Who is Dorothy, and why does this mysterious lady seem to be popular enough to have friends onboard so many cruises today? Amid the jumble of special interest groups listed in your ship's daily programs -- from singles and bridge clubs to Alcoholics Anonymous' "Friends of Bill W" -- the appearance on any onboard schedule of a Friends of Dorothy (abbreviated as FOD) meeting is a positive sign that the cruise line and/or the cruise director is open-minded and progressive. That's because FOD meetings are informal, low-key gatherings for gay and lesbian passengers to meet and mingle onboard. Here we answer your top questions about these meetups and their mysterious namesake.

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What's a Friend of Dorothy Meeting?

At their cores, FOD meetings are get-togethers for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community onboard cruise ships -- along the lines of singles, veterans, knitters and other special-interest meetups. They allow travelers who identify this way to meet like-minded folks -- great for making new friends who can then join you for dinner, drinks or shore tours throughout the trip.

FOD meetings began popping up on some cruise ships' daily programs in the late 1980's as gay passengers, always a large contingent among cruisers, began to seek out more social meetings with their own affinity group. They wanted an easy way to identify and socialize with other gay passengers on large ships. And what better venue than a ship-sanctioned meeting to find some new gay friends, enjoy some camaraderie or even find a romantic partner? These FOD meetings occurred sporadically at first, dependent on the vagaries of the cruise lines' changing policies and the whims of individual cruise directors. As gays and lesbians gained more acceptance and visibility, these FOD meetings began appearing with more regularity. In fact, some lines have even instituted official policies to host and publicize these meetings on as many of their ships as possible.

So, what exactly happens at these touted FOD/GLBT meetings? Disco music and inebriated men and women swinging from the chandeliers? (Whoops ... that was the last wedding I went to.) It's typically a very casual and sedate cocktail party at one of the ship's bars or public rooms, sometimes with complimentary drinks and a member of the ship's social staff (or better yet, the cruise director in person) on hand to provide social lubrication. The time is usually prior to or during cocktail hour. Ideally, the cruise director will offer the FOD meeting early in the cruise and on more than one day, to give everyone who wants to attend more options.

So Who's Dorothy?

The evolution of the term "Friends of Dorothy" reaches back more than half a century. Gay historians say that the term came into popular use in the 1950's as gays and lesbians developed a special connection with the musical icon Judy Garland, whose ballads of hope and despair and whose relentless spirit and tragic history mirrored their struggles in everyday life. Garland's most famous role -- as the ever-optimistic and wistful Dorothy in the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" -- gave gays and lesbians a "secret" code word which they could use to refer to themselves. At cocktail parties or company gatherings where one could not be comfortably "out and proud," gays would inquire discreetly of each other, "Are you a 'Friend of Dorothy?'" The wink-wink admission of "I am, too!" would likely lead to fabulous and fast bonding in an age when gay bars were clandestine and, in some cases, dangerous.

Today, the term "Friends of Dorothy" is used mostly by an older generation of gays and lesbians; young gay men and women may never have heard the term. Because of this -- and because of increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians in mainstream society -- many cruise lines are now using the nonambiguous abbreviation of GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) in their daily programs.

Do All Cruises Have FOD Meetups?

After surveying the major cruise lines, we've discovered cruise lines are divided into three groups with regard to FOD/GLBT meeting policies:

The most open and accessible group includes Norwegian, Holland America, Carnival and Princess Cruises; the luxury lines Crystal and Cunard; and the "luxury lite" line Azamara. These cruise lines include at least one FOD meeting on every ship and on every cruise, and they have moved in recent years toward a consistent policy for their valued gay/lesbian passengers. (We should note that, while the cruise lines have this official policy in place, it is possible that a particular cruise may omit the meetings for various reasons, such as scheduling, with no slight intended.) Most of these lines now also include the nonambiguous term GLBT in the listing to avoid any confusion.

While most of these lines have consistently hosted FOD meetings for at least a decade, Holland America is a recent entrant. It used to hold the meetings only upon request, but now it offers one FOD meeting at the start of every cruise and subsequent meetings upon request. Not surprisingly, the cruise lines that host regular FOD meetings are known for being very gay-friendly. For example, NCL and Holland America (as well as Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, see below) have all hosted entire-ship charters for the gay and lesbian markets, which means that their officers and crew are probably comfortable with large gay groups and their specific needs.

The second group of cruise lines consists of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises. These two large cruises lines have decided not to list FOD meetings in their daily programs and, instead, list FOD/GLBT meetings on the community "bulletin board" near Guest Relations. This meeting is one among several other interest group get-togethers such as "Friends of Bill W." or singles meet-ups. "[Celebrity] does not list any private functions in the daily program," cruise line spokeswoman Lisa Harrison of Emanate Public Relations told us. "Most of our ships have a set time and place marked on their board for the Friends of Dorothy Meeting." When I was onboard Celebrity Silhouette, I noticed that the official FOD meeting was listed on the bulletin board every night at a certain time at the popular Martini Bar, which had quickly become an informal hub for the cocktail-loving gay and lesbian passenger set. Listing the meetings on the visible bulletin boards represents an evolution in the FOD policy and is a way to handle increasing requests by diverse interest groups who all want to meet each other onboard large ships. And since these specific cruise lines have a consistent policy for all affinity groups who want to hold meetups, it does not seem to indicate that the line is marginalizing or discounting its valued gay and lesbian passengers.

The final group in our survey consists of the luxury and luxury-lite lines of Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar and Oceania. Because of their smaller, more intimate sizes, these cruise lines rarely feel it's necessary to offer FOD meetings (or most other special-interest meetings) because cruisers are very likely to run into like-minded passengers every day in the restaurants and public spaces. This translates into an atmosphere of class and elegance, with sophisticated passengers who prize discretion. In general, the well-traveled (and well-heeled) passengers onboard these cruises lines tend not to bat an eye when it comes to gay couples, who are among the most avid and loyal cruisers today in this upper segment.

Do FOD Meetings Signal That a Cruise Will Be Gay-Friendly?

Much of gay passengers' comfort level aboard a regular cruise can be attributed to the unpredictable makeup of their fellow passengers; merely offering a FOD meeting does not necessarily mean that gay passengers will feel any more welcome than they would on a cruise without a meeting. The major cruise lines state in their policies that they treat all passengers and guests equally, with an emphasis on nondiscrimination among all passengers, officers and crew. The incidents of outright homophobia and ignorance onboard cruises appear far less frequently than in the past, and they're certainly uncommon in today's diverse cruising world.

Why Did No One Show Up to the FOD Meeting on My Cruise?

The biggest complaint from frequent gay cruisers is that FOD turnout is often sparse. Maybe it's the gay twenty-somethings not recognizing the "Dorothy" code language or some gay couples -- especially those in the fifty-plus generation -- not wanting other passengers to "label" them as a couple, unlike more proudly out younger gays. "I don't need any gay meetings," replied one half of a gay professional couple that cruises at least once a year, when asked why he never attended a FOD meeting.

Another reason for sparse turnout is that gay passengers onboard may have forgotten about the meeting in the midst of a competing seminar or spa treatment or the beckoning waters of the pool. Some couples report organizing their own private FOD parties in their staterooms for select friends -- and some lucky new acquaintances they've made onboard. After all, just because you're both gay doesn't mean you have much in common with some stranger you've just met.

Where Else Can I Find "Friends of Dorothy" Onboard?

On some ships, certain bars or locations have already gained a strong gay following without any encouragement or planned FOD meetings at all. The exact origins of these gay-claimed spaces is murky sometimes, and possibly due to word of mouth on online forums, such as Cruise Critic's message boards. Nevertheless, ship hotspots such as Cunard's Queen Mary 2's Commodore Club (affectionately dubbed "Commodorothy") or the Martini Bar onboard Celebrity ships can reliably boast of being gay-popular on cruise after cruise.

Can I Arrange My Own Meetup?

Of course. Truly organized and social gay cruisers often post a FOD/GLBT Roll Call post on Cruise Critic's Gay and Lesbian message boards, inviting fellow gay cruisers to meet each other virtually and join them at an onboard spot at the beginning of the sailing. The very wired cruiser may opt to start a Facebook page inviting other gay cruisers to get together on an upcoming cruise. Other gay cruisers prefer to wait until they are onboard to meet and mingle.

If you don't see a FOD meeting scheduled on the first or second night onboard, and you want to meet some new gay friends, ask for one! Make your request known to the cruise director and social staff early on. Bear in mind that the length of the cruise (shorter voyages may result in less leeway in scheduling meetings), as well as how port-intensive the itinerary is (less sea time equals less time for gatherings in general), can affect whether you'll find a FOD meeting (or two) onboard. Also remember that on many mainstream ships, you might encounter groups of gay travelers on vacation together or as part of an affinity group organized by a travel agency or gay tour company; the more gays who are onboard, the more leverage you have in convincing a reluctant cruise director to host one for you. In most cases, all you have to do is ask.