By Zach Berger
In November 2017, film director Tristan Milewski released Dream Boat, the documentary film following five men as they board a gay cruise in search for love and freedom. As the title suggests, the ship literally becomes a vessel for one’s wildest sexual, romantic, and personal fantasies. It’s a place where politics and temporality appear to be suspended, where one is liberated from an otherwise volatile and dismal world, a world where homosexuality is not only trivialized but sometimes even violently persecuted. The film is shot with stunning images of a monstrous yet ethereal ship gliding through open waters, of nearly nude men dancing at all hours of the day, and of the stunningly diverse range of people encompassed by the gay community.
But like all fantasies, the men on this cruise are inevitably disappointed as the mirage of inclusivity and opportunity gets wrapped up in impossible expectations. One of Milewski’s subjects, Marek, seeks out a deep, emotional connection on the cruise but winds up lost in a cacophony of casual sex. Meanwhile, Dipankar arrives in exile from Dubai, a country where homosexuality is illegal, in hopes of discovering a community that will accept him. But when he falls short of the muscular, white body ideals of gay men, he is only left feeling more like an outcast. The film evokes a fundamentally human cycle of expectation, idealism, and disappointment. We are compelled to conflate ambiguous ideas like physical place with fulfilment or gratification. The idea that there is an unknown place in the world that will finally bring one happiness is all too familiar. The parallels of this cycle is the essence of countless experiences, not only of men boarding a gay cruise, but also of anyone seeking community or fulfilment in all the wrong places: LGBTQ+ youth moving to big cities, refugees escaping oppression only to be turned away by their new countries, or immigrants trying to realize their own American Dream.
The LGBTQ+ community markets itself as being inclusive of all people, as a refuge for the outcast “sexual deviants,” as fighting for equity in a world that despises them. It’s incredibly hypocritical. Anyone who has had experience navigating the culture of homosexuality knows how regimented and exclusionary it actually is. Gay men are categorized by their body type, their race, their mannerisms. If a gay man doesn’t fall into one of these categories, they occupy an ambiguous space of unintelligibility within the social structure of homosexuals. But should they easily fall into one of these stereotypes, these men would be limited to the scope of their own category, unable to operate outside of a label they didn’t ask for. In one particularly heartbreaking scene of the film, Dipankar laments, almost without realizing the weight of his words, that his body type does not afford him community among, or attraction from, many of the other passengers. That he so passively understands and accepts his inferiority within this structure speaks to its urgency. He resolutely knows that he will never be deemed typically attractive to the white, twinky, muscular rubric of gay beauty—that his own community will never accept him for who he is, that he will be forced to occupy a space of inadequacy despite his desire for acceptance. Paradoxically, Marek embodies all of these typical standards of beauty but feels cursed by it. He’s a white muscular man with a well-defined face and pretty features, and speaks with an alluring European accent. The preeminence of sex and bodies in the gay community conceals his desire for emotional depth; and he, too, is disappointed by the very expectations he fabricated and by his means about realizing them. No one can look past his pretty exterior, and thus he becomes commodified as an object of sexual gratification. Both Marek and Dipankar invested their own personal happiness in the cruise and were, unsurprisingly, disappointed by their means of realizing it.
The cycles of confusing place with happiness, of piling up expectations, and of being disappointed are all tropes of the modern human condition. Young queer people moving to big cities is an example. I can remember all of the hope I had invested in NYU before coming here. I wanted to find a community that understood me, to be accepted, to not feel as alone. But I was surprised to find these, too, were all just fantasies. Not only did I experience the harsh reality of exclusion in the LGTBQ+ community, but I also felt lost in New York’s labyrinth of social interaction. Going to college is tough enough, and I had to contend with another dimension of that puzzle. No one was waiting for me with open arms at the Lincoln Tunnel to welcome me into this mess. In fact, I had no idea what I was even looking for in coming to New York, no concept of how it would clarify my place in the world. I, too, fell into this vague, romantic fantasy of happiness that I still, even now, have yet to realize. I empathize with Marek and Dipankar, as I’m sure many of us do, because the feeling of being disappointed by our own fabrications are all too familiar. New York was my dreamboat.
For others, this experience can have dire implications. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that “65.6 million people around the world have been forced from [their homes]. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.” Refugees are often forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution in their own country and are actively seeking asylum in another. The reasons for their escape are numerous and often come out of particularly horrible circumstances—the Rohingya Muslim minority fleeing harsh religious persecution and violence in Myanmar, Syrians escaping the devastation of bombs and bullets, the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, just to name a few. They, too, invest not only their happiness but also their livelihood in another physical place. But upon arrival, many refugees do not get the help that they need, often even getting turned away by countries that refuse to provide any kind of assistance or housing accommodations. The cycle of expectation and disappointment exists here too, but is acutely exaggerated for refugees. Like all of us, they expect to find community and happiness in their new countries; but above all, they hope for safety. Yet many nations receiving refugees are becoming increasingly hostile. Refugees’ need for new homes and their desire for normal lives also become boiled down to unattainable, if not highly political, fantasies.
Last summer I studied abroad in Berlin, a city with a reputation for being particularly accepting of refugees, many of whom come from Syria. One of my class sessions consisted of a talk with a Syrian refugee who was just twenty years old, only a few months older than me at the time. He spoke of his decision to escape Syria’s unrest despite being enrolled in university and how he scrounged for the money to leave; he described his treacherous journey throughout the Mediterranean and up to Germany, and his settling down in Berlin. His story, though unique in its own way, highlighted the urgency of the global refugee crisis, that millions of people are displaced from their homes just to seek out the very same kinds of feelings that we all look for in our everyday lives, but with far more serious implications. He continued to discuss his experience in Berlin, lamenting the difficulties of adjusting to a new place and navigating a new culture, and described some of the ways he still feels like an outsider. It’s an experience all too familiar.
In the United States, this cycle has a name: the American Dream. It, too, appears to put physical borders around a promise of happiness, safety, financial security, opportunity, or community for anyone willing to work. But it’s all an illusion, propped up by a desperate need for some semblance of hope and tainted by the realities of privilege. Many come here in search of their own American Dream, suffering from the same despondency of their current life and yearning for their place in the dreamboat that is this country. But the system is designed for most to fail and few to prosper, for the majority to be let down by the chimera of meritocracy.
We put so much of our own happiness into the hands of others even when we don’t know who they are. We wrap so many of our expectations up into vague, romantic fantasies of places we hope will satisfy our desires. It’s easy to fall into an idealistic binary hinging on place and temporality, believing that things will be better in the future, better there than they are here. As the old saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side. But the reasons for many of our misjudgments go deeper than this—a fundamentally human cycle of pain and disappointment. Coming to terms with this reality, to resist the Siren song of our most personal fantasies, is difficult; but at least we can all be passengers of this dreamboat together.
Originally published 03/09/18