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Navigating waters filled with joy, hate

HBO documentary captures a week in the lives of gay families as they cruise ports both hospitable and hostile.

April 02, 2006|Erika Milvy | Special to The Times

WHEN documentary filmmaker Shari Cookson got the green light to make a film for HBO about the first-ever family cruise for gays and lesbians, she fretted a bit. "I remember thinking, 'This is a family vacation, so what happens if nothing happens?' "

Cookson was referring to a 2004 cruise to the Bahamas on a ship chartered by Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell. Her fear: "I'm going to be watching people put on suntan lotion."

Instead her cameras got beneath the skin-deep surface to capture events more cinematic than mere lotion slathering. Premiering on HBO on Thursday, "All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise" charts the odyssey of the maiden voyage of R Family Vacations, the country's first cruise experience tailored to gay parents and their kids. The O'Donnells -- and several hundred families in the same boat -- ventured into uncharted waters, stormy and serene.

From the embracing safe harbor of a Key West parade to angry Baptist protesters in Nassau, Cookson's fly-on-the-wall observational filmmaking "places viewers in the middle of an experience," said the director. "It allows them to bear witness to the events that unfold."

Rosie O'Donnell thinks viewers will come away with one idea: "I think if anything, people will walk away saying, 'Wow. They're absurdly normal.' "

The idea for the cruise originated with O'Donnell a few years ago while on vacation in Provincetown, Mass., during its annual gay Family Week. Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell, parents of four, marveled at the sense of acceptance and community -- Rosie recalls her 2-year-old, Blake, exclaiming, "Two mommies everywhere!" Soon after, they decided to create a vacation package to address the needs of the burgeoning brood of gays and lesbians raising children.

So they rented a huge cruise ship, the Norwegian Dawn, with three pools, 15 decks and entertainment from Broadway talents who are pals of Rosie. "You know, gay people are used to thinking crumbs are meals, so I wanted to give them a whole meal," said the outspoken former talk show host.

An estimated 8 million kids are being raised in gay- and lesbian-headed households in America, according to Family Pride, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians with children. For these families, travel and vacations can present a problem. Kids tend to be unwelcome at gay hot spots where partying and pairing up -- not potty training -- are on the agenda. Likewise, gays may feel unwelcome at kid-friendly spots where they may encounter traditional family values proponents who might not value their nontraditional families.

The Norwegian Dawn set sail amid what had been a watershed year for gay civil rights and gay family awareness. The July 2004 cruise followed a winter of progress, with Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage and San Francisco doing it anyway, and backlash -- as President Bush declared that gay marriage was a threat to the American way of life and considered a constitutional amendment banning it.

These polarities become part of the cruise's itinerary: Passengers are cheered by Key West locals on Wednesday and on Thursday they are assailed by anti-gay Baptist church groups in Nassau. Rosie described the passengers as "shellshocked" after the protective bubble of the boat burst. As documentaries go, it made for an uncannily dramatic arc to the film. Even the skies above Nassau burst forth, perfunctorily, with thunder and lightning.

"The anger and hate on their faces I will never forget," recalled cruise passenger Charlie Paragian of the protesters. "I will also never forget our children's faces." Paragian and his partner have five kids, two sets of siblings adopted from foster care. "After we got out of the crowd, I excused myself and went into a local bathroom and cried."

Rosie O'Donnell decided to stay on the boat with her family rather than risk loosing her cool in what would become a sound bite for the evening news. "I didn't trust myself," Rosie admitted recently. "When I get angry, it's not a pretty picture."

She noted that while her family didn't see the protesters, they heard them screaming. Her son Parker asked, "What are they screaming about?" O'Donnell recounted. "To try to explain that to a 6-year-old boy -- 'Why do those people hate us? What don't they like about us?' 'Well, they don't like that we are in a family. They don't think gay people should be in a family' -- And he was like: 'I don't get it.' And I said, 'I know.' "

Cookson was impressed with Rosie's quieter, more reflective off-screen personality, her very "mellow" and "Zen-like" parenting style. She likewise admired Kelli's grace under tremendous pressure. A former Nickelodeon exec, Kelli and partner Gregg Kaminsky run R Family Vacations (now turning a profit in its third year) while Rosie's role (says Rosie) is more akin to Mickey Mouse's gig at Disneyland.

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