Original Memphis: Gay River Cruises of the 80s

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by Vincent Astor | images courtesy of Vincent Astor

1980 was a very busy year for activism in Memphis. The Tennessee Gay Coalition for Human Rights had a Memphis chapter (later the Memphis Gay Coalition). Memphis hosted the Southeastern Conference of Lesbians and Gay Men and literally took over the Holiday Inn Rivermont facing the Mississippi (later the Rivermark). There was conflict between some
bar owners who had fought hard for the right to operate and the new activism. One event which became a tradition was also born, the Pride River Ride.

In 1980 Safe Space was still an issue and many were reticent to be themselves even in the protected spaces at the bars. What safer space than the middle of the Mississippi River? That June the first Pride River Ride was created. The Memphis Queen II was booked and the
group was treated like any other group who wanted to have a party on the river. It was something different, something unique, and began a tradition which lasted nearly 20 years.

It was first and foremost a dance. A big one. There are many tales about that first ride. It sold out and was a successful fund raiser for the Coalition. The boatload of people drank enough so the big Showboat had to dock mid-river to transfer ice and liquor to the smaller boat. That year, there was a national square dance convention in town. That night, many dancers were on the Showboat. The passengers gawked at one another while the boats came together to transfer supplies. A bedsheet-sized gay rights banner hung from the side and one notorious drag queen showed her leg over the railing. Later, as the boats passed one another again, the big square dance looked like a huge kaleidoscope of color with all the big, bright skirts in motion.

The boat line felt very amenable to the gay group because we drank a lot and didn’t get into fights or misbehave, unlike some of their other parties. That relationship lasted for many years as the dance grew and grew, soon taking over the big Showboat with a live band.

An autumn version was tried a couple of times but dropped because it was inevitably too cold, especially on the smaller boats with more open decks. The June ride became a tradition. Joyce Cobb and her band became a mainstay of the ride, returning year after year to much acclaim. She is a very versatile musician with a wide range of fans and was always happy to play for “family” in a city where such an event was possible.

The entertainment was never a drag show. There was lots of drag among the participants but also many other opportunities to see drag shows. A lesbian guitar duo entertained one year. The boat ride was different. Many photos remain of the boat ride years, some taken before departure and sold to participants upon return. The 10th anniversary was in 1990 and Joyce Cobb was there with her band Hot Fun. One final autumn ride took place in 1990. Awards were given out as part of the entertainment in honor of National Coming Out Day.

When the Coalition disbanded in 1991 the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (now OUTMemphis) took over the fund raiser. Unfortunately it was not the unique opportunity it had been at first. Times had changed and so had opportunities to dance and mingle. An increase in
entertainment costs and a food minimum required by the boat line had made the ride more expensive. A smaller boat was then used. Live music went away. The last events barely broke even. The headliner that final year was Rufus Thomas with one last return to the Showboat. After that it became history and memories.

Oh, but it was grand. And Original Memphis.