it was telling how bad I felt whenever I didn't fully disclose. Twenty years later I no longer self-censor, which is a liberating experience even when people have issues. Last week I was on vacation and part of me didn’t want to be the activist for those who displayed ignorance or discomfort about me and my work. I was on holiday, but being who you are doesn't take a vacation. 

It was my 18th cruise. Floating from Point A to Point B ... watching the horizon go by is one of the things I find most spiritually, physically and emotionally restoring. I like the whole experience of unpacking once and every day or every few days popping into another port to explore. It’s not the best way to immerse into another culture, it’s the American way of tourism – skimming! The food is usually excellent and plentiful – with many healthier options available. Cruises are a great way to meet different people – and connect with them as much or as little as you want. Some days I’m happiest sitting on the balcony staring off and occasionally reading through the latest mystery. Other days I enjoy wandering the decks and getting into chats with people. Not once on this trip did anybody ask me what I did for a living. Nirvana!

There are shows at night – lowest common denominator selections of popular music, movie music and show music. The live band and singers are supported by tracks and the dancers work themselves into an aerobic sweat. For me it’s pretty cheesy but many other cruisers find it the height of culture. That’s what’s great about a cruise ship – it’s Las Vegas on the sea.

The whole enterprise is run by the Captain and the various social events are cheer lead by the Cruise Director. It’s not quite Captain Stubing and Julie McCoy from The 1970’s classic “The Love Boat” – but it’s not that far off either. When the Captain and then the Cruise Director made insensitive gay remarks, I was surprised, startled and taken aback. In 18 cruises I had certainly heard a few cracks and inappropriate comments along the way – from staff, even from officers. Never from the visible leadership of the ship.

What do I do? People in Dallas tackled a man who yelled anti-gay obscenities at a man wearing a pink shirt the other day. Not my style. I am a pacifist after all! I also believe (and blog) about people's right to be stupid, say dumb things and be insensitive. We must tolerate intolerance - except in instances where harm is done to people. Defining harm is where it gets tricky. Educating and training about how remarks or actions are problematic is a good step forward. Boycotts and shaming people and companies can be effective - but should be done in proportion to the offense. In this case it wasn't a systemic problem, so I'm not calling out the company.

As I pondered (a) whether I had lost my sense of humor and (b) whether I had become too sensitized to any potential infraction the overhead speaker crackled to life with the twice-daily rah-rah from the Cruise Director. The “gag” continued. Maybe I should watch some television and distract my reaction. The daily video from the Cruise Director was there with yet another variation of the same series of insults and stereotypes. 

I touched based with my traveling companions and others in our gay group – all agreed it was inappropriate. None agreed as to what to do about it. We were, after all, on holiday…and it could just as easily be considered sophomoric humor as homophobic.

I wrote to the parent company and my travel agent who then shared it with his corporate group sales rep. On the end-of-cruise survey I reiterated the points as did my traveling companions and others. I don’t ever expect to hear from the company – and my next cruise or two won’t be with them, but I may well travel with them again as I think the incidents were individual rather than institutional.

Will my correspondence and communications change anything? Maybe not. If one person sees it and realizes that words and deeds have impact and consequences, then the shipboard activism will have been worth it. 

Every little pebble thrown into the ocean may not make a splash, but a bunch of them cause a ripple. Next Tuesday, November 4 2014 is Election Day. Throw your pebble into the ocean and vote. 13% of the American public approve of Congress. Over 90% of Congress is re-elected cycle after cycle. These statistics are ad total odds with each other - and that's because the people who disapprove of Congress are not actually voting. It's time for a ripple or two - for all of us to have ship board activism.

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