Cruise control: Gay pirates in the Caribbean, the economics of it all, and Tony Blair

Two men in a boat: A tale of a fateful trip

An Atlantis Cruises ship packed with 2,000 partying gay men pulled into port in the Caribbean nation of Dominica Wednesday morning. Later it left, minus two of them. They were in the jail at Roseau, waiting to be arraigned on Thursday morning.

Apparently a taxi driver glimpsed something untoward. He later said, “I did not know that it was a gay boat, but when I reach [the dock] I realized it was. We were struggling to get some business but when I gazed to the ship I saw two men engaged in sexual activities on the balcony of the ship. It raised our anger here." Police Chief Cyril Carrette told the local press,

"We got a report that there was an unlawful act going on aboard the cruise ship which was in port. Police were dispatched and the persons were taken to the police headquarters where charges have been laid against them. The act of buggery was committed and there are witnesses saw this thing happening live.”

Carette: I cover the waterfront

Dominica, like the rest of Britain’s onetime Caribbean colonies, inherited English legislation against “buggery.” As revised in 1998, its law punishes the crime (defined as “sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person”) with up to 10 years in prison. Carrette says police reduced the charge to indecent exposure because the process of proving buggery “is a much longer one so we want justice to be swift to have these people leave our shore.”

Now, this little scandal (not so little, of course, for the two guys, who have legal fees, a ruined vacation, and eventual airfare home to deal with) has actually been a long time brewing. Dominica News Online (DNO) reported way back in early January that the queers were coming:

A gay website is offering to one of its lucky clients what is described as a "lavish and exciting vacation " to the Caribbean, with Dominica as one of the destinations. According to the site, the world’s largest gay male massage directory, the "All-Gay Caribbean Cruise"will include $1,000 airfare credit on American Airlines and will include destinations such as Grenada, Barbados, Dominica and St. Barths.

Cub reporter needs a tender hand

A journalist’s life is hard, and despite the benefits of a balmy tropical climate on the one hand, and the disincentives of a repressive law on the other, you get kinks in the neck from all that Googling that demand relief. Hence in winter the budding Jimmy Olsen‘s fancy turns to gay massage; and this whole mess is the result. Let the cruise lines pay for journalists in their destination countries to receive wholesome heterosexual backrubs weekly, tipping covered, and perhaps such brouhahas can be averted in the future.

There was plenty of indignation to spare when the boat came in; while “busloads of only male passengers have been seen taking brief tours around the capital,” a “reinforced police presence” protected the dock. “The ship evoked mixed reaction from observers who noted that ‘only men’ were disembarking … One hair braider told DNO that she was ‘mentally disturbed, first time I am seeing that in my life.’" (I assume she meant the sex, not the homosociality.) But not everybody was outraged.

Another taxi driver who also witnessed the act said he was not in any way disturbed; in fact he seized the opportunity to solicit tours while others were engrossed in it. "The people it disturbed were the ones who stood looking at it. People stood there looking at it, if you don't want to see it then don't look."

He said he will not support calls for the government to prevent them from coming to the island as there are "many gay people right here in Dominica why should I have a problem with a gay boat?"

"All I want is to make my money I don't worry with those people. We know they are gay and we know that they are doing it, we know those things are happening in Dominica so I don't see how this should be a problem."

That’s progressive capitalism in action.

More seriously: the roots of this mess reach back even further. Periodic uproars over gay cruises have become a minor feature of Caribbean politics, and an impeding factor in domestic activists’ struggles to scrap the colonial buggery provisions — impeding as far as they reinforce the notion that the homosexuals, rather than the laws, come from outside.

The cruise crises date at least as far back as 1998, when Cayman Islands authorities refused permission for a ship carrying 900 gay men to dock. The Tourism Minister said that “Careful research and prior experience has led us to conclude that we cannot count on this group to uphold the standards of appropriate behaviour expected of visitors to the Cayman Islands, so we regrettably cannot offer our hospitality.” The Caymans, of course, are an actual British colony (or British Overseas Territory); fourteen such political droppings of the white man’s burden still dot the seas, a state of affairs, when one remembers Britain’s history of exploitation, as odorous as turds left by Colonel Blimp. The islands have only severely limited self-government, and this show of morality was also in some measure a defiant exercise of pseudo-sovereignty. Since most of those on board the spurned vessel were Americans, the U.S.’s richest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, got in the act. They called on the High Post-Colonizer, Tony Blair, to intervene.

Blair was notoriously metrosexual, until awed a few years later into imitating the strutting, sweating, crotch-padded masculinity of George W. Bush. Thinking him a sensitive and kindred spirit, and unprepared for his future evolution into a missile-sporting Marlboro Man, UK gays had balloted for him in large numbers. Now Blair’s newly-elected government was stung to anger: how dare a mere dependency offend a domestic constituency so vital to his votes! He demanded the territories get rid of their British sodomy laws. Eventually he made this a condition of restoring British citizenship to their populations (Margaret Thatcher had stripped the colonies of those rights as an anti-immigration measure in 1981).

(L) Blair as they thought he was; (R) Blair as he wanted to be

I can’t think of anything more idiotic he could have done under the circumstances. His high-handed posing proved as catastrophic in the Caribbean as David Cameron‘s similar threat last year to tie aid to LGBT rights was across Africa. It set in stone the regressive terms for talking about gay people across the region that have persisted in politics till today. Nobody from then on would think of the sodomy laws as colonial impositions; instead, it was their possible repeal that would reek of submission to the colonizer. The Caymans’ Community Affairs Minister said the islands had a “mandate from god” to keep the legislation. The rage extended beyond the actual colonies to countries jealous of their independence. In the Bahamas, a few months later, protesters greeted a gay cruise with jeers and threats, furious that their government had permitted it to land. And Blair’s actions also cemented the idea that homosexuality was a contagious vice of visitors, an incursion of corruption. ”This foreign issue has sensitized us to the urgent need to attack the problem,” one protester in the Bahamas said. “The foreign homosexual problem can only add to ours.” Sex had become both a mark of nationality and a register of sovereignty.

The way it used to be

You know: there’s something rotten in Britain. The United Kingdom in the last twenty years has become abode and asylum for a particular brand of lunatic activism, both among its citizen-activists and, more ominously, its politicians. Nowhere else is personal messianism applauded so much or given such rampant rein, with such utter indifference to its disastrous consequences on those it claims to speak for and save. In the LGBT sphere, eidolons like Peter Tatchell or Gay Middle East hold court over small cliques of uncritically devoted fans; but in the larger world of Little Britain as a whole you have the Nick Cohens and the Johann Haris and countless more, all persuaded that in a world warped by barbarous clitoris-slicing Africans, menaced by mad Arabs bent on a caliphate in Clapham, it’s the duty of white British men to save civilization and, heroically pathetic as the Little Match Girl, keep the faint flame of humane values alive. Teju Cole has written brilliantly about the White Savior Industrial Complex, which he treats as headquartered in the moralist, manifestly destined precincts of God’s City on the Hill, the Great Republic: “I deeply respect American sentimentality,” he says, “the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” But in America hippohood is an explicit and historic part of the national ideology, out there for critique. In Britain these days it’s simply taken for granted as a basic term of morality and action, insidious and silent. In America, you could argue with credibility that G.W. Bush’s sense of Christian mission was evil in itself. In the UK, even many lefties treated Tony Blair’s messianic tendencies as a mitigating factor, a virtue inhibiting or excusing some other, numinous vice. In the US the hippos are open targets. In the UK, the hippos are us.

what Tony Blair doesn't understand

Yes, I blame Blair. Dean Acheson said famously, back in the American Century, that “Great Britain had lost an empire, and failed to find a role.” After years of prime ministers floundering to fill the gap, Tony figured out the way. The UK would corner the market on moral leadership. It would rescue a world it couldn’t rule. America would provide the guns, Colonel Blimp the Bibles. At the previous century’s turn, Hillaire Belloc had caught the essence of colonialism in a devastating couplet:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

Substitute “morality” for the Maxim Gun, and you pretty much have Blair’s version of a postcolonial world. And it still scans.

The division of labor was imperfect — there are plenty of Bibles in the US, and in Iraq, the UK ended up providing considerable ammunition too. But, much more avidly and articulately than Bush, Blair limned an utterly insincere picture of the Baghdad war as a rational, humanist crusade, Erasmus against the Saracens.

As with every other endeavor he crowned with his peculiar brand of charming unsuccess, Blair’s vision was unctuously persuasive even as, by every practical measure, it failed. His renewal of national purpose has seeped into the collective consciousness despite all the misery it brought in train. It informs — or infects — the activism of amateurs as much as it doomed the targets Blair bombed. Britannia used to rule the waves; now it saves the ruled. Whether they like it or not.

But I digress.

As years passed, the lines hardened on both sides in the cruise ship conflicts. Foreigners seemed more and more convinced the real problem with Caribbean sodomy laws was that they affected foreigners, not just nationals. Anybody could wind up in the primitive clink, for God’s sake!

“We've continued to put pressure on these islands because we've received reports of gay travelers feeling harassed in certain places,” said Augustin Merlo, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

And, of course, the notion grew that the islands were wilfully rejecting tourist money — which in turn could provide an additional threat to pressure them. After all, Third World countries come cheap. “We’re professionals with money to spend,” a passenger on the ship barred from the Caymans said. “If they don’t want our money, Jamaica and Belize are just itching for it.” (Were they? Really?)

Yesterday carried a blip about the Dominica arrests, and if you look at the comments field, you see these coupled sentiments of entitlement on full display (along with, I hasten to add, more nuanced reactions). One angry American writes:

The morons in Dominica can't even feed themselves or control violence on their cesspool island, and they're worrying about a boy liking another boy or a girl liking another girl? LOL. You'd think they'd spend their scant resources on something more productive. Homosexuals around the world need to start taking WHATEVER actions are necessary to secure their human rights. … And shame on Celebrity Cruises and Atlantis for giving support to such a disgusting, backward society like Dominica or letting Dominican authorities on board the ship. And by the way, if those gay Americans are sent to jail, the judge, jailers, and politicians (and their families) that send them there … should be attacked and people all over the world should attack Dominica citizens in their countries. Start with embassy personnel.

Open war! Well, you know, Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada for less. You have to be struck, though, by how such a racist rant exactly parallels the reasons for not tolerating homosexuals heard throughout the Caribbean. They fit together like Yin and Yang, hand and glove, penis and — whatever you prefer. The argument about “scant resources,” other priorities, for instance? Here’s a letter from one reasonable homophobe to a Jamaican newspaper:

When one considers the deep and entrenched problems of poverty, dispossession, joblessness, the abominable atrocities against children, the plight of the elderly, among other day-to-day abuses, the revocation of Jamaica’s Buggery Law could by no means be considered to be high on the list of priorities.

And the bit about physically attacking those disgusting furriners who cause us so much trouble? Here’s an editorial from Belize:

And you know why the homosexuals feel that victory is within their wicked grasp if they fight hard enough? It is because of powerful people like the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. That man is sick. He deserves to be flogged.

It’s not just that the two sides deserve one another. The two discourses are one another. They made each other, in each other’s image. The neocolonial insistence and the anti-colonial resistance keep reproducing each other reflexively, plagiarizing one another’s fears and mirroring one another’s language, as if in a fantasy by Fanon or a farce by Genet. It’s a perfect deadlock, North and South caught and copulating in a wrestler’s hold; and without a way to break out of it, to split up the wrangling incest of these opposed but mutually reinforcing views, nothing new will be said, and nothing will change. As usual, moreover, it’s the actual LGBT people in the Caribbean who are caught in the infinitesimal space in the middle, stifled in the process, like a kitten in the marriage bed.

I certainly haven’t got a way out. One thing that has to happen, though, is to think through not just the myths and fears but the material realities of what gay tourism means in the Caribbean. And that, as always, means looking at the economics.

Gaycation: Sunsets and sodomy

The gay tourism industry is always touting how much money it has. The latest figure I saw, from “leading global LGBT marketing specialist Out Now Consulting,” is that the ”global market potential of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market is set to reach almost USD$165 billion in total spending on leisure travel in 2012.” (That’s three iterations of market in a sentence: they’re obsessed.) I don’t know whether “potential” means the queers can spend this much — for instance, by going without food — or they will. Still, it’s a lot of moolah, and you’re supposed to imagine it flouring down like manna on those sunny little islands full of poor people who don’t eat food either. How nice!

Naturally, it’s not that way. And the cruise segment of the travel industry is particularly egregious in not showering wealth on the touristees. In fact, compared to other forms of tourism, cruises — gay or straight — bring very little benefit to the shores where they land. Most obviously, the travellers sleep on ship; so local hotels are cut out of the deal. Beyond that, though, cruise lines have increasingly worked to focus the tourists’ spending on board, rather than diffusing it outward. Stays in any one port are short. The beautiful locales shrivel to so much background. One academic paper observes,

Although the cruise industry initially touted exotic ports of call as a principal thrust of its tourism experience, increasingly marketing campaigns focus on the on-board amenities … “with the cruise ship itself providing the holiday experience rather than any destinations to be visited" (Ubersax, 1996). This shift from floating hotels to floating resorts increases the incentives for the industry to maximize the time (and money) cruisers spend on board and minimize their time in port. As such, cruise ship companies are in direct competition with local communities for the expenditures of cruise tourists.

Chances to tour off-ship in ports of call are tightly limited; usually the cruise lines contract with specific businesses onshore, and get back up to 40% of the take in return. So there’s not much random spending on the locals. The same study estimates that in Costa Rica, “cruise tourists spend just under $100 each during their stay.” Ross Klein, author of the insightful Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas, found that spending by cruise passengers in port communities halved from 1994 to 2002.

Aboard this tiny ship: The telltale liner in Dominica

Most gay cruise companies don’t own their own ships; they charter from other companies. (The Atlantis Cruises trip to Dominica was actually on a Celebrity Cruises liner, creating some confusion in the country about who was in charge.) This is cheaper in the long run but creates a short-term need to recoup the rent, so they’re even more likely to squeeze customers into reducing the amount they spend onshore.

Governments try to get back some money for their countries from cruise ships’ berthing, principally by charging port fees — usually a sum assessed per passenger. Partly it’s supposed to compensate for lost hotel revenues, partly for the expenses of docking. It’s a minimal amount, but cruise lines resist it bitterly. According to Klein, "Carnival Cruise Lines began a boycott of Grenada in November 1999 over a $1.50 per passenger charge [think about that: $1.50] the island is required to collect under a World Bank-sponsored loan for a region-wide garbage reception capability. .. Ironically, Carnival pays the fee in other ports. Grenada apparently is a reminder to others thinking of raising port charges."

You can grasp, then, why states tend to see cruise ships as probably the least profitable, least desirable kind of tourism imaginable. And gay cruise ships … well, there you go.

Cruise ships embody, of course, a huge accumulation of privilege. When they pull into port, towering in white solitude over the neighborhoods, they look powerful as crenellated castles. Theres lots of money in those heights. It may not seem so much to an American wallet; checking the Atlantis website, I found a weeklong cruise — 3000 gay men over Halloween — priced from $600 to $2300 ($200 in port fees not included). The average income in Dominica, though, is $6700 a year. The cruise runs from 10% to 40% of an annual local salary. And, as we’ve shown, almost none of that goes into the country’s economy. The openings for resentment are clear.

What, though, are travelers buying for that money? Freedom — including the freedom from normal law. Cruises thrive implicitly on the romance of extraterritoriality, the thrill of being beyond anybody’s domain. International waters seem a legendary place where, as the song says, anything goes. (To press the point, in Cole Porter’s musical, the song is sung on … a cruise ship.) The anything-goes-ness extends, as it happens, to throwing people overboard. There is a remarkably high incidence of people disappearing from cruise ships; the Guardian has counted 171 vanishings in the last decade. Sometimes it’s just an accident –a passenger went overboard from an Atlantis ship just last month. Sometimes there are suspicions of foul play. In either case, unencumbered with legal obligations, the ship sails on.

It’s remarkable how cruises bring the expectation of immunity. In a listserve discussion of the Dominica case last night, someone expressed surprise that a ship in port is subject at all to local law. (Think of the commentator above raging at Atlantis Cruises for “letting Dominican authorities on board the ship.”) In fact, when ships enter territorial waters — usually stretching 12 nautical miles from shore — national law clamps down. You wouldn’t guess that from the brochures, though.

Cruising indoors vs. cruising Atlantis: Which would you choose?

This libertarian idyll is especially appealing to gays, I think. Atlantis Cruises makes a point of shilling it on its website: “The Only Rule is There Are No Rules…. [I]n general we adhere to a simple philosophy: No one should tell you what to do on your vacation.” Post-Dominica, that looks like a recipe for a hefty lawsuit. Here, though, is where my sympathy for the two arrested guys kicks in. The dream of being both safely obscured from unfriendly judgement, and exposed to the airy world, is a very visceral gay one. Dennis Altman wrote in the early Eighties that gay men tended to gather in dark bars with windows blacked from outside view, in order to watch porn videos that showed men having sex in forests and fields. The fantasy of openness needed the fact of seclusion. Gay cruises furnish both. The dynamics of the closet that feed this paradox are transnational enough that I bet most Caribbean gays too would pay for the same safe-but-sunny setup, if they could afford the fees. Who can blame the two men for believing what the cruise line told them?

There’s some dispute now online about whether the ship broadcast a warning that, entering Dominica’s waters, a buggery law was now in force. Some say they did. A commenter on Queerty, though, claims that when his ship “stopped in St Lucia last year, I did not hear any warning about the fact that being gay in St Lucia was illegal from anyone at Atlantis or the cruise operator.” If the loudspeakers did say something, I suspect it was like the lists of side-effects that US prescription-drug commercials are required to include: a voiceover says sotto voce that the medicine may make your eyeballs explode, while images show kids cavorting with ponies in a flowery field. You’ve paid the cruise line for the illusion of uninterrupted freedom. Why should they spoil that by shouting out the fine print?

As of this morning, a Dominica court slapped the two men with fines of $888 US apiece, then set them free.

“Free”: the multiple meanings of that are, ultimately, the key message. The magistrate called them “rogues and vagabonds”; it’s a weighted phrase, also from ancient British law. It means masterless men, vagrants, people whose freedom has got out of hand and displaced and unhoused them. (It’s sometimes used for actors.) While enjoying their freedom, that’s how they looked in Dominican eyes. The guys had already paid for a week’s sunlit liberty; it turned out to be a little more expensive. And it ran up against a different definition of freedom, national and political — one that, literally, made them pay.

Caught in the middle, between these clashing versions of freedom that nonetheless feed on and harden one another, are the LGBT people of Dominica and the rest of the ex-British Caribbean. They’re not yet free, while the buggery laws persist. And neither Blairesque interventions, nor the cruise-ship onslaught, nor all the international controversy over this casual arrest do anything to make them so.