Sundance Buzz: A Family Affair

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Former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell made her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival to debut the documentary All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise. The film, which was commissioned by HBO (a division of Time's parent company, Time Warner) and will air on the cable channel April 6, profiles gay families aboard a 2004 cruise from New York City to the Caribbean that was organized by O’Donnell and her partner Kelli O'Donnell. Rosie spoke to TIME about the challenges of gay parenting.

TIME: Where did you get the idea to take a vacation with other gay families?

ROSIE O’DONNELL: We went to Provincetown (Mass.) and we had never been there before. I heard it was this great eclectic magical city and I thought yeah, but we have Greenwich Village right here in New York, so I never thought to go there. But we went and I was totally drawn to the place. There was a huge mix of all different kinds of families of all different make-ups. And when we were there we saw a sign for family week for gay families and friends of gay families. So we went back for family week, and took the kids. It was organized by a non-profit called Family Pride Coalition. They threw a clambake and there were speeches and there were kids on a panel who talked about being members of families with gay parents and our kids participated. We are very lucky in New York that our children are not the only gay family even on our street. But the stories that we heard that week of people who had come from all over the country just to give their kids that experience. I thought what could we do that could replicate this? And my friend Greg who had run Atlantis, the gay male cruise business for many years said ‘why don’t we do a cruise like Atlantis but for gay families?’ I thought that was a great idea because there is really nothing for gay families to do other than Family Pride Coalition events.

TIME: How did you find the families that would be interested in going?

RD: We had no idea. I said ‘We have to rent the best ship there is’ and Kelli and Greg said that’s ridiculous -- it fits 2,500 people. But I wanted it to be the best experience of these families’ lives. I wanted them to be treated with dignity and respect. So we take the risk and we see if we build it, who will come. We advertised in gay media and I did shows like The Tonight Show and talked about it as much as I could and people called and booked. It was very moving that first morning when we walked down the port in the New York and there were kids and babies and parents. And I was with my four kids and I started to cry. And I looked and they were all crying. And I was like ‘oh my God they showed up.’ It was overwhelming.

TIME: For the kids you could tell this was a great experience to be able to play and be with other families like theirs.

RD: To not have shame. So many children are either afraid or ashamed. We were not expecting to change people’s lives but it did. It was by far the most emotionally satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my career.

TIME: Why did you make a film about it?

RD: It wasn’t my idea. John Hoffman and Sheila Nevins at HBO called and asked ‘What are you guys doing?’ At first I was worried because I didn’t want it to affect the experience of the passengers. But only five or ten percent didn’t want to be photographed, because they were either teachers or in federal law enforcement or that they could not be seen on a gay cruise or didn’t want be seen. So we had to make areas where there would be no filming or post when there was filming, but 90% of the people were dying to be on it and asking to be on it. I worried that it would taint the experience and it didn’t in any way. In fact I’m so thankful that they made it because I didn’t get to experience the cruise in the way I did when I watched the documentary.

TIME:  Sadly it wasn’t all utopia because you ended up running into protesters in the Bahamas.

RD: I didn’t see because I didn’t get off the boat. But I heard about it. Atallah Shabazz, Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’s eldest daughter was on the boat as a guest and she called me when she got the note that said there would be protesters and she said ‘I would like to go speak on your behalf and on behalf of the boat’ which of course made me cry, it was like a movie. She’s a close friend and someone I look to for guidance in my life, spiritually and in many ways, and I knew that her request was telling me ‘you need to stay on the boat.’ Because I didn’t know how I would react. I grew up in New York. I didn’t have parents to come out to. I’ve never faced that anger and bigotry. I just wasn’t prepared. So when people got off and told me their experience, I didn’t see it until I saw the film. And then it was overwhelming.

TIME: Now that you’re talking about you and Kelli building a family together, have you heard from other gay families across the country about whether it helps them to talk openly about their families?

RD: Sometimes. Like we went out last night to a Broadway show and there were two men who stopped us and said ‘We are in the process of adopting and we want to thank you for the inspiration.’ We sort of get that in a general way, but I don’t think specifically. But I do understand that we are role models, like it or not, for the gay community in terms of the family, and we take that responsibility seriously.

TIME: Do you like it?

RD: Well I don’t think that you have a choice, like it or not. I knew when I adopted Parker I was going to raise him in the light, and not to be ashamed, without lies. Our children have never not known. Although people in the public didn’t know that I was gay, everyone in my career always knew. Before I signed the deal with Warner Brothers to have a talk show there was a meeting and I said ‘I just want to be clear in front of everyone here that I’m gay and I’m going to probably not talk about it. I can’t imagine wanting to talk about it but I have a son and my son is going to go to school and I’m going to be open and honest with the teachers as I have in my life.’ I just wanted everyone to know. It wasn’t as though it was a secret. It was a secret within the press reporting it because the press didn’t really do that. It’s hard to imagine now with Ellen coming out and Will and Grace, but so much has happened now since my show started (more than ten years ago) Was I hiding? No. She (Kelli) sat next to me at the Emmys every year and when I almost died with my hand (O'Donnell was hospitalized with a severe staph infection in 2001), and I got the Emmy award I said ‘I want to thank Kelli who slept on the floor of ICU and saved my hand and my life, I love you.’ I don’t know how much more out you could be. Still it wasn’t really reported. I’m not just blaming the media. It’s not like I volunteered the information. But I didn’t hide the information.

TIME: Is the cruise going to happen every year?

RD: Yes. In fact in the summer we’re going to Alaska and that one’s pretty much sold out. Because of that starting in ’07 there will be two, one in February for spring break that will go to the Eastern Caribbean and one in the summer again.

TIME: And will you, Kelli and the kids go on these trips?

RD: Yes we will. We couldn’t keep the kids away. They have a countdown calendar. Definitely we will go on all of them. That’s part of the gig. I want to be there to meet people and participate. And it was very inspirational for our family as well. We’re also doing it for ourselves.