'Gay summer camp': How cruises create space for LGBTQ+ travelers at sea

As Sharon Moss' cruise vacation came to an end, the 42-year-old went big before going home.

Moss, who is fine with any pronoun but mostly uses they/them, spent the last day of February sailing to the Caribbean on Celebrity Cruises' Reflection ship dancing in the pool with their girlfriend. Being surrounded by fellow guests decked out in feather boas, shower curtains and lopsided wigs – the party's theme was "She's a Mess" – Moss felt there was something different about the trip.

The voyage was Moss' first trip with theLGBTQ travel company VACAYA and their first cruise since sailing with Disney Cruise Line as a child.

"People were waving at us, and we were like the stars of our little dance pool. It was just freeing and fun, and not something that you get to necessarily feel like you can do," Moss said. "You can't pop over to your local YMCA and be like, 'Can I have a dance party in the pool?'"

Sharon Moss, right, and their girlfriend, Raven, at sunset on their stateroom balcony.
Sharon Moss, right, and their girlfriend, Raven, at sunset on their stateroom balcony.

Before booking the sailing, the retired professional weightlifter said many mainstream cruises seemed more geared toward heteronormative families and they hadn't considered booking one. But in the wake of the pandemic, the couple craved a relaxing vacation. Both jumped at a chance for Moss' girlfriend to be somewhere "culturally entirely queer"because she had not had as much experience socializing in LGBTQ+ spaces.

For some LGBTQ+ travelers, gay cruises have offered a kind of haven on the seas. While early cruises catered primarily to gay men and lesbians, the market has grown in recent years, with more options aimed at a more diverse array of queer travelers.

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When did LGBTQ+ cruises start?

Cruise operators that catered to gay and lesbian passengers began sailing in the '80s and '90s, according to a timeline from IGLTA.

"When it first started, it was somewhat underground and they were definitely more in the charter side of things ... where people could be together with members of their community and get away and be free from families or work, you know, be out, because the world was so different in the '80s," John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, said.

The sailings were a tougher sell back then, though."It was probably really hard to get a cruise line to take a gay group (in the early days)," Tanzella said.

In some cases, ships carrying LGBTQ+ passengers were turned away from ports, he added. By contrast, today, cruise lines are "going after the market," and destinations court those sailings and their loyal customer base. "You know, a port city might host a reception the night before the cruise departs, like going that extra mile to welcome the cruisers," Tanzella said. In addition to chartering entire ships, IGLTA has members that host groups on nonspecialty sailings too.

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Jon Fenwick went on his first gay cruise in 2008 with Atlantis Events after some friends talked him into it. The 46-year-old enjoyed the trip so much that he made it a tradition of it, taking at least one LGBTQ+ cruise annually most years since. And he isn't the only one.

"You definitely see a lot of the same faces from trip to trip, and a lot of people would go on the same ones every year just to have a reunion, or sometimes we call it gay summer camp," said Fenwick, a government information technology specialist based in Arlington, Virginia.

The options were also more limited and siloed, with cruises aimed primarily at gay men or lesbians, he added. Over the past decade or so, though, the industry has made an increased effort be inclusive, and somenew cruise operators targeting a diverse clientele have entered the market.

Fenwick has met other gay passengers on mainstream cruises but said the experience isn't the same, "You definitely don't have the (same) freedom to be yourself on a regular cruise."

'We are the majority'

VACAYA is among those new companies catering to a diverse audience, with an emphasis on the LGBTQ+ community, as well as straight allies. The company, which also offers land-based vacations, launched its first trips in 2019.

"If you believe love is love, then you belong on a VACAYA vacation," said Patrick Gunn, the company's co-founder and CMO. The company has worked with Celebrity, Ponant, Emerald Cruises and others.

Passengers on a VACAYA cruise to the Caribbean in 2023.
Passengers on a VACAYA cruise to the Caribbean in 2023.

Those principles of inclusion guide what guests experience during their trip. VACAYA recently began giving out pronoun pins to help guests and staff use each other's preferred pronouns (the company also provides diversity and inclusion training to resort and cruise line partners).

The company also offers a wide range of programming. In addition to drag shows and pool parties, the VACAYA has also held a makeup seminar geared particularly toward nonbinary and transgender passengers.

"We believe in balance," Gunn said. "So, we love a good party, don't get me wrong, but we also love to wake up and go into port the next day."

On a March cruise that visited Panama, Colombia and more, passenger ages ranged from 21 to 91, according to co-founder and CEO Randle Roper. The company's clientele is predominantly gay men, but 20% of the sailing's guests were women.

Margaret Riedling, who joined VACAYA for the March sailing with her wife, found it refreshing. The 59-year-old had not taken an LGBTQ+ cruise since she was in her 20s.

"We have gay, straight, queer friends in our real lives," said Riedling, who lives in Spokane, Washington, and Palm Springs, California. "Why wouldn't we have them in our vacation life?"

Brand g Vacations, which was founded in 2011, also caters to a range of queer travelers, along with straight allies. The company offers river cruising, small-ship ocean cruises and land-based tours, according to its website.

That doesn't mean longer-running operators aren't inclusive. Among those, Atlantis is particularly popular among gay men but welcomes women, transgender and nonbinary guests, and "even straight parents," as well, CEO Rich Campbell said in an email.

And while Olivia Travel's guests primarily identify as cisgender lesbians and queer women, nonbinary and transgender guests have always been welcome, according to VP of marketing Autumn Nazarian.

For Roper's part, he said the kinds of sailings VACAYA aims to offer shift the dynamic LGBTQ+ people experience elsewhere, even if only for a week or two at a time.

"We all live in the minority every single day of our lives, and when we create these events, whether they're on a cruise ship or at a resort, we are the majority," he said.

Upcoming LGBTQ+ cruises

◾ Brand g Vacations will operate a Prague and Danube River itinerary – with two days in the Czech Republic city pre-cruise – from Aug. 12 through 21. Cabins on Amadeus River Cruises' Amadeus Silver III start at $4,499 per person based on double occupancy, according to Brand g's website.

◾ Atlantis is offering a voyage from Los Angeles to Mexico from Oct. 23 through 30, with stops in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and others. The cruise will take place on Royal Caribbean International's Navigator of the Seas ship, and available cabins start at $899 per person based on double occupancy, the company said on its website.

◾ VACAYA will sail a Caribbean cruise from Feb. 17-24, 2024, aboard Celebrity Apex. The cruise will stop in Puerto Rico, Antigua and more, and available rooms start at $2,297 per person based on double occupancy, according to the company's website.

◾ Olivia is operating a Sept. 21-28, 2024, sailing to Alaska. The sailing, on Holland America Line's Eurodam ship, will visit Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka and more, according to the company's website. Available rooms start at $1,299 per person based on double occupancy.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How cruises make space for LGBTQ+ travelers on the high seas