BY STEVE ROTHAUS, SROTHAUS@MIAMIHERALD.COM
Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines quickly apologized Tuesday after finding itself in hot water with gay passengers on an upcoming drag cruise, who were told to "refrain from engaging in inappropriate conduct in public areas" — or be kicked off the liner Glory.
"Anyone who wishes to dress in drag may do so," Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill wrote in a letter to passengers, adding that anyone still unhappy could cancel travel and receive a full refund including “reimbursement for any non-refundable travel related expenses.”
The Drag Stars at Sea cruise is scheduled to depart PortMiami on Sunday, visit ports throughout the Caribbean and return Dec. 9. About 1,000 passengers (one-third of the Glory’s total travelers) booked through AlandChuck Travel, a gay-oriented travel company in Sarasota, according to Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen.
The AlandChuck guests are scheduled to be entertained separately throughout the cruise by well-known drag stars who’ve appeared on Logo TV’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Monday afternoon, AlandChuck’s guests received an “urgent notice” via email from Vicky Rey, Carnival’s vice president for guest services:
“Carnival attracts a number of families with children and for this reason; we strive to present a family friendly atmosphere. It is important to us that all guests are comfortable with every aspect of the cruise. Although we realize this group consists solely of adults, we nonetheless expect all guests to recognize that minors are onboard and, refrain from engaging in inappropriate conduct in public areas,” Rey wrote.
“Arrangements have been made for drag performances in the main theater featuring stars from LOGO TV. These functions will be private and only the performers are permitted to dress in drag while in the theater. Guests are not allowed to dress in drag for the performances or in public areas at any time during the cruise.”
Rey told passengers that anyone breaking the rules would be forced off the ship, no refunds given.
Within hours, gay travelers and their friends had posted hundreds of angry messages on AlandChuck’s Facebook page.
“This is where I WANT my DISLIKE button. This is ridiculous and if this was the case it should have been communicated far before six days before the cruise. Drag is not a costume in my opinion it’s an expression of speech. Our rights are being violated,” posted Tommie Tiboni of Phoenix.
Al Ferguson of AlandChuck quickly posted in Carnival’s defense: “Please take note, Carnival’s regulation is NOT an example of discrimination. Carnival is an ally of the GLBT community. Please understand that this cruise could not even be happening on the GLORY if Carnival was not an ally of our segment of society. When they say they are a "family friendly" cruise line they mean it in both the traditional and metaphorical sense of the phrase.”
Still, some passengers demanded refunds.
“My husband doesn’t want to go now,” said Shane Windmeyer of Charlotte, N.C., who planned to travel with Tommy Feldman. “We’ve been together 17 years now and the last thing we want to do is go on a cruise where we don’t feel welcome.
“What was expressed by Carnival is discrimination in the worst way,” said Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization for LGBT students. “We paid about $2,500 for two of us. We got a balcony. it was my birthday gift for turning 40. I’ve been looking forward to it since May.”
Windmeyer said despite the apology, he and Feldman won’t be on the cruise.
“My husband does not want to go,” Windmeyer said. “It would be like dragging a cat on board.”
Michael Teague of Phoenix said on Facebook that he decided to take the trip. “This was a professional blunder of the highest order. I will still be on the cruise.”
The controversy put a spotlight on Carnival’s treatment of gay employees and travelers. This year, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay-rights group, rated the cruise line’s parent company “zero” on its Corporate Equality Index. (Royal Caribbean International scored 90 on the survey; American Airlines a perfect 100.)
Carnival, which told The Miami Herald on Tuesday that it offers medical/dental/disability insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners and protects gay workers with the company’s nondiscrimination policy, earned the zero for not responding to HRC’s survey.
“When I see a company like Carnival ... not engage with the nation’s largest LGBT rights organization that has for 10 years has been benchmarking corporate America, it strikes me as a missed opportunity,” said Deena Fidas, deputy director of HRC’s Workplace Project.
Carnival said Tuesday it would soon be in touch with HRC.
“We checked on the HRC survey and have been told that our human resources department has been in touch with the organization and is in the process of completing the survey,” Gulliksen said in an email to The Herald.