HBO Documents First-Ever Gay Family Cruise
The queue seemed interminable: a human serpentine snaked its way down the gangway of the Norwegian Dawn. Those who had booked passage on the cruise waited to board, some patient, others anxious. This scene had been played out thousands of times before, but this time there was a difference. Nearly all the 500 families advancing to the ocean liner were made up of either two moms or two dads, many with children in tow.
Tony had come to experience the world’s first-ever cruise for gay families—seven days of bliss with diapers and baby formula. Tony and his partner, Lan, are from Kansas City. They and their infant daughter, Lia, were among over 1,500 passengers on Rosie’s Family Cruise in the summer of 2004. Seeing all these families, mostly ordinary folks, who shared one special thing with them was a moving scene for the two local dads.
Experiences on the maiden voyage of this R Family Vacations (rfamilyvacations.com) cruise were recorded by filmmaker Shari Cookson. The documentary, “All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise,” was screened during the second cruise in 2005, and again at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It finally arrived on HBO April 6. The film followed several of the families through their personal adventures from New York to Key West, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.
The “Rosie” in the film’s title is, of course, Rosie O’Donnell, comedian, actor, and talk-show host. She and her partner, Kelli O’Donnell, came up with the idea of a cruise for gay and lesbian families in 2002 with their friend Gregg Kaminsky. Family was the impetus for the cruise idea, as the O’Donnells have four young children.
Gregg knew how to run a travel business, and Kelli had the marketing expertise. “I just wrote the check,” Rosie said. She insisted they charter the best ship, and she saw to the chore of getting freebies for the guests and booking Broadway talent for the onboard entertainment. “Gregg and Kelli did everything else,” said Ro.
Stage shows at the Stardust Theatre included "Rosie's Variety Hour" and stand-up comedians Bob Smith, Judy Gold, and Poppy Champlin performed. Billy Porter belted out a mellifluous “But the World Goes ‘Round.” Former NFL defensive player Esera Tuaolo conducted a football clinic; He was aboard with his partner and their twin girls.
As on any Caribbean cruise, passengers could swim, play shuffleboard, tour ports of call, or simply lie around soaking up the sun. Forums were held about such things as adoption, and there was a panel discussion on "Being a Dad in a Mom's World."
In the documentary Marina Gatto recalls how it felt seeing her moms walking together, holding hands without one scintilla of judgment. The joy is obvious as the moms, dads, and kids dance to “We Are Family” at the beginning of the film. Catharsis abounds.
Tony and Lan were also aboard the 2005 cruise to Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, and Nova Scotia, and are set to sail to Alaska later this year on cruise number three. They liken the experience to an annual coming together of a set of friends, whether at a summer job, a fraternity event, or a community theater group. Lan’s mom accompanied the pair in 2005 so they could attend more of the late night goings on, while grandma helped out with Lia. Year two featured Cyndi Lauper, Joy Behar, and Melissa Etheridge to entertain the 2,200 passengers aboard that year.
A few vocal church folks were doing their best to rattle the cruisers as they toured Nassau. Lan and Tony decided against disembarking because they were warned of a possible protest such as this in the Bahamas. This incident was the only blemish on an otherwise utopian experience. Teen kids talked about their parents’ “coming out,” older children gave testimonies about their families, and one pair of dads dealt with impending separation anxiety as their daughter prepares for college.
Near the end of the documentary, Charlie Paragian and Danny Sernekos were married in a formal ceremony with their five children surrounding them. The seven embrace in a scene that would melt anyone’s heart. Shauna Raye and Liz Ward also chose to have a barefoot, linen-clad, sunset holy union.
As the cruisers prepared to end their journey, the reality of a safe, wonderful, happy, gentle village would soon pass into history.
The film is artfully constructed. Anyone with an empathetic soul will be moved to tears and laughter by it. The July 2-9, 2006, cruise from Seattle to Alaska is sold out, with around 2,600 on the manifest. The first R Family winter cruise is set for February 2007 on a brand-new Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, sailing from Miami up the eastern seaboard.
“All Aboard” airs on HBO throughout April, and on HBO OnDemand through May 7