Making a Splash

Judy Dlugacz has taken the Olivia brand from local lesbian collective to lesbian-travel powerhouse – with promise of more to come

It’s March 1, and Judy Dlugacz – ”’de-loo’-gatch,’ it’s very common in Poland” – is getting ready for a party. She’s got a day to wait for her 60th birthday blowout at The Washington Club.

”Karen [Williams] can’t make it, but so many of the comedians are coming just to be there,” she says, obviously looking forward to her fete. ”Kate Clinton is coming, and Suzanne Westenhoefer, Vickie Shaw….”

Judy Dlugacz of Olivia Cruises

Judy Dlugacz of Olivia Cruises

(Photo by Todd Franson)

A birthday reunion at the swanky Washington Club might seem a world away from the young woman who came to D.C. in the early ’70s, eager to explore the budding world of radical lesbian separatism. Maybe it’s not so different, though. Her birthday horoscope is a good aid in drawing the line from then to now. According to the March 2 horoscope for Pisces, Dlugacz is going to be annoyed at being distracted from work.

”I don’t think so,” she says with a laugh, though granting that her role with her company, Olivia, taking it from an independent record label for women’s music to premiere lesbian travel brand and on into the future, demands plenty. ”I had to become a workaholic. I wouldn’t have naturally been a workaholic. But when you own your own business – one for the LGBT community for the last 40 years – one had to be a workaholic. But I love my community. I’ve always loved this community. If you start in 1973, there’s a lot of change that’s taken place over that time. Olivia and I have had to ride a lot of different waves.”

While a scheduling conflict kept Karen Williams from the March 2 bash, she has time to confirm Dlugacz’s commitment to community. After all, with two decades of Olivia cruises under her belt, making her first Olivia appearance on the company’s second charter, Williams has seen Dlugacz in action.

”She greets all the guests as they’re boarding, hugging, meeting and greeting,” says Williams, dubbing Dlugacz one of her ”sheroes.” ”She takes all of that very seriously. I’m sure it takes her an hour to go from fore to aft, because she’s got to say hi to everyone. … It’s community. For many, it’s the first time they’ve held hands or kissed in public. It’s a very special week. It’s life changing.”

That life-changing experience might be with a small group in the Galapagos Islands, or with a few hundred shipmates in the Caribbean. It could be Asia or Europe, on a boat or at a resort. However Olivia serves it up, the brand is sacrosanct. Dlugacz calls Olivia a ”treasure,” herself its caretaker.

Some of that passionate sense of community must come from her upbringing, in Plainview and Queens, N.Y.

”My mother was a union organizer, a teacher,” explains Dlugacz. ”She started the first teachers union on Long Island, did the first teachers strike on Long Island. We had union organizers in the house all the time. My father was a socialist and my mother was a Zionist. They were an amazing team. Bayard Rustin was in our house all the time. He was a friend of the family.”

Though the out gay civil rights icon may have been a friend of the family, that didn’t equate to smooth sailing when Dlugacz came out during college in Michigan.

”They didn’t like it all,” she remembers, though with more laughter than any obvious pain. ”They didn’t forgive me till I produced a concert at Carnegie Hall. They were not very good about it. ‘We were good, weren’t we?’ ‘Yeah, you just didn’t talk to me for 10 years.’ What does it take for your parents to accept you? Produce a concert at Carnegie Hall.”

Whatever her parents disposition, Dlugacz always found community. She found it in D.C. in the early, radical 1970s. She found it in L.A. with women’s music. She’s found it all over the world with lesbian tours. She’s finding in today in San Francisco and right here in D.C.

”I’m kind of bicoastal,” she says. ”I spend half my time here, and half my time in San Francisco where the company is. I have a partner who lives in D.C., Claire Lucas. She’s a presidential appointee.”

And now she’s got her eye on Palm Springs, Calif., and a new Olivia project she’s happy to talk about. For the time being, though, it was a milestone birthday to kick off the month, and the D.C.-based Mautner Project’s Chair’s Award at the national lesbian health organization’s annual gala March 17. Then there’s running Olivia, annual sales for which she pegs at about $20-$30 million.

”It’s this wonderful interaction between community and the company,” she says. ”It’s like a love affair. Those it serves love this company. And the company lives on being able to serve the community. It’s exactly what I had in mind. I feel very blessed at 60 that I have this ability to do more.

”Over 40 years, you have ups and downs. But every time Olivia has needed the community, the community is right there. I was the perfect person for this job. I really was. I just fell in love with Olivia. I fell in love with the idea of changing the world through feminism and through lesbian-feminism. I love music and I believed in what we were doing so much, and then everything else made sense.”

METRO WEEKLY: In light of you receiving the Mautner Project’s Chair’s Award, I recall reading that Olivia has donated about a half a million dollars over the years to various causes. Is that about right?

JUDY DLUGACZ: Not over the years, but on a regular basis. We do a tremendous amount of giving, gifting every year. I don’t know what the dollar amount is each year, but it’s an enormous amount. We do hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifting every year, to organizations all over.

MW: Do you have a particular tie to Mautner?

DLUGACZ: I love Mautner for a lot of reasons. Serving people the way they do, helping people the way they do is really, really important. I’m also a cancer survivor. But long before that we’d been giving to Mautner, for years and years. I had a very rare leukemia that was eradicated. That was seven years ago. I’m completely free of it and I’m fine. I’m very grateful. I’m great. But that’s another way I connect to Mautner. Serving people who are in need with illnesses, cancer in particular, it’s really very important work that they do.

MW: Do your donations stay in the philanthropic realm? Being entrenched in D.C., I’m wondering if your backing ever gets political. Would you, for example, offer a trip to the Tammy Baldwin campaign for fundraising purposes?

DLUGACZ: It depends on the situation. I’m a tremendous supporter of Tammy. I’m a big supporter of Obama. It’s really important that we talk about giving to all the candidates, giving to organizations, because we have to take care of our own. So I’m a very big supporter of those guys and I do everything I possibly can.

Here’s an example: When the Haiti crisis took place, Olivia got involved with the Red Cross. We set up an LGBT fund, which never happened before with the Red Cross. We and Atlantis, the gay men’s cruises, and RSVP, which is part of Atlantis, we raised over $250,000 within like a couple of weeks. These are the kinds of things that we can do to make a difference.

I’m a very strong proponent of gay money, LGBT money, being clearly focused and recognized. The more we can do in different parts of the world to say, ”We care about this, and, by the way, this is LGBT money,” it changes the way people react to us. I have lots of stories I can tell you about ways in which we’ve changed the world.

Visibility is everything. And money. The power of what money says when you go to a place and you’re good citizens there and you spend money, they turn around and go, ”Who were those women?” Then they realize they’re lesbians. They’ve never seen an out lesbian before. It makes a big difference. It is about money, and it is about organization.

MW: You mentioned President Obama. Some of the LGBT community is fully behind him, some are criticizing him for not doing more on marriage equality, or on other fronts. Where do you stand?

DLUGACZ: I’m a complete supporter. Look, I’ve been doing LGBT work for 40 years. I understand that you have to be somewhat patient. And this guy has done more for this community than anyone has ever done – in history. I don’t think we stop pushing for things, but I think we understand it and appreciate how this is all evolving. If we don’t, we’re going to get Republicans back in the White House. If we don’t, we’re going to go back 50 years.

MW: So you’re not thinking President Santorum will have some sort of LGBT outreach commission?

DLUGACZ: Yeah, right! [Laughs.] A different type of commission, I think.

MW: Instead of going back 50 years, let’s go back about 40.

DLUGACZ: We started in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, I believe, 1973. What that commemorates is that was the first time this group of incredible women got together and said, ”We want to do something to change the world. We don’t know what it is yet, but we want to do something. We don’t want it to be volunteer, because we’ll all burn out. We should do something that is also a business, that can generate money.” This concept in 1973 was very off the wall, because we were all a bunch of radicals thinking you should be a business, as well. ”We should create jobs. But what should it be?” A couple of months later, we knew. It was a record company. How brilliant was that? To do music, create a culture, create an environment where women can come out. At that point, it was all about radical feminism and saying, ”We can change the world through feminism,” and lesbianism was a natural progression of feminism.

Radical feminism, radical lesbianism, it was just seeing this. Lightbulbs were going off. ”I don’t have to live this way. I can be with women. I can be myself.” Women were discovering their sexuality. It was a time when there was just this burst of excitement that was happening. I moved to D.C. with three friends, and here were the Furies. This is where Charlotte Bunch and Rita Mae Brown and Ginny Berson, very radical lesbians, were doing this newspaper — The Furies — that was so significant.

We came here [from Michigan] because my girlfriend at the time wanted to do modern dance here, and I was taking a year off before going to law school. It didn’t matter where I went. One woman’s family lived here, so we all decided to come here. It was just serendipitous. One night, three of the four of us ended up at the Phase and met two of the women that became a major part of Olivia, Meg Christian and Ginny Berson. We met and became close friends and they brought more people to friend gatherings and we started to talk. Then, in January, we decided we wanted to work together. ”Let’s do something to change the world, for women in particular, for lesbians.” We believed that if all women knew about lesbianism, they’d all come out. [Laughs.]

MW: When was the decision made to take the effort to Los Angeles?

DLUGACZ: In March of 1975, we thought we should be closer to the record industry. And so five of us decided we would move, just pick up, quit our jobs and drive cross-country and live and work together in Los Angeles. And so we did. Because that’s where the industry was and that’s where a lot of things were happening in music for women. We lived together and worked there for seven years.

MW: With some of you leaving, some staying, there must’ve been friction.

DLUGACZ: Yeah, of course. It was two of the people, Ginny and Meg, who said, ”We need to move to L.A. to do this right.” And five of the women said, ”I don’t want to go.” And five of us said, ”Yes, we do.” And that’s pretty much when it split up. And then it became a living, working collective in L.A.

MW: Did you have any business background? You didn’t study business in college, I’m guessing.

DLUGACZ: No. The honest truth is if we knew what we were doing, we never would’ve done it. If we knew what it would take to be an independent record company with this gay part to it, this lesbian part to it – with no money and no knowledge of how to do it – it would’ve been insane. Forget it. But because we didn’t know, we could do it. That’s true for anyone who comes up with an idea. If you have a dream, just go for it if you can. It’s the vision. If you’re focused on this vision, you can do it. I did the same thing with the travel 15 years later.

MW: Olivia Travel started with a chartered cruise?

DLUGACZ: Yeah. Again, I didn’t know what I was doing.

Fifteen years into Olivia as a record company, I’d produced 30 albums at that point. We did major concerts at Carnegie Hall. We’d done all of these amazing things, had sold millions of records, but it was economically very difficult. I had to reinvent it again. It was just too much and I was just tired. I thought maybe it was time to do something else. But I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe I’d go to law school.

We did a series of 15th anniversary concerts. The first concert was in Seattle and a woman said to me, ”Wouldn’t it be great to have a concert on the water,” like on the waterfront. I went, ”Concert on the water? Cruise… vacations… vacations for women! I can do that.” So I took all the money I had and plunked it down for a deposit on a ship. The first cruise line said yes, then they said no, because they were too afraid of having lesbians charter a ship. This was ’89. Finally, we found a second cruise line. They had worked with RSVP [gay men's cruises], so they knew it was okay and they chartered to us. It was called Dolphin Cruise Lines.

MW: Out of Florida?

DLUGACZ: Yes. It was 600 women. I wrote a letter to the mailing list. ”I just plunked down $50,000” – or whatever it was – ”to charter this ship next year. It’s four nights in the Bahamas. You need to send all your money now and you can’t cancel. I need 600 of you.” I sent it to 30,000 people on the Olivia Records mailing list. Immediately, 600 women signed up. This is really significant, because it’s all about the trust they had in Olivia, the connection Olivia had to the community, that if we said we’d do something, it happened. And it did. So we took 600 women. I said, ”Let’s do it again,” so we had back-to-back trips, 600 women each – 1,200 women on our inaugural trips.”

MW: Without a hitch? No hiccups?

DLUGACZ: Not a hiccup.

MW: You must’ve realized you were on to something.

DLUGACZ: Absolutely. To give you an idea, we quadrupled the gross of the company in one year.

The record company, it never made real money. It was a labor of intense love and devotion. I made nothing – I would get my expenses paid. But it was so successful in terms of what it did for the world. How could you not do it? It was this amazing anodyne. The music meant so much to people. You could go from 50 people in a church basement to 2,000 people at major concert halls around the country. That’s what Olivia accomplished, because we produced these albums. And they were good. And you could hand-carry them from person to person. Somebody could be isolated in Wyoming and they could have this record – like the original Internet. They could have a record, and they could connect, feel they’re not alone. Back in the early ’70s, there were very few women out of the closet. Women were just discovering their sexuality.

MW: How do company decisions get made? Do you have a board?

DLUGACZ: No board. I am my market in many ways. That’s a lucky thing. When I was in my 20s, ”Music? Yes!” When I was in my mid-30s, starting to be able to travel, ”Travel? Yes!” I kind of understood what the market might be wanting. Then we asked the market.

It was also constrained by how big a ship we could charter, because we always take over the entire ship, the entire resort. We create the environment. We bring 40 people – the entertainers, the activity directors – to change the entire environment on board. We bring a book that’s [about an inch] thick to make sure things are done the way we want them done.

When we first chartered, no one wanted to charter to us. Now we’re one of the largest charterers for Holland America [Line]. Atlantis [Events, now parent company of RSVP Vacations] is another. Things have changed. We’ve changed the entire travel industry and how they view gay people. We’ve changed the way the companies have dealt with their gay employees.

We went to Turkey and spent money in one port, Kusadasi. This was right after the Kosovo War. The next day, every paper in Istanbul did a story how Olivia came to Kusadasi, how the women of Olivia spent half a million dollars. All four newspapers in Istanbul had huge, front-page stories about the wonderful women of Olivia, some of whom got married on board, and ”the smiles on their faces were outdone only by the sparkle in their eyes, and we wish them the best of luck.” I can’t make these things up. We get to Istanbul, go to the grand bazaar, 400 women walking through the grand bazaar. The shopkeepers have all read their morning papers, and what do they do? ”Lovely lesbian ladies, come to my shop!” [Laughs.]

I have scores of stories like this. We went to Huatulco right after a hurricane and we matched [relief] funds.

MW: Huatulco? Where is that?

DLUGACZ: Exactly! Mexico. Karen Williams is one of the comedians [on Olivia vacations], and she’ll say, ”Judy Dlugacz, she takes us places we’ve never even heard of. She says, ‘Go to Hualtuco,’ and we go!” [Laughs.] She’s great.

MW: Some gay cruises have faced some opposition in various ports. Has Olivia?

DLUGACZ: We did. We went to the Bahamas once, a long time ago, but we’d been there like 10 times already. It was the day after Easter. It just so happened these bishops had had a conference in the Caribbean condemning homosexuality. They found out we were coming, and they decided they were going to have a protest. We learned about it, like, the day before. So I told everyone on board, ”There’s going to be a little protest. We don’t know how big it is. Why don’t we all just go to the private island? If you have to go into Nassau, just know there’s going to be some sort of thing.” I rushed off the ship when we got to Nassau to see what was going on. There was a small demonstration, maybe 75, 100 people. I said I wanted to talk to the leader. We met, there was some press there, and I said, ”You don’t know us. We’re just here to vacation. Why are you condemning us?”

”You’re going to burn in hell.”

So a crowd starts to form. They sort of formed around us. The local media was like, ”Judy, just go back to the ship.” We were supposed to have security at the pier. They promised us security, and there was no security, and the protestors came onto the pier below our ship. Half our women had already left for the private island, but half were on board, and the angry protestors were down below. I called ahead, ”Close up the ship! They’re coming!” [Laughs.] But the women were watching from the railing. It was sort of surreal. These protesters started singing hymns – four part harmonies, beautiful. But little did they know that the women on board also knew these hymns. So the women are signing the hymns back to them. [Laughs.] It just fizzled out. It was like [the protesters] all shrank. They finished the song and quietly walked away.

That was one part of the story. The other part is we contacted the head of tourism. The secretary of tourism came on board and apologized. I said, ”No, that’s not enough. If you want gay people to come here ever again – we’ve been here 10 times…. We’ve always been welcome and now this happens and you didn’t protect us? The prime minister of the Bahamas needs to apologize. He needs to say gay people are welcome.” And he did. The next week he did a whole press conference and said everyone is welcome, gay people are welcome. That was our experience in the Bahamas.

MW: You were saying in your 20s it was about the music, in your 30s, the travel. And now I’m reading about a sort of retirement community?

DLUGACZ: It’s a resort community. I want to create community like we do on board. I want it to be cross-generational. It’s going to be people probably in their early 40s on up. For some people it will be a second home. For some people it will be retirement. It’s going to be in Palm Springs. We’ve already bought the land. Development is its own special thing, so I’m not going to rush it. I’m going to make sure we have the right plans, the right development. We are building a community. There are other communities that exist. Hopefully there will be more and more, because there is such a need. We have the ability to market to half a million women, and gay men. It’s not going to be women only. It’s probably going to be more women than men, but it’s going to be a mixed community.

MW: Will it offer assisted living?

DLUGACZ: No. I understand that process. The thing about doing it in Palm Springs, first of all, it’s the baby boomers who will lead the way. And the baby boomers are not wanting assisted living. They’re not thinking of themselves that way, nor should they. What we need is facilities out there for assisted living for people who are going to need that, that are respectful of gay people.

I think we’re going to lead the way in terms of creating community the way life is supposed to be. We have the most historic piece of property in all of Palm Springs. We’re going to do this amazing thing with it. It’s going to be remarkable.

MW: Do you see this expanding?

DLUGACZ: Without a doubt. This is the final part of my trilogy. The music was first. Then we brought the music and entertainment into travel. To community, we’re bringing the travel and the entertainment. All of it interconnects. It all makes sense.

MW: In that this is going to be a mixed community, do you find it getting more difficult to market to lesbians than in 1973? I mean, going from ”homosexual” to gays and lesbians, to LGBT, to queer, to ”boi,” ”post-gay” and so on – the demographics becoming less defined.

DLUGACZ: No, it’s easier. It’s really important for those of us who live in major metropolitan areas that have really good gay politics to recognize – particularly for women – it’s not that much different for people. Go to Virginia. Take a 10-minute drive. It’s not that different. Take a 10-minute drive outside of San Francisco and you’re in Marin or Oakland, and it’s not always that different. We’re not ”post” anything.

There’s radicalism that moves the bar in any generation, so it’s important to have people talking ”post,” because then things shift. You have queer consciousness. You have gender identity changing. All those are radical elements that help to move society along. You always want that. But I don’t think it’s ”post.” It ain’t ”post.”

I’m going to talk about something else: choice. The community took a really wide right turn when it said that people don’t choose to be gay. I know why it was done. There were all these political reasons why you say that. I don’t think men, necessarily, have chosen to be gay thus far. But women choose very often to be gay. There were women who knew they were gay from a young age, but there are also women who went, ”Oh, this is better. I choose to be gay.” Or they discovered sexuality in general; they didn’t know who they were. Women are not the same as men. Women can choose to be gay, and it’s a plus. It’s a good thing. … Women had a different experience. Their sexuality was more fluid. Men’s sexuality was if you were gay, it was because you were gay, you were born that way. You didn’t come out just because of a politic. Feminism was a politic. You could leave sexism. You could leave men and come to be strong, independent women.

What was being done by our community by saying we couldn’t choose to be gay? It took away, ”As a woman I’m not going to choose this lifestyle because they’re telling me you have to be born this way.” Feminism always said you can be whoever you want to be. Men were a little more evolved in terms of that over the centuries. Women were just discovering being strong and independent. Female sexuality has been an unknown thing prior.

Sexism is the biggest issue. Homophobia is secondary, because most lesbians in the world are invisible. Imagine if feminism really did its thing. You can see what happened here. In 1973, I couldn’t get a credit card without a man signing with me. I couldn’t get a home loan. I couldn’t get bank credit. In 1969, only four years earlier, I had to be part of a strike in my high school to wear pants.

If you discovered feminism and had the option to be strong and independent, then being with other women was a real option. So, change and choice, and then suddenly the gay movement said no, there’s no choice. I’m saying, yes, there is a choice. There was a political element of saying, ”If you choose to be gay, then you don’t need rights.” I understand. But what did it say to our community? It said, ”You wouldn’t choose to be gay. Who would want to be gay?” I would.

MW: Speaking of differences in gender, I’m reminded of interviewing Donna Rose, a transgender woman, who told me that estrogen had a greater impact on her psychology than on her body, that it sort of opened up all her senses.

DLUGACZ: There are differences among all different people. Vive la difference.

We dealt with transsexuality very early on. It was called ”transsexual” at that time. We were an all-women’s recording company. We hired women. We trained women. Women didn’t have these opportunities. There were no women engineers and we fell into this wonderful woman engineer. It turned out that she was transsexual. So this radical-lesbian-separatist collective had to decide: ”What do we do with this person who is transsexual, male to female?” It was this amazing story. I talked to her and we became friends. She said, ”I consider myself a lesbian.” I went back to the groups and said, ”Yes, Sandy’s a transsexual, but guess what, she wants to train women. She considers herself a lesbian.” So, in 1976, I hired a male-to-female transsexual. But then the community was vicious, horrible. ”Oh, the FBI and CIA are infiltrating the women’s movement!”

On the other hand, Olivia still does these trips that are specifically for women. When we started doing Olivia as a record company, we were being lambasted for being a women’s record company. It was like the industry was saying, ”You’re discriminating against men.” I’d go, ”Wait. If you can name” – and this happened with Billboard magazine, all these magazines, in every interview. ”If you can name five women drummers, five women bass players, five women guitar players, five women producers and five women engineers, I will shut down Olivia.” Now, it’s like the same thing. We do these trips for women. It’s not anti-anybody. If I had permission, all my gay friends would come on a trip. On these trips, I don’t have permission to change it. It’s so wonderful, and it’s not from a negative place, but from a very positive place. I don’t have permission to change that, to change the dynamic of the experience for some people. Most people don’t care.

MW: But some men go on Olivia cruises.

DLUGACZ: Some do. Very few. Men who come have a wonderful time. It’s just that it’s really the promise to the women that it’s going to be their space. Again, we don’t discriminate against anybody. Really, it’s a safe haven for anybody in terms of gender. You have to feel comfortable in the environment we’re creating, that’s all. Generationally, I think there would be the assumption that there is no need, but when women, cross-generationally, first come on a trip, they go, ”Wow! Love this.”

We’re a broad spectrum of sexualities. As we grow and develop over the next decades, it’s going to be interesting. We don’t have a clue. This is an incredible time to be gay, on so many levels. To go through change is so significant for all of us, any kind of historic change. We’re lucky to be alive in a period of change. Consciousness shifts and you learn so much. It’s amazing.

MW: From 1973 to almost 2013, what would that 20-year-old think of where you are now?

DLUGACZ: I think she would be pretty impressed. Her radicalism hasn’t changed. The reason that I did it at the beginning, I still do it. Which is visibility for women.

Which is to create strong, independent environments, visibility for lesbians and gay people. It’s all the same strong feminist values.

And to create a business that is ongoing, that helps to support all of the ethics and all of the politics that I believe in. It does that. It’s changed the world for so many people. I’m so grateful. Hundreds of thousands of women changed their lives. And it’s not like there weren’t any men, but it was focused on women. Their lives changed so much because of either the music or, now, the travel. It still does the same thing. Some women just come to go on vacation – I want to make that perfectly clear – and have a blast. And some women come and it’s like this awakening of what it’s like to be in the majority. I still find it extraordinary.

The Mautner Project’s annual gala, ”Over the Rainbow,” is Saturday, March 17, 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW. Tickets are $225. Call 202-332-5536 or visit gala.mautnerproject.org.

For more information about Olivia, call 800-631-6277 or visit olivia.com.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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