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All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise

HBO documentary chronicles historic undertaking


February 22, 2006


Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell
What is a family? Is it something defined by law, tradition or love? For the growing number of gay and lesbian families in America, the answer is definitely love. However, too often parents and children in such families are stigmatized, unable to participate in many of the simple public joys that most families take for granted.

Parents of four, Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell dreamed of a society free of such discrimination. In 2004, they made that dream come true when 1,500 people – gay, lesbian and straight, young and old – set sail on an historic seven-day cruise to the Caribbean on one of the largest cruise ships in the world. In the process, these families found an oasis where they could celebrate their individuality and shared ideals in a safe and supportive environment.

The HBO documentary All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise chronicles this historic undertaking, offering a glimpse of a society shaped by a truly diverse, inclusive network of families when it debuts. Directed by Shari Cookson (Emmy nominee for HBO's Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen), the feature-length documentary was a selection of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it had its world premiere this January.

The idea for the cruise originated in 2002 when Rosie, Kelli and their friend, travel-industry executive Gregg Kaminsky, discussed possible vacation packages for gay and lesbian families. Two years later, the Norwegian Dawn set sail from New York City to the Bahamas and back on the first gay family cruise.

Among the high points on board were lively stage shows at the Stardust Theatre, including "Rosie's Variety Hour," highlighted by a new interpretation of "All That Jazz," and raucously funny routines by top stand-up comedians Bob Smith, Judy Gold and Poppy Champlin. They received an exuberant welcome in Key West from the locals, who honored the vacationers with a ceremony. The idyllic tone of the cruise took a sobering turn, however, when the families were met at the port of Nassau in the Bahamas by vocal and angry anti-gay protesters from two local churches.

Norwegian Dawn

Among the cruise participants profiled in All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise are the O'Donnell clan; one-time NFL star Esera Tuaolo; and Wayne Steinman and Sal Iacullo, a pioneering middle-aged male couple who adopted a baby girl 17 years ago and now face an empty nest as their daughter Hope prepares for college. Also on board are Amy Courtright and Rhonda Sherpy, a lesbian couple who unexpectedly connect with a possible donor father for their long-awaited child, and Charlie Paragian and Danny Sernekos, New Jersey men who wed at sea in the presence of their five children – two sets of biological siblings, all adopted from foster care.

Guests enjoyed the usual amenities of a luxury cruise liner, including swimming, shuffleboard, basketball, days of touring exotic locales and nights of live entertainment. But the cruise also served as a forum for the passengers – many of whom have had to find their own way as gay parents with little outside support – to share resources and information. Sessions ranged from a panel discussion on "Being a Dad in a Mom's World" to a seminar on adoption options.

To help younger kids cope with the questions and judgments sure to confront them in life, a group of teens, mostly straight, talked about the joys and challenges of growing up in a gay household, from feeling they have to be "the perfect model family" simply to fit in, to the uncertainty of their parents' legal status. Most telling are the personal narratives.

Rosie O'Donnell says her mission for the cruise is to welcome gay families and families who love them, noting, "It is, in my opinion, what America is really about." But she also reveals how personally awkward it was for her when she told Kelli's unsuspecting parents that she and Kelli were in love.

On the first day of the cruise, lesbian couple Shauna Raye and Liz Ward shed tears of joy and relief, feeling free to hold hands and kiss in public for the first time. Later, in the presence of a minister, their two children and one partner's mother, they marry in a joyful sunset ceremony.

Former NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo discusses how difficult it was to play it straight while living a secret gay life during his long NFL career. Now happily out of the closet, he lives with his longtime partner and is the happy parent of a lively set of twins.

Twenty-year-old Megan Jacoby recounts the fierce custody battle that erupted between her parents after the revelation of her mother's lesbianism. She calls her mother the most amazing person in the world and declares that her mother and her mother's partner are better parents than her father ever was.

"I honestly never thought, as a gay man, I could be a dad," confesses young father Mark Hoig, as he and his partner, Ryan Rostine, feed breakfast to their infant daughter. He chokes up sharing the story of how their pastor encouraged their wish to have a child, saying they'd "bring more love into the world." He believes his daughter was "sent by God."

Wayne Steinman and Sal Iacullo, middle-aged fathers about to become empty-nesters, grow emotional when talking with their teenage daughter about her impending departure for college, and teasingly try to elicit her promise to visit often.

Finally, just before the cruise ends, Charlie Paragian and Danny Sernekos celebrate their union in the company of their five adopted children. The family was forged out of chaos – the kids are two sets of siblings who had been placed in different foster homes, and they might never have been reunited, but for their fathers' determination. As the couple take their vows, the children recite their special blessing: "We love you, Poppy and Daddy, and we bless the love you have for each other and we hold you in our hearts. Amen."

Says director and producer Shari Cookson, "I feel honored to have had the opportunity to capture a special week in the lives of these families as they experienced a sense of community many of them had never known before. Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell say that what defines a family is love, and the families in this film are undeniable proof of that."

Adds Rosie O'Donnell, "Shari Cookson managed to perfectly and honestly portray the joy, the drama and the sheer crazy fun of this amazing adventure Kelli and I shared with hundreds of wonderful families. Best of all, the film reminds us that families can come in all shapes and sizes, and that the things we all have in common far outweigh our differences."

Shari Cookson's HBO credits as director include the Emmy-winning Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen and Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War; she also produced the HBO documentary Asylum. All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise is produced for HBO by Sceneworks in association with KidRo Productions, Inc.; directed and produced by Shari Cookson; executive producers, Sheila Nevins, Kelli O'Donnell and Rosie O'Donnell; producer, John Hoffman; edited and co-produced by Charlton McMillan; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; line producer, Jill M. Soble; camera operators, Sandra Chandler and Beth Wichterich; sound recordists, Brenda Ray and John D. McCormick; music supervisor, Gerry Gershman.

For more information, visit www.hbo.com. – Gay Link Content



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